Standing together against racism

The recent wave of protests against Arabs, foreign workers, Sudanese asylum seekers has brought together representatives of Jaffa’s Jewish, Muslim, Christian communities.

Jaffa protest 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jaffa protest 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Since it first opened its doors in 1993, the Arab- Jewish Community Center in Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood has played an active role in promoting coexistence in the city’s mixed communities.
Around 3,000 local residents – a real cross-section of Jaffa’s diverse community – directly benefit from its education and enrichment programs. People flock there daily for activities like language classes, sport and dancing; but most importantly, the center gives them the chance to meet neighbors they might otherwise never have talked with.
Now the good community relations that the Arab- Jewish Center has helped build between the city’s Jewish and Arab residents are being put to the test.
A few weeks ago, far-right activists organized a protest in Bat Yam against what they described as “Arab infiltration” into the city, particularly into the Shikun Amidar neighborhood bordering Jaffa.
Similar demonstrations took place in the south Tel Aviv neighborhood of Hatikva, calling for African refugees and foreign workers to leave the area.
These events were too close for comfort for some of Jaffa’s residents, who say they are concerned that the delicate balance between the city’s mixed Jewish, Christian and Arab populations could be damaged if those responsible for the protests organize similar demonstrations there.
In response to the events in Bat Yam and south Tel Aviv, Oded Marck and other Jaffa residents decided to hold a meeting at the Arab-Jewish Center so local residents could discuss what Marck describes as the “wave of extremist statements that are flooding Israel.”
“Most of the people demonstrating in Bat Yam were not even residents of that city,” said Marck, 25, describing the right-wing activists who led the protests as “pyromaniacs” who want to start fires in a community they don’t actually live in.
“They just came to stir up hatred between Jews and Arabs. That’s what really upset me.”
While a small group of Bat Yam residents attended the protests, the organizers really were from out of town. They included Itamar Ben-Gvir, a former senior activist with the banned extremist Kach party, and MK Michael Ben-Ari (National Union), also a former member of Kach.
Founded in the 1970s by ultra-nationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane, Kach advocated the replacement of Israel’s secular democracy with a fundamentalist state within the biblical borders (including parts of Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon) and founded on Halacha. The party also called for the transfer of Arabs from the State of Israel.
In 1994, the government outlawed Kach after the party expressed support for the massacre of 29 Palestinians in Hebron by Baruch Goldstein, himself a Kach party member.
Here in Jaffa, Oded Marck believes that, despite the efforts of right-wing activists to stir up sectarian violence in the area, the city’s strong community relations will help residents resist such provocation.
“There have been rightist events here in the past,” he says. “But Jaffa residents have accumulated deep knowledge over the years about something that most of us are pretty ignorant about – coexistence.”
Around 150 Jewish and Arab Jaffa residents, ranging from pensioners to parents holding tiny babies, gathered at last Thursday’s community meeting to hear local activists and community leaders speak out about these issues.
Also present were representatives from new antiracism movement Brit Hoshech Legaresh (Banishing the Darkness), who helped organize the event. Brit Hoshech Legaresh is a coalition of 16 organizations and movements from both the religious and secular communities, including Hanoar Ha’oved Vehalomed, Realistic Religious Zionism, the Masorti movement, and the Israel Religious Action Council.
The overwhelming message from Jaffa’s community meeting was that residents need to unite to combat what locals see as the spread of damaging racist propaganda in the city.
SPEAKING AT the meeting, the Arab-Jewish Community Center’s director, Ibrahim Abu Shindi, emphasized the anti-Arab protests in Bat Yam and other recent events, including the much-publicized letter from several rabbis forbidding Jews to rent homes to Arabs, and another from a group of rabbis’ wives calling on Jewish women not to date or work with non-Jews.
“Jaffa is not an island,” said Abu Shindi. “What happened in Bat Yam has an effect on us. So we can’t separate ourselves.”
Jaffa is a mixed community – around two-thirds of its 60,000-strong population is Jewish and the remaining third is Arab. Even within these two population groups, there is enormous diversity: In addition to Muslims, the city is home to Christian Arabs of several denominations. The Jewish population comprises both new immigrants and long-term residents, both religious and secular.
While community tensions do exist, relations between and within Jaffa’s diverse communities are largely peaceful.
That a good cross-section of Jaffa residents attended the meeting last Thursday is a sign of hope, says Jaffa resident Gabi Abed. A social worker by profession, Abed is chairman of Al Rabitta, the League of the Arabs of Jaffa, a grassroots organization that advocates for improved housing conditions for Jaffa’s Arab population.
“The extreme rightists are bringing disaster to this country, and we will not tolerate it,” he says, adding that Jews and Arabs have had a long history of good community relations in Jaffa.
Abed says he is optimistic about Jaffa’s future because history proves that racist ideologies – such as those being spread by rightwing activists in Bat Yam and south Tel Aviv – are doomed to fail.
“To those sowing the seeds of racism, I have this to say – it won’t last,” he declared in his speech at the meeting. “In South Africa, in Mussolini’s Italy, in Hitler’s Germany, eventually their racism and hatred was not tolerated.”
ABED ALSO reached out to the Jewish community with a message of continued friendship. “As Arab residents, we all want coexistence,” he stated. “We need comradeship and tolerance to make a healthy society, and not an ailing, racist one.”
According to Abed, Jaffa’s strong community is a result of the mutual respect that its Jewish, Christian and Muslim residents have for each other.
“If we do not have this [respect], there will be war,” he concluded in his speech to the assembled residents. “Not war with outside forces, but war between us. And that would be a great tragedy.”
Kamal Aghariya, chairman of the Ajami Neighborhood Council, which represents Jewish, Christian and Muslim residents, also gave a short speech in which he described the organizers of the Bat Yam protests as “fascists” who have no place in Israeli society.
“I don’t believe in coexistence. I believe in shared existence, in partnership,” he declared. “Jaffa is a microcosm of Israeli society, and as opposed to what is happening in other places in this country, here in Jaffa we want to make the community a good place to live.”
Jewish residents and community leaders also spoke out strongly against what they see as attempts by right-wing activists to sow seeds of sectarian violence in Jaffa, and in praise of the strong intercommunity relations the city has developed.
Among those present at the meeting was Shem-Tov Dekalo, chairman of the Bnei Brith youth council in the south Jaffa neighborhood of Jaffa Gimmel. According to Dekalo, while the mixed community has a long history of good relations, residents still need to be active and work together to combat the growing dangers of racist ideologies.
“We need to unite under one roof,” he told the assembled residents. “If we each shut ourselves up in our separate homes we will have a problem. We need to be open, to put everything on the table.”
Two days after the meeting, Jaffa residents’ calls to stand together and resist provocation from outside demonstrators were tested when police were called to a disturbance on Rehov Yehuda Hayamit in the center of Jaffa as local residents confronted a group of several hundred Jewish protesters, who Abu Shindi says he witnessed shouting racist anti-Arab slogans and throwing stones at a mosque.
In a telephone interview after that incident, Abu Shindi told Metro that just as with the protests in Bat Yam where the organizers came from outside the city, those at last weekend’s demonstration were not Jaffa residents.
“There is a lot of anger in Jaffa about this,” he said, adding that Jaffa’s Arab community leaders are planning an emergency meeting this week, the outcome of which they will share with Jewish community leaders.
“These people are fanatics. The same thing is happening across the country – in Lod, in Ramle, in Acre.
“And it’s not just the protests: It’s the rabbis’ letter [calling on Jews not to rent to Arabs]. It’s frightening, but I believe we are all in the same boat, Jews and Arabs, because today they are protesting about Arabs, but against whom will they protest tomorrow? “We all have to stand together against this.”