2010: 'Ajami' at the Oscars as housing shortages run wild

A year in review: Where will the issue of affordable housing take Israel in 2011, after a year of gentrification in the Arab sector?

ajami neighborhood 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
ajami neighborhood 311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
At the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles on March 7th, 2010, a group of Israelis, both Arabs and Jews, sat among the casts and crews of blockbusters like Avatar and Inglorious Basterds, waiting for their moment of glory at the 82nd Academy Awards.
Written and decorated by Israeli-Arab Skander Kopti and Israeli Jew Yaron Shani, the Oscar-nominated Ajami weaved together five storylines dealing with the Arab Israeli neighborhood, steps away and worlds apart from central Tel Aviv. Part-gritty crime story, part-family drama, the film starred local amateurs speaking Arabic and Hebrew, forcing Israeli audiences, both Arab and Jew alike to experience the heartbreak suffered by two peoples whose lives are intertwined in one land.
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The film brought together aspects of life on the Arab street seldom seen by Israeli Jews, and presented Arab viewers with intimate portrayals of the lives of its Jewish protagonists. The film lost the Best Foreign Film category to Argentina’s The Secret in Their Eyes, but earned the often neglected district a measure of fame both abroad and at home, and to some degree heralded Jaffa's emergence as a potential flash-point at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, far away from the West Bank or Gaza.
A neighborhood of sweeping sea views and narrow alleyways running from the clock tower on Yefet street along the beach to the Givat Aliyah neighborhood bordering Bat Yam, the predominantly Arab-Muslim neighborhood of Ajami has long been the poorest in the city, riddled with drugs and crime, making the news mainly for the periodic gangland killings that happen on its streets.
In spite of its rough edges, the neighborhood has not been spared the real estate bubble that has encircled Tel Aviv. With its central location and block after block of seafront property, Ajami, like most of the rest of Jaffa, has seen its rent skyrocket in recent years, especially in 2010. Young Arab couples looking to buy a home near their families are more and more often finding themselves priced out, with no choice but to set off for the periphery in Arab areas of cities like Lod and Ramle, or far-flung Arab towns like Kfar Kassem, Jaljulya or Taibe. In their place come upwardly mobile Israeli Jews building luxury seafront homes or apartments in upscale developments, as well as young people priced out of central Tel Aviv.
Along the way, family and neighborhood connections are torn apart, and those priced out of Jaffa find themselves in parts of Israel sorely lacking the prime location and employment opportunities of the city by the sea.
In a sense the story of Ajami and other places like it in Israel represent little more than classic cases of gentrification and urban renewal, albeit played out against the terminally frayed relations between Arabs and Jews. As the issue of affordable housing becomes more and more central to young Israeli Arabs, the likelihood for conflict with the Jewish newcomers and the predominantly-Jewish police force patrolling the area will continue to grow, with the potential for bloodshed becoming more likely by the day. In addition, the reluctance of authorities to grant building permits to Arab-Israelis or to retroactively approve illegal construction in their communities has created a minority population with exceptionally-high rates of building violations, a fact of life that will see the number of home demolitions carried out by the Israel Lands Administration in the Arab sector only increase in the coming years.
Into this mix has stepped Be'emuna, a construction firm dedicated to building ideologically active Jewish religious communities in "mixed cities" with large Arab populations. In May 2009, Be’emuna won the tender to build a 20-unit housing complex for members of the religious Zionist community in the former "Etrog market" in Ajami. In February 2010, the Tel Aviv District Court dismissed a stop work petition presented by 27 Ajami residents backed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel who argued that the fact that housing in the project is available only to religious Jews constitutes discrimination against the neighborhood’s Arab residents.
Throughout 2010, the issue sparked a large-scale protest movement in the neighborhood and made its way to the Supreme Court, where on November 7 the court issued a unanimous decision rejecting the appeal issued by the Ajami residents.
In their ruling, the court stated that the petition "brings up serious issues dealing with discrimination and private corporations," but that because of a previous ruling approving the project, the issue has become theoretical.
Be'emuna and other organizations like it have been accused of trying to "Judaize" Arab or mixed areas of Israel, an accusation that they half-heartily deny by saying that they are only looking to "strengthen" the Jewish communities in such areas. The ideology of such groups largely resembles that of the Zionist religious camp in the West Bank in that both are highly motivated, deeply religious and nationalistic, and see themselves in some part as altruistic Zionist pioneers working for the sake of the state of Israel. In both cases, the new Jewish arrivals are moving to areas where they will be surrounded by Arabs, and where tension and the potential for violence are rife.
It's hard to say where the issue of affordable housing will take Israel in 2011. It's not a foregone conclusion that housing shortages will spark a new Israeli Arab Intifada fueled in large part by the gentrification and soaring real estate prices that are tearing apart Arab communities. Nonetheless, the changes on the ground in mixed Arab and Jewish areas like Ajami have the potential to be especially volatile and will increase calls for the government develop nationwide housing programs for young couples both Jewish and Arab alike, so that the pursuit of a basic human need won't become the backdrop for bloodshed.
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