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Wiping Palestinian history off the map in Jaffa

A tourist map of Jaffa presents a reimagined, Zionist version of the city: Jaffa 2.0 is a boutique neighborhood of Tel Aviv, with a smattering of ‘local’ (read: native) color. But the map itself simply represents a much broader process of destruction and reconstruction.

The market place in Jaffa, circa 1900. The photo has been taken from the Clock Tower Square, with Mahmoudiya Mosque in the background. (Library of Congress)

The market place in Jaffa, circa 1900. The photo was taken from the Clock Tower Square, with Mahmoudiya Mosque in the background. (Library of Congress)

If you go into Jaffa’s tourist information centers (run by the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality) and ask for a map, you’ll receive a colorful, user-friendly guide promising to tell you the best places to go to sample Jaffa’s food, markets, history and more — and in four different languages, no less.

The problem is that the version of Jaffa the map presents is a narrow, carefully-curated one, of chic boutiques, European-style art galleries and a smattering of Christian history. None of those four languages are Arabic, and a quick scan of the rest of the official tourist information center’s materials also reveals a dearth of Arabic.

On one side of the map, a zoomed-in view of the Old City, only two Muslim sites are labeled: the al-Bahr Mosque (also known as the Sea Mosque), thought to be the oldest in Jaffa, and the Mahmoudiya Mosque next to the flea market.

The municipal tourist center's map of Jaffa

The map distributed by the municipal tourist center in Jaffa.

Only the al-Bahr mosque gets a minaret icon — which on one side of the map is partly obscured by a church spire and on the other side is the same color as the background. Neither mosque receives an explanation in the map’s key. On the zoomed-out side of the map, the Mahmoudiya Mosque does not appear at all.

Meanwhile, numerous churches are labeled with either an icon of a cross or an image of a spire. Several Christian sites receive explanations in the map’s key, which also refers to “Jewish and Christian traditions.”

Mahmoudiya Mosque, Jaffa's largest and most significant mosque, September 3, 2012. (Jorge Láscar/CC 2.0)

Mahmoudiya Mosque, Jaffa’s largest and most significant, September 3, 2012. (Jorge Láscar/CC 2.0)

The words “Palestinian,” “Arab,” and “Muslim” do not appear in the map’s key or descriptions once. The word “oriental” does feature, however— as a category of restaurant, which fits neatly into the colonialist model of either erasing or subsuming the native culture and then passing off the safely fractured remnants as ‘local color.’

Zoomed-in view of the city's logo

Zoomed-in view of the city’s logo

When asked about the map — which features the logos of city-owned tourism and development companies — a municipality spokesperson first denied that the logos appear, then accepted that they do but said that it had no official ties with the map. Instead, the city spokesperson told +972 Magazine, “municipal bodies with logos on the map pay for their complexes to be detailed on the map,” but do not influence its content.

(Incidentally, a quick scan of the Tel Aviv municipality’s tourism website reveals that, as with the map, the words “Arab,” “Palestinian” and “Muslim” do not appear once. There is, however, a special page devoted to “Jaffa and Christianity.”)

Exclusionary maps, exclusionary reality

None of this is an accident, and the map — problematic as it is — is not itself the issue; it simply represents the outcome of a broad set of processes and attitudes. (A tourist map of Jerusalem recently highlighted in Haaretz is also an experiment in exclusion.) Jaffa has, for some decades, been undergoing a process of gentrification, which one can track moving south through the city as new, high-end apartment buildings pop up one after the other. The effect here, as with all gentrification, is to push out the original residents — in this case, Palestinians — who can no longer afford soaring real estate prices.

But there is more to it in Jaffa than just physical reconstruction: its history is being refurbished at the same time as its streets, itself a process that began with the foundation of the State of Israel. Jaffa in its previous form — a major regional port, a thriving center of trade and historic Palestine’s largest city — was an inconvenient contradiction to the Zionist narrative. In the Israeli imagination, Jaffa was a deprived backwater that was “liberated” by Zionist forces in 1948 (which is how the conquering of the city is described on tourist plaques).

The city of Jaffa became a palimpsest in the hands of those crafting the Zionist narrative: multiple layers of its history have been scratched away in order to create a story fit for a nation in the process of building itself. Seventy percent of the structures in Jaffa’s Old City were destroyed between 1960 and 1985, according to historian Menachem Klein, completely gutting its Arab history and presence. The Old City is, in fact, not old at all: it’s been mostly reconstructed and turned into a quaint “artists’ village” comprised of Jewish artists. (Similar processes have taken place in Safed and Ein Hod.) Pisga Park, that green expanse on the tourist map, covers much of the ruins of old Jaffa.

Pisga Park in old Jaffa, March 31, 2012. The park covers part of the ruins of Jaffa, 70 percent of which was bulldozed by Israel during the 1950s and '60s. (Natasha Roth)

Pisga Park in old Jaffa, March 31, 2012. The park covers part of the ruins of Jaffa, 70 percent of which was bulldozed by Israel during the 1950s and ’60s. (Natasha Roth)

This is vandalism on an industrial scale, but such destruction is inevitable within the context of a colonial project that seeks control over both physical and conceptual territory. Israel has developed mythologies in the same way that it develops land, such that each ground-breaking on a new building site shatters not only the earth but also the history that was displaced to make way for the ‘new world.’ Whether deliberate or not, the error spotted by Palestinian sociologist Salim Tamari on a visitor map at the entrance to Jaffa Port, on which the viewer’s location is marked “You are here!” in English and Hebrew, and “You were here!” in Arabic, is particularly illustrative.

And it’s not just Arab and Palestinian history that has been wiped off the map: Jaffa’s Jewish history also had to make way, according to Menachem Klein, author of Lives in Common: Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron.

“Those who founded Neve Tzedek [Tel Aviv’s “first” Jewish neighborhood – nr] hated Jaffa, so they left it, according to the Zionist narrative,” Klein told +972 Magazine. “They set up the narrative for the establishment of the state — Tel Aviv represents the independent Jewish state, dividing ‘ourselves’ from ‘them,’ building something ‘European’ and not ‘Oriental,’ and ‘liberating’ Jaffa.

“Arab Jews lived inside Jaffa, and Tel Aviv depended on Jaffa for produce — which goes against the whole Zionist mythology,” Klein continued.

Andromeda Hill, a collection of luxury holiday apartments next to Jaffa port, January 28, 2011. Opened in 2000, the site blocked access from Yefet Street - one of Jaffa's main arteries - to the sea. A petition filed by civil rights groups won residents the right to pass through the complex between 8am and 10pm. (Avishai Teicher/CC 2.0)

Andromeda Hill, a collection of luxury apartments next to Jaffa port, January 28, 2011. Opened in 2000, the site blocked access from Yefet Street — one of Jaffa’s main arteries — to the sea. A petition filed by civil rights groups in 2007 won residents the right to pass through the complex between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. (Avishai Teicher/CC 2.0)

Highlighting Jaffa’s Christian presence is a related, but discrete part of this reconstruction and Zionist reimagining. As a recent tour through the city with Israeli NGO Zochrot highlighted, the preferential treatment of Jaffa’s Christian Palestinians began when it was conquered in 1948 and the nascent Israeli government began expropriating properties throughout the city.

Even as many Palestinian homes and institutions were seized, church property was left in the hands of its original owners. This was largely part of a divide-and-conquer policy, a fundamental colonial tactic. By leaving churches in the hands of Jaffa’s Christian Palestinians, the Israelis hoped not only to encourage collaboration, but also to promote a sense of division — because the city’s Muslim residents would naturally wonder what their neighbors had done in order to be able to hang on to their assets. It should be noted too, however, that the newly-formed state of Israel was also loath to attract negative attention from the church’s powerful friends abroad.

The combined effect of these various processes is to recast Jaffa as no more than a boutique neighborhood of Tel Aviv, with a smattering of Christian history and scraps of dismantled, ‘local’ (read: native) color. As Klein points out, there is a very narrow, proscribed place for Palestinians in this Zionist creation: “They are ‘allowed’ to be in Abu Hassan and Abulaffiya [a hummus joint and a bakery respectively, both popular with Israelis – nr]. But there is no room for a Palestinian quarter in the geographical and cultural map of Tel Aviv, the city that pretends to be cosmopolitan.”

During its nineteenth-century heyday, Jaffa was locally referred to as “Um el-Gharib” — the mother of strangers — due to its ability to attract all-comers to its shores. Decades of destruction and reconstruction, and of erasing and rewriting, are transforming Jaffa into a stranger to itself.

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    1. Ben

      Israel systematically denies 1,400 years of Muslim history
      The education system, the media and the tourism industry all collaborate in erasing the country’s Palestinian past.
      Ofri Ilany

      Reply to Comment
      • Shai

        Why should any of this surprise us? It has long been the Zionist objective to create a Jewish society, which automatically cancels the ArabPalestinian inhabitants. The distinction between Ben Gurion’s Labour Zionism and Jabotinsky’sRevisionism has been, ultimately been minimal. While Labour Zionism might downplay this assertion, the Revisionists are blatant.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Bernie X

      Don’t you wish you could go back to the good old days?

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        She’s not arguing for a return to “the good old days”. She’s arguing for a recognition of the history Israel is trying to erase.

        Reply to Comment
        • Bernie X


          No. Bruce, no one is trying to erase anything. What you have going on in Yaffo is crude commercialism. It’s about trying to make a fast buck off of tourists who have a limit of time and money.

          If you and Natasha don’t like this, then come to Yaffo and set up a ‘historically correct’ kiosk with your maps and tours and show tourists authentic, Muslim Yaffo, before that disappears.

          Reply to Comment
    3. EILON

      Palestine’s problem is that it simply never existed. That lack of functional reality is apparent in the recorded historical paradigm.

      Reply to Comment
      • David


        To be brief:

        The first known written reference to Palestinians (Peleset) was c.1150 BCE at the temple of Medinet Habut. They were among those who fought with Egypt during Ramesses III’s reign.

        During the fifth century BCE, the “Father of History,” Herodotus and other Greek and Latin scholars began referring to the “Philistine coastland, and sometimes also to the territory between it and the Jordan Valley” as “Palestine.”

        A hundred years later, in the mid-4th Century BCE, Aristotle referred to the Dead Sea in his Meteorology. “Again if, as is fabled, there is a lake in Palestine, such that if you bind a man or beast and throw it in it floats and does not sink, this would bear out what we have said,” he wrote. “They say that this lake is so bitter and salt that no fish live in it and that if you soak clothes in it and shake them it cleans them.”(II.3)

        Two hundred years later, in the mid-2nd Century BCE, ancient geographer Polemon wrote of a place “not far from Arabia in the part of Syria called Palestine,” while Greek travel writer Pausanias wrote in his Description of Greece, “In front of the sanctuary grow palm-trees, the fruit of which, though not wholly edible like the dates of Palestine, yet are riper than those of Ionia.” (9.19.8)

        Despite the Zionists’ claim that “the Romans didn’t rename Judea as ‘Palestina’ until a hundred years after the death of Jesus,” contemporaries of Jesus also routinely referred to Palestine as, well, Palestine. For instance, in the first decade of the 1st Century, the Roman poet Ovid mentioned Palestine in both his famed mythological poem Metamorphoses and his erotic elegy The Art of Love. He also wrote of “the waters of Palestine” in his calendrical poem Fasti. Around the same time, another Latin poet Tibulluswrote of “the crowded cities of Palestine” in a section “Messalla’s Triumph” in his poem Delia.

        The Jewish historian Josephus (c.37-100 CE) was born and raised in Jerusalem, a military commander in Galilee during the First Jewish Revolt against the occupying Roman authority, acted as negotiator during the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE and later penned vital volumes of Levantine Jewish history. His The Jewish War, Antiquities of the Jews, and Against Apion all contain copious references to “Palestine” and “Palestinians.”

        The claim that the Roman emperor Hadrian, eager to punish Jewish inhabitants of Judea after the Bar Kokhba Revolt, officially changed the name of the region to “Syria Palaestina” or simply “Palestine” in 135 CE and forced the Jewish community into exile is dubious at best, especially when, by then, the terms “Syrian Palestine” and “Palestine” had already been in use for over six hundred years.

        To quote the opening sentence of the section entitled “Filastin” that appears in the book “Dictionary of the Lands,” written by Muslim geographer Yaqut ibn Abdullah al-Hamawi in 1225: “Filastin: It is the last one of the regions of Syria in the direction of Egypt. Its most famous cities are Ashkelon, Ramle, Gaza, Arsuf, Caesaria, Nablus, Jericho, Amman, Jaffa and Beit Guvrin.”

        In 1603, Shakespeare wrote in his Othello: “Emilia: I know a lady in Venice would have walked barefoot to Palestine for a touch of his nether lip.” (Act IV, Scene iii.)

        Reply to Comment
    4. Steve

      Approximately 80 percent of Palestine became Jordan in 1922.

      Anybody who talks of “historic Palestine” yet neglects to mention this should be questioned on it.

      Reply to Comment
      • David



        In 1863, The Religious Tract Society of London published its Pictorial Journey Through the Holy Land; or Scenes of Palestine. In this work Beersheba is described as the southern limit of Palestine. Beersheba lies south-east of Gaza on the northern edge of the Negev desert. Palestine is described as “south of Lebanon.” There is no suggestion that Palestine extended east of the Jordan River.

        Today’s Jordan (referred to as “Transjordan” by the Allies after WWI) was not part of Palestine. As Ottoman maps attest, it was administered separately from Palestine, the dividing line being the Jordan River. Known to locals as Al Baqa, the area east of the Jordan River, which became the Emirate of Transjordan in 1923 (as partial fulfillment of Britain’s pledge in the July 1915 to March 1916 Hussein/McMahon correspondence to grant the Arabs independence – including Palestine – in exchange for what proved to be their invaluable assistance in defeating the Turks during WWI) was part of the Turkish vilayet (province) of Syria. The area west of the river was governed by the Ottomans as three sanjaks (sub provinces), two of which (Acre and Nablus) formed part of the vilayet of Beirut, while the third was the independent sanjak of Jerusalem.

        Furthermore, British Prime Minister Lloyd George consulted a Bible Dictionary and Atlas to establish the boundaries of what became mandated Palestine. He not only used the formula “from Dan to Beersheba”, but also relied on the account concerning Joshua and the children of Israel crossing the Jordan to enter the “Promised Land.”

        BTW, it was reliably estimated at the time that the total number of Jews living permanently in the Ottoman province that became know as Transjordan was three at most.

        Reply to Comment