Going to extremes

As Jaffa becomes more polarized, Arab residents are saying the national-religious newcomers, whom they call ‘settlers,’ are trying to change the demographics.

Jaffa - view (photo credit: LYDIA AISENBERG)
Jaffa - view
(photo credit: LYDIA AISENBERG)
Ahmed Mashharawi, a city councilman and longtime resident of Jaffa, takes a long look around the Muslim cemetery in the neighborhood of Jabaliya, where alleged Jewish vandals spray-painted inflammatory statements, an incident that was discovered on October 7. This just days after a mosque in the Galilee was set on fire as part of the “price tag” retaliatory campaign by extremists against actions they believe harm their interests.
The cemetery is dilapidated, its 100- year-old tombstones eroding due to its proximity to the sea, the salt from which slowly eats away at the gray, decaying rock. There is no paved walkway for mourners to navigate around the graves, and the fencing and security on the premises is virtually nonexistent.
“We don’t have the budget to preserve Muslim holy sites and tombstones and cemeteries,” lamented Mashharawi. “The person [in the municipality] who is in charge of the Muslim holy site preservation committee is a Jewish guy. It’s pretty funny. For 10 years, the committee in charge of maintaining holy places for Muslims hasn’t had one Muslim on it.”
Mashharawi said he had written a letter to Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai in which he complained about the discrepancy in municipal funding allocated to Jewish and Arab religious trusts.
“[As Huldai] gives NIS 20 million from the municipal budget to the Jewish religious councils, the Islamic council on the other hand receives NIS 45,000,” the Meretz city council member said. “This is totally illogical.”
The vandalized cemetery and its immediate environs provide a snapshot of the problems facing Jaffa’s Arab community, which feels increasingly under threat.
First, there is the process Mashharawi refers to as “economic transfer,” whereby wealthy Jews buy up valuable real estate which the municipality has expropriated from its erstwhile Arab (and low-income Jewish) owners. Then there is what he and many others see as a religious-nationalist push to “Judaize” the mixed city by planting “settlements” in the heart of Christian and Muslim neighborhoods.
To the cemetery’s immediate east sits a row of decrepit, beige, two-story apartments.
Just up the road on Kedem Street is the monstrosity of a complex that houses the Peres Center for Peace. The contrast is not lost on Mashharawi. He says the residents of these run-down homes were displaced from their land as part of a concerted effort by government agencies and the municipality to sell the plots to contractors. The evictees, most of whom are Arab, he says, were given meager compensation and placed in low-income housing.
“The municipality contrived an excuse to evict Arabs from their homes by claiming that the structures in which they lived were dangerous and there was a risk of collapse,” he said. “So they issued all these eviction orders, and most of the residents didn’t understand why they were being evicted. They were not educated enough to understand what the plans were, and the municipality took advantage of their naivete.”
TODAY, JEWISH families have moved into areas that were once populated primarily by Arabs, especially those adjacent to the beach. A tour of the neighborhood now known as “New Ajami” offers a glimpse into the European-style townhouses and villas that were recently built to accommodate well-to-do Jews seeking “quality of life.”
While they don’t object to Jews moving into the city, critics say that nationalist- religious goals of boosting the Jewish presence together with the insistence of the wealthy on “quality of life” translates into an unwillingness to live alongside non-Jewish residents.
“[The Jews who are moving in] want to Judaize Jaffa,” says Yudit Ilani, a Jaffa resident, photographer and social activist who is well acquainted with the Arab community there. “They also don’t want to live near poor people. Some of them espouse a very problematic ideology, while others don’t necessarily have an ideology but a worldview that champions ‘quality of life.’ They want a Mediterranean fantasy that is devoid of their [current] neighbors. They want style, not substance.”
Ilani says the income discrepancy between two competing constituencies could lead to unrest that has the potential to be ignited by incidents like the vandalism of the Muslim cemetery.
“Sixty percent of the Arab population in the neighborhood of Ajami is reliant on National Insurance Institute stipends,” she said. “This is a very poor segment of the population. When you have these socio-economic gaps – forget about nationalistic ideology for a second – it creates a great deal of tension.”
Maya, a Jewish Israeli, moved to Jaffa five years ago after living in central Tel Aviv. Having first lived near the flea market, she now calls Ajami her home.
There, she says, the tensions between the Jews and Arabs are palpable, although she says there is more to the story than what is largely reported in the press.
“It’s a very complicated issue,” she said. “I’ve been living here for a while now, and while [Jews and Arabs] do by and large get along, there is friction.
Sometimes one gets the feeling that we don’t always like each other. But when you talk about Arabs, it also depends on whether you are talking about Christians or Muslims.”
Maya says her landlord is an Arab Christian who refuses to rent his home to Muslims, adding that the Christian community feels much more comfortable dealing with the Jews than with their Arab brethren.
“There’s strife among the Arab community that is unrelated to the Jews,” she says. “The Christians and the Muslims have different mentalities.”
Then, with a laugh, she adds: “So, yeah, there are things happening here.”
When asked about the vandalism at the Muslim cemetery, Maya says the incident was most likely a copycat incident perpetrated by “petty criminals” rather than a real “price tag” attack. Nonetheless, she adds, nationalist sentiment and socioeconomic disparities have the Arabs of Jaffa feeling under siege.
“There’s a sense among the Arabs that the Jews are coming here to take over the city and to kick them out,” she said.
“People who have lived here for years just can’t afford the rent costs that have gone up recently. One can understand their fears, because the people who are moving in here are young Jews, and they’re paying real-estate prices that Muslims just can’t pay.” According to Ilani and Mashharawi, the indignity of the forced Arab migration within the city is compounded by the actions of nationalist-religious organizations like Garin Torani, who are intent on buying up tracts of property in predominantly Arab neighborhoods with the goal of selling apartments exclusively to Jews. This, they say, is being done with the tacit approval and encouragement of the authorities.
A Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality spokesperson calls Mashhrawi’s claims “baseless.”
“There has never been an attempt to evict weaker populations in favor of wealthier residents in Jaffa or south Tel Aviv. In recent years the city has invested vast resources in Jaffa’s physical state and its education and welfare systems,” the spokesperson says in a statement.
“Jaffa has never been so attractive and its quality of life is ever improving.”
The spokesperson adds that the municipality recently approved an 144- unit affordable-housing project for Arabs in Jaffa.
As for Mashhrawi’s accusations regarding evictions, the spokesperson says the city has never removed people from their homes except in the case of squatters.
The municipality also has no special allocations for preservation of Muslim, Christian or Jewish sites except in the case of places with special significance for the city, according to the spokesperson.
“The mayor’s unequivocal statements regarding violence in Jaffa contradict the claim that the municipality turns a blind eye to conflict and provocations.”
YUVAL ALPERT is the chief rabbi of the Garin Torani branch in Jaffa, an outlet of the Religious-Zionist organization that moved into the city three years ago.
Alpert brushes off suggestions that Garin, which launched a campaign aimed at “re-jew-venating” the Jewish presence there, seeks to muscle out the local non-Jewish population.
When asked about the spray-painting of Muslim tombstones, Alpert denied that the growth of his organization in the city had provided any impetus to anti-Arab hate crimes.
“We do not educate people to do that sort of thing,” he said when asked about the vandalism at the Jaffa cemetery. “I condemn this, just as I condemn the throwing of a firebomb at a synagogue in Jaffa the day after the incident. I also condemn all the politicians who are using these incidents to ratchet up the tensions in order to make political gains.
There were people who pointed the finger at the Garin Torani after the cemetery incident, but the police came out right away and said that we had no connection to it.”
Alpert says that political grandstanding was to blame for inciting the public, leading to the attack on the Rabbi Meir Ba’al Haness synagogue on Zihatli Street.
There were no injuries in the incident, although light damage was reported.
Alpert said he met with Muslim religious leaders after both incidents, and all were agreed that extremist elements on both sides needed to be denounced and reined in.
The rabbi also takes issue with criticism from activists who claim that his organization’s hidden agenda is to alter the demographic balance of Jaffa by importing Jewish families at the expense of the Arab community, similar to the Israeli settlement enterprise in the territories.
“Our goal is to deal with education and welfare,” he says. “This does not come at anyone’s expense. And nobody else should be offended when we have marches and parades on Jerusalem Day and Independence Day, because these marches are taking place all across the country, so it stands to reason that there will be marches in Jaffa.”
“Demographically, Jaffa is Jewish,” Alpert continues. “We are gearing our efforts toward 70% of the population. If there are other segments of the population that wish to partake, then they are welcome to do so.”
Garin, which means “seed” in Hebrew, has already put in place a wide network of educational and social services for Jaffa’s Jews, including a day care center, an afterschool club for youths, a food and clothing distribution center, and a women’s group devoted mainly to Russian and Ethiopian immigrants.
In addition, after heavily lobbying the municipality, it has expanded its operations by building three municipal kindergartens, an elementary school, and a hesder yeshiva that combines military service with religious studies. There are also plans in the works for a yeshiva high school and an ulpana (religious girls’ high school).
According to the rabbi, the organization hopes to contribute to healing what he calls “the social ills” that are plaguing Israeli cities.
“I watched as my brother was being uprooted from Gush Katif,” says Alpert, 38, a former resident of the Old City of Jerusalem. “It was then that I understood THAT WHILE settling Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel] is important, and that it needs to continue, we need to work on Am Yisrael [the people of Israel].”
GARIN TORANI has established an extensive network of branches across the country, setting up shop in the poorer, peripheral areas like Sderot and Ofakim.
According to Alpert, the organization is looking to make inroads with the wealthier segments of Israeli society in the center of the country by establishing offices in upscale suburban settings like Ramat Aviv and Ramat Hasharon. But its entry into mixed Jewish-Arab towns like Jaffa, Safed and Acre, with the potential to stir up a hornets’ nest of ethnic and religious strife, is attracting the most attention.
“We came to Jaffa four years [ago],” he continues. “The idea was to lift up the neighborhood and to form a link that connects the population in the greater Tel Aviv area with that of Jerusalem.”
One way to lift the city’s standard of living is to attract what Alpert calls “idealistic” young families.
“Nobody believed me when I said that we would bring in educated young people into Jaffa,” he said. “But since we’ve gotten here, 53 families have moved in, and they are coming here in the name of ideals. They don’t just want to live comfortably in a house with a nice backyard, but they want something beyond this.”
Contrary to what was initially thought, only two of the families who have relocated to Jaffa are from Gush Katif. According to Alpert, most Religious Zionists who move into Jaffa are from all over the country.
“It’s hard to pigeonhole this group,” he says, adding that most hold college degrees and have served in the army.
Alpert says that none of the families received financial inducements to relocate to Jaffa.
“They all could have lived in Judea and Samaria at half the cost of living here,” he said. “At the start of this project, I decided that I didn’t want to pay families to live here because I didn’t want to establish a community that needs to be supported.
Instead, I wanted a community that contributes.”
The rabbi says the organization funds its activities with cash solicited from donors in the United States and Canada. Onefourth of Garin’s operating budget is subsidized by the state, Alpert adds, with total expenses amounting to NIS 2 million annually.
“We are only interested in culture and education,” the rabbi said. “We are not here to push out anyone. Generally, strengthening Jewish identity and the youth’s bond with the state is a problem that we need to solve not only in Jaffa, but in all of Israel.”
Nonetheless, the influx of religious Jews is prompting concern from the established Arab community, which warns that provocative actions could trigger violent retribution from criminal elements that “have nothing to lose.”
“Ties between Jews and Arabs are good, but the settlers are getting in the way,” said Sami, a carpenter from the Arab part of Ajami. “They are trying to move into peoples’ private homes and to claim them as theirs, since this is the Land of Israel. In the meantime, they haven’t succeeded because anyone who tries to force [Arabs] out of their homes will have their heads taken off.”
“If someone tried to move into your home, you would take off their heads as well,” he said.
When asked how best to ease the simmering tensions in the city, Sami said that the solution to the problem is for Arab landlords to “stop selling property to Jews.”
“There should be a boycott, but don’t get the impression that everyone is doing it,” he said. “In the end, money talks.”
“Look, we don’t have a problem with anyone,” he said. “Don’t do bad to me, and I won’t do bad to you.”
YUSEF is a convenience-store clerk who describes himself as a “pure-bred Jaffan.”
He was blunter in his assessment of the situation, which is complicated further by the fact that nationalist sentiment is being whipped up in one of Israel’s most crimeridden cities.
“The settlers would be better off if they left,” Yusef said. “That’s my advice for them. They’re coming in here and running into a dead end.”
“Here in Jaffa, people have had enough of themselves,” he said. “You hear about what goes on here every two days. People have nothing to lose here in Jaffa. Right now, people are keeping quiet despite all the provocations, but in the end there is going to be a bloodbath here. In Jaffa, there is no shortage of people who are willing to settle accounts.”
Yusef said that in the meantime the police have intervened and kept the situation from spinning out of control. But he warns that if the current trend continues, the vandalism and stone-throwing could quickly escalate to acts of physical violence.
“People in Jaffa are hot-blooded,” he said. “There’s no hope for any kind of economic advancement or a bright future.
Young people are always out on the street, looking for things to do. A young kid who lost his brother or his father and sees no hope for his future has nothing to lose, so he could easily get involved [in violence].
Is this what people want? A war, like it is in the territories?” Mashharawi sees future prospects for the Arabs of Jaffa dwindling.
“The Arab-language school is here, the churches are here, the mosques are here,” he said. “I can’t come to Ramat Aviv, even though it’s a modern and pluralist town, and buy a home. Because even if they allow me to buy a home – and I know that they wouldn’t allow me – I don’t have a mosque over there.”
“As an Arab and as a minority, I have needs that are unique to me. Here, you have the mosque and the Arab school side by side,” he said. “You can’t build this in Ramat Aviv. People need to understand that the stronger party, the powers that be in this land, need to look out for my interests as a minority.”