Racism, or a classic story of urban renewal?

Jaffans warn project could threaten coexistence.

Bulldozer311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
For several months, construction of a 20-unit housing project in Jaffa’s predominantly Arab neighborhood of Ajami has been at the center of a controversy over the changing face of the community and the state’s relations with its Arab citizens – leading some to argue that the forces of the free market, along with the ideology of political Zionism, are conspiring to diminish the Arab nature of the community.
In May 2009, the B’emunah corporation won a tender to build a residential complex marketed to members of the national-religious community in the former “Etrog market” in Ajami. Since then, B’emunah has faced accusations that it is trying to dilute the Arab nature of the neighborhood by moving in national-religious “settlers,” leading to a series of protests in the area over the past year.
On July 21, the Supreme Court decided to delay a vote on an appeal against the project submitted by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel on behalf of a coalition of Jaffa residents and activists. The appeal argued that B’emunah is practicing discrimination by limiting the project to members of the Jewish national- religious community. During the hearing, Supreme Court president Dorit Beinish recommended that petitioners drop the motion, arguing that the construction of the project is a moot point, mainly because it does not discriminate on racial grounds.
The appeal reached the Supreme Court after it was originally rejected by the Tel Aviv District Court in February.
B’emunah contends that the stipulation that residents be observant Jews is legal on the grounds that it is meant to create a specific quality of life for its residents, and not a form of discriminatory housing based on race.
In February, a stop-work petition presented by 27 Ajami residents who argued that the project was discriminating against the neighborhood’s Arab residents was rejected by the Tel Aviv District Court. The dismissal was followed by the Supreme Court’s denial of a request from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel to delay the project. ACRI had argued that B’emunah does not adhere to equal housing policies, and promotes its projects through racist marketing.
The site of the project was until recently a vacant lot with a handful of olive trees scattered across a dirt lot a block from Rehov Yefet, Jaffa’s main thoroughfare.
Two blocks past the site, the road dead-ends across the street from the French ambassador’s palatial residence and the campus of the Arab Jewish Community Center.
The final block of Rehov Mendes France is lined with new, upscale four- and five-story apartment houses, sandwiched between older buildings that have not undergone renovation, all of it facing a sweeping view of the Mediterranean Sea.
Since it first won the tender in 2009, the B’emunah project has found itself at the center of the debate over the changing face of Jaffa, specifically the area’s majority Arab districts. While the most extreme assessments see the changing demographics of Jaffa, and in particular the influx of national religious Jews, as part of efforts to force out the Arab population, potentially sparking widespread violence among Israel’s Arab population, others see Jaffa’s changing demographics and tension between newcomers and long-time residents as a classic story of gentrification and urban renewal.
The B’emunah construction site is located where Ajami starts to become the “Givat Aliya” neighborhood, the southernmost district of Jaffa before Bat Yam. The lot gets its name from a market that sold etrogim – citrons – to the area’s once far larger Jewish population, many of whom left the neighborhood over the years as the fortunes of Ajami went south and it became a neglected, poverty-stricken district.
The lot ends at Rehov Donnolo Harofe, named after the famous Jewish doctor Shabbetai Donnolo, namesake of the Donnolo Hospital, which served the neighborhood’s residents until the construction of Wolfson Hospital in 1980.
When it was initially founded south of Jaffa’s Old City in the late 19th century, Ajami was home to a wealthy community of Arabs, who built spacious homes with large courtyards near the sea. The neighborhood’s fortunes began to change during the 1948 War of Independence when the majority of Jaffa’s Arabs fled and were unable to return to their homes.
An influx of Jewish immigrants entered the neighborhood, as did displaced Arabs from around the country. The neighborhood soon became overcrowded and in the years to come suffered from crime, poverty and neglect by Tel Aviv’s municipal planners, becoming a shadow of its former self.
In recent years, the largely poor, disadvantaged inner-city neighborhood has undergone a flurry of change and rapid demographic and economic transformation, largely brought on by its proximity to the seaside and the city center. As a result, a district that was once a no-man’s land for investors and young urban professionals has now found itself subject to the same skyrocketing real-estate prices that have long affected the traditionally desirable parts of town.
Like all tales of gentrification, the poorer residents of the one-time urban backwater find themselves between a rock and a hard place, where the most appealing qualities of their neighborhood – proximity to the sea and the city center – are the very qualities that make their neighborhood a target for outside investors with larger pocketbooks, looking to find places near the beach and the economic heart of the country.
AS OPPOSED to other cases of gentrification, in Ajami the long-term residents are predominantly Arab and the newcomers Jews, causing the classic story of urban gentrification to play out against the backdrop of tensions between the stewards of one of the world’s most contested pieces of political real estate.
Like classic stories of gentrification around the world, the rising costs facing long-time residents are tempered with a rise in cultural and other opportunities that produce a love-hate relationship with their changing neighborhood. In Jaffa, wine bars, cafes and pubs have moved in and brought a nightlife culture to an area that had been largely bereft of such attractions.
For Jaffa resident Muhammad Jabali, who organized a Palestinian cultural festival in late July in Jaffa’s old city, the changing face of the city does present some opportunities.
“It’s a complicated thing to talk about what’s happening. I like to have bars to go to in the shuk, I like that there’s lots of young people around, which is something you didn’t have before. This place is happening, and most of it is a nice feeling."
“But, it’s no longer cheaper than Tel Aviv,” Jabali said, adding that the development is pricing out so many in Jaffa that “part of what draws people to Jaffa, the Arab culture, is a large part of what [the investors] are trying to get rid of.”
Nonetheless, Jabali says, the B’emunah project is part of a series of factors and official decisions on the part of the state to change the demographic facts on the ground in Jaffa, a situation he says stretches back ultimately to the 1948 war for Israel’s independence.
“What you have is the ideology of B’emunah working together with the free market to change the facts on the ground in Jaffa. The free market does what it can, and the state and ideological groups pick up the rest” Jabali said, describing what he said is “part of a 60-year process of pushing Arabs more and more eastward, so the state can retain a grip on the coastal area with as few Arabs there as possible.”
According to many local residents and activists, the rising cost of housing in Jaffa affects the Arab population worse than the city’s Jewish population because young Arabs looking to buy or rent a home near their families find themselves unable to do so.
While the difficulty of affording housing in Tel Aviv is a subject close to the heart of virtually all young people in the city, young Arab residents of Jaffa find their mobility and options for moving far more limited than those of Jewish Israelis.
For Jaffa Arabs, the communal institutions they need cannot be found elsewhere in the Tel Aviv area, leading in large part to a migration from Jaffa to Arab areas outside the center. This leaves many to seek affordable housing in areas of diminished opportunity such as Lod, Ramle and Kafr Kasim, as well as in remote villages and provincial backwaters far removed from the opportunities afforded by Tel Aviv.
The situation is not lost on Sami Abu Shehada, head of Darnah, the committee for housing rights in Jaffa, who says that the housing problem, while relatively new in Jaffa, is among the most crucial issues facing the city’s residents.
“In the last 15 years, there is a new phenomenon in Jaffa where most of the young couples are not able to solve their housing needs. In the last five years, the situation is so bad that for the first time since 1948, people have to leave Jaffa because they can’t afford either buying or renting in Jaffa.”
Instead of housing for the poor local population, Abu Shehada said that the only new projects in Ajami are luxury projects marketed to outsiders, a situation that exacerbates the housing shortage and threatens the existence of the Arab community.
“When you bring such expensive residential projects to Ajami, which is the poorest of 60 neighborhoods in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, when you make this gentrification, the political result is you are expelling the Arabs, whether you are planning it or not. If you are using weapons or using economic means, the results are the same. Here there are Arabs, the next decade there won’t be.”
“People in Jaffa are certain that all of these policies are being carried out for racist reasons… With the settlers project of B’emunah, with the gentrification, with the bad planning of Ajami and Jaffa as a whole, all of this is bringing a strong feeling in the Arab community that this is a big plan to transfer us out of Jaffa,” Abu Shehada said.
“People are tense and feel afraid. I’m sorry to say it, but violence could develop.”
While Abu Shehada said he wasn’t sure how many locals had left Jaffa, “those who have left have moved to areas that are not up to the same standard, they don’t have the same opportunities. Society is more open [in Jaffa], less conservative, you are in the center of the country and you have services and aren’t isolated.”
Tel Aviv city councilman Omar Siksik said that he and others in Jaffa oppose the B’emunah project because it will bring to Ajami “a group of people who are known for their extremism.”
Siksik would not rule out ensuing tension resulting from the building project, saying “everything is possible. A group like this comes to live in your neighborhood on top of you and disrupts the type of life you’re used to living. I’m certain a conflict will come at some point, it’s only a question of when.”
Siksik said he doesn’t believe that residents can count on law enforcement to protect them, but that residents “have the ability and the tools to deal with these conflicts. I hope that the Jews who live in Jaffa will be able to stop these people from being provocative, but we will use all the tools we have.”
When asked if such tools could possibly include violence, Siksik said “to defend my house, I’m willing to use all means at my disposal. We didn’t come to bother their lives, they came to bother ours.”
Siksik’s predictions pose a sharp contrast to those of B’emunah director-general Yisrael Zeira, who said Sunday that he believes the 20 new families will only serve to strengthen and enrich the neighborhood.
Zeira denied that the company chose the project’s location out of a desire to displace or agitate the neighborhood’s Arab residents; rather, that the location was chosen because it was the cheapest of its kind the company could find in the Dan region.
“They act like this is part of a Palestinian state. This is the heart of Tel Aviv, only 300 meters from the Peres Center [for peace]… People who are opposed to the project don’t have a problem when rich people come to Jaffa, but when it’s religious Jews, it’s a problem. The people who are calling us racist are the racists.”
Zeira said that the company is looking for investors and land in Jaffa to build a much larger project for around 100 families. Like the current project in Jaffa, and other B’emunah projects already built in Lod, Acre and Ramle, the Etrog Shuk project is meant to strengthen the local Jewish community, and not at the expense of the local Arab communities.
“WE CAME to strengthen the Jews in the neighborhood through education and welfare. The welfare aspect is for everyone – if an Arab is hungry, we’ll help him too.”
When asked why the project did not allow Arab or secular Jewish buyers, Zeira said it was because “we have our way of life to keep. We don’t want to have to tell people to observe Shabbat, or to dress modestly.”
While Zeira said that none of the residents would speak to the press while the Supreme Court was still considering the appeal against the project, he did recommend speaking to B’emunah’s lawyer David Zeira, who has bought one of the 20 units in the project, and also happens to be his father.
Like his son, David Zeira dismissed contentions that the project is racist, saying that “the issue is not over race, it’s over religion. There are many neighborhoods in Israel that have a religious color to them. This is not an issue of racism, or Arabs against Jews. It was on the basis of religion, and that is why [the appeal against the project] did not succeed.”
Zeira dismissed the commonly-held contention that the project will bring in a population of young, ideologically-bent extremists from the settlements beyond the Green Line, saying that to his knowledge, only “one or two families at most” come from settlements. He said that other than himself and his wife, who are nearing retirement, the rest of the buyers are couples in their thirties and forties from across Israel looking to live a traditional Jewish life in an urban environment near the heart of Tel Aviv.
Zeira said that he believes the influx of a strong, motivated population “is also good for the Arabs in the area. It will bring good people from good families who want to contribute and give something to the community.
“This place and other places have a lot of problems with poverty and bad schools, and there is a real opportunity for people to come and contribute to the community and make it stronger.”
David’s wife Dahlia, who like him is also from Tel Aviv, echoed the sentiment, saying that “there’s a big community that wants to contribute and help the area rise to a higher level.” David said that the project also represented a great economic opportunity, with prices for units going for about NIS 1,200,000, very cheap for the Tel Aviv area.
“Don’t get the idea that we’re some sort of righteous people. This is an opportunity; we know the prices in Jaffa will keep rising.”