Monday, December 1, 2008

Reverse Settlement

Reverse Settlement

The article below by Kobi Ben Simon, from this weekend's Haaretz, documents a phenomena that has become quite familiar, that of Jewish settlers moving into an Arab neighborhood of an Arab city, but with a twist. The implications for the future of Israel and Palestine are profound.

In this case, the city is Jaffa, part of the larger metropolis of Tel Aviv. The article identifies a process that is just at its beginning there, as the Rabbi, a former resident of a settlement in the occupied West Bank, established a yeshiva beachhead in the Arab neighborhood just a month ago. But similar processes are happening or have happened both in Israel and occupied Palestine. In Acre, which has been a target of Jewish re-settlement in recent years, there were violent clashes this year during and after Yom Kippur, which resulted in many Arab families being left homeless. In the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem, where the process is a bit farther along, there are ongoing fierce efforts to "Judaize" the neighborhood, through faulty archaeological research, Jewish settlement and Palestinian Arab harassment and expulsion. And of course there is Hebron, where the settlers have already won, displacing the former vibrant center of Palestinian life with a ghost town fully
controlled by the military where only the Jewish settlers can walk freely.

Certainly Jaffa is no Hebron (yet), but there is a familiar method to the madness, and the desired end point in each case is the same: a former Arab neighborhood "cleansed" of its Palestinian Arab residents and replaced by militant, extremist Jews.

Israel inside the Green Line may be the new frontier for extremist Zionist settlement. Apparently, the West Bank settlement project is considered secure enough to move on to more challenging pastures. As the Rabbi himself notes in the article, "we had carried out a great project in the settlements for the past 30 years, but that now the struggle needs to be moved to a different place."

The right, at least, seems to have settled on its own one-state solution and is pursuing it on both sides of the Green Line.

--Rebecca Vilkomerson

God's Little Acre
By Kobi Ben Simon

It's the day after he was elected for the first time to the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipal council, but Omar Siksek cannot bring himself to smile. Visitors to the office of the chairman of the Association for Jaffa Arabs, located on Yefet Street in Jaffa, want to celebrate his victory, but he is not in the mood. His face is somber.

"Arab-haters have established a settlement in Acre," he says. "They are dangerous and capable of igniting the street at any time. I think the fire is close - if not in another month, then in two months. We can expect a replay of the events in Acre [where Jews and Arabs clashed on and after Yom Kippur], I have no doubt."

About a month ago, a yeshiva belonging to the religious-Zionist movement was established in the heart of Jaffa's Ajami neighborhood. Since then, Siksek has felt that he is on the front line of a new culture war that he did not foment.

"We have no problem with the Jewish religion," he explains. "There are a great many synagogues in Jaffa and there was always mutual respect between the religions here. But I do not want people who harbor extremist views living in my neighborhood, people who want to expel me from my home. While yeshiva students are moving into Jaffa, there are 500 demolition-and-evacuation orders pending against Arab residents, most of them in Ajami. That is a crazy paradox, which can only lead to disaster. For 60 years we have lived in coexistence. Why do we need this mess from Yesha [Judea-Samaria] now?"

An Israeli flag flies on the roof of the yeshiva, which is located at the end of Toulouse Street. Standing next to a rusting iron gate is the yeshiva's dean and founder, Rabbi Eliyahu Mali. He does not look troubled. Two months ago he left his home in the Beit El settlement in the West Bank, and he and his wife, Michal, and their nine children now live on Ha'etrog Street in Ajami. Some 40 young students followed in his wake and fill the yeshiva every afternoon, studying Gemara, Bible and Jewish religious law. Mali, their revered teacher, hopes to get hundreds more to come as well.

Rabbi Mali, 51, a former resident of the religious kibbutz Shluhot in the Beit She'an Valley, taught for 10 years at the prestigious Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem. In 1988 he was appointed dean of a pre-army yeshiva in the Ali settlement in Samaria. He is now a leading figure in the Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva in Jerusalem's Old City - an institution which, according to its Web site, "is the spiritual focus for the return of Jews to their homes in the 'Moslem' Quarter" - and is headed by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the yeshiva seized control of property in that quarter and settled Jews there. Mali's brother, Rabbi Yehuda Mali, is one of the senior figures in the Elad organization, which aims to renew and populate the area of the historical City of David adjacent to the Old City, located within the densely populated Arab neighborhood of Silwan.

"I want quiet and have no interest in enflaming the atmosphere," Eliyahu Mali says, noting that he even declined to be interviewed by Arutz Sheva, the settlers' media outlet. He also declined to be interviewed for this article, though in two brief meetings emphasized repeatedly that he and his students "are following the paths of peace in Jaffa. We have no desire to hurt anyone or to enter into confrontation with the Arabs, even if some among them are trying to provoke us, driving their cars close to the yeshiva and hurling [abusive] words."

However, to judge by some of Mali's remarks in recent months, Siksek has good cause for concern. In an interview in April to Hatzofeh, the newspaper of the religious-Zionist movement, Mali said: "People proposed that I establish the yeshiva in the wake of the expulsion from Gush Katif" - referring to Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip in August 2005. "In that period, my wife and I engaged in spiritual soul-searching. We considered what we could do to help correct and heal things in the future, after what happened there. During the disengagement period we went to the coastal plain region, to Ramat Hasharon, to talk to people there ahead of the process. We found that most of the people of Israel live between Hadera and Gedera, and that is where the decisions are made as well.

"Our conclusion at that time," Mali continued, "without making a concrete decision, was for us to move from Beit El to metropolitan Tel Aviv along with additional families and start to take action. We talked to friends and the idea struck a chord in many families. We explained to them that we had carried out a great project in the settlements for the past 30 years, but that now the struggle needs to be moved to a different place."

An explanation for Mali's new project in Ajami can be found in his lessons, which are taped and posted on the Ateret Cohanim Web site (in Hebrew). For example, in a lesson concerning the wars of Saul and their spiritual roots, he explains that "there is a kingdom of preparation and a kingdom of eternity. Certainly when you are following a gradual path, you start with a war of defense and afterward launch a war of offense. Certainly when you are forging national consciousness, you first construct its existential ground floor. There is a war for existential awareness, in contrast to a war for the final goal."

Mali then asks his students: "You have no problem conquering the Temple Mount, expelling the Waqf [the Muslim trust], eliminating the Mosque of Omar and starting to build the Temple, right? But someone who lives in north Tel Aviv will say, 'Are you off your rocker?' He will tell you that your irresponsible behavior is putting the whole Zionist enterprise at risk. He thinks that the fanaticism which does not take reality into account can easily cause our destruction. So from his point of view, you are extremely dangerous and have to be jailed in order to safeguard the country, to which we came after thousands of years ... Do you understand how they see it?"

The conquest of the land is alive and well, according to Mali's lessons: "Forging the national consciousness is a slow, gradual process, and before you reach the point at which the nation is with you, you have to go down to Tel Aviv. There is no other way. If you continue to closet yourself in Jerusalem and the settlements and talk in a highfalutin way, nothing will change. If you stick to your guns and they stick to theirs, there is no connection, no general transformation in the people's consciousness. We have a problem."

The leaders of the national-religious public have also failed, Mali says. "The dominant approach to dealing with problems is an instant fix. Putting out fires. If the government wants to dismantle settlements, what is the method? Mass demonstrations. But is that enough to heal this generation - by trying to bring thousands and tens of thousands to prevent one specific act, which really stems from an overall spiritual failure that you did not try to heal? You went to Tel Aviv, but when? For a demonstration in Rabin Square? With the whole public sitting home and watching television? Or did you actually go into the neighborhoods and teach Torah to the masses and disseminate the Law?

"The method has to be changed, and doing that is a psychological matter. Only then will we get results. At the moment, we cannot ignore the unfortunate fact that we have lost the campaign. That is the reality. The stories that we won in terms of love make no difference. Dear friends, we have lost. And we have to analyze the reason and draw the conclusions."

'Unpleasant cocktail'

Mali's words to his students reflect prolonged reevaluation by the religious-Zionist movement. The establishment of Torah-study groups in secular locales within the Green Line dates back to the start of settlement in the territories. In 1968, Mercaz Harav students established a "core group" of religious families and a hesder yeshiva (combining religious studies with military service) in Kiryat Shmona. In the 1980s, similar groups (not necessarily married couples) were sent to Yeruham, Eilat, Safed and Beit Shemesh, and in the 1990s to big cities such as Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan. The establishment of such groups in mixed cities (Jewish-Arab) was a later, marginal phenomenon, but in recent years has been growing.

"Today, more than in the past we are seeing serious escalation in the [tense] relations between Jews and Arabs in the mixed cities," says Dr. Elie Rekhess, a senior research fellow of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, and editor of the study "Mixed Cities - Comparative Approach" (Hebrew, 2006). "The situation is highly volatile. A process is under way in which social and economic distress among the Arab public is colliding with a Jewish national-religious awakening. That is a very unpleasant cocktail."

Rekhess opposes establishment of yeshiva-based groups in the mixed cities. "The yeshiva in Ajami is definitely a provocation. It is a new settlement, the 2008 model. The Jewish presence in the territories is already consolidated, and now these same people are entering Arab neighborhoods and hoping to ensure that the state's Jewish character is preserved inside the Green Line. They are in effect consciously sitting atop a powder keg, which the smallest match could ignite and explode. You know, a yeshiva like this in Jaffa does not create a basis for coexistence; on the contrary, when a rabbi from Beit El moves into the heart of an Arab neighborhood, that is a political act. He bears a very clear message."

MK Aryeh Eldad (National Union - National Religious Party) has a rather different take on the situation. "The very objection of Arabs to the entry of Jews in the neighborhood is unexampled Arab effrontery - mad racism," he asserts. "Anyone who claims that Jaffa is an Arab city and that Jews are not allowed to settle there is an anti-Semite and an Islamic racist. Jews who are critical of a yeshiva like this are anti-Zionists. I don't understand why Arabs are allowed to move from Nazareth to Upper Nazareth, from East Jerusalem neighborhoods to French Hill, or to enter Carmiel, but Jews are not allowed into Ajami. The allegations against the yeshiva are typical of part of the Arab public, which wants to erase the country's Jewish character. People like that should be kicked out. The phenomenon has to be aborted. I don't even think they are traitors - they are simply enemies. And enemies have to be fought." The inauguration ceremony of the new hesder yeshiva in Ajami, of which the high
point was the dedication of a Torah scroll, was accompanied by a protest by some 40 Arabs. The chairman of the Ajami neighborhood, Kamal Agbaria, whose home is adjacent to the yeshiva, joined the demonstration: "We came to say that no one will be our landlord, that no one will impose a new order in our living space. That was actually only the beginning. In the past few weeks there have been at least four cases of mutual harassment between Arab youths and yeshiva students. On one occasion there was verbal abuse, on another physical violence and there was also stone-throwing. The situation is heating up. In terms of the local residents, the entry of the yeshiva students is like the arrival of a battalion of soldiers. The residents feel that the hesder yeshiva is a religious arm of the government and has the hidden goal of judaizing Jaffa."

Burning homes

The yeshiva is only one element in the new fabric of relations being woven between the national-religious public and the city of Jaffa. In the past year, the Rosh Yehudi association, whose stated aim is "to deepen the Jewish identity of all sections of the population," established a yeshiva-style group in the Jaffa Dalet neighborhood.

"What began as a distant dream by a number of individual families is gradually taking root," says Michal Atias, a member of the core group. "The Jaffa group, which was established less than a year ago, is constantly developing. In the very short time since its creation, the group has already embraced more than 10 families. And when the members of the group saw that it was good, they began to buy homes in the area and thus to consolidate the group's existence."

The chairman of Rosh Yehudi is the real estate developer Israel Zeira, whose Emuna construction company builds and markets homes for the national-religious public. In addition to projects in locales such as Beit Shemesh, Elad and Jerusalem, the company is now also operating in mixed cities. In Lod, for example, Zeira built about 80 apartments alongside the Arab areas.

"We have a vision to bring national-religious families to Tel Aviv in order to connect with secular young people," Zeira explains. "We came to Jaffa to support the Jews, not because of the Arabs. The Arabs are only a symptom. There is a regrettable phenomenon in which Jews are leaving Jaffa because of social and economic problems. We are there to bolster them, to offer social assistance. We came to inject spiritual strength, as we are doing in many other places. In Jaffa there is a postmodern tendency to mix Jewish and Arab schoolchildren, for example. We think that is not right: The schools should be separate."

Zeira counsels calm in the face of the Arab public's reaction. "I do not apologize for what I am doing - I am proud of it. The national-religious public is a quality community, and brings growth wherever it goes. In Ramat Gan there are 200 families who scared off the criminals from the Ramat Amidar neighborhood; in Lod we have 200 families for whom we built a fine residential project. The same process will come to Jaffa. If we collect more people there, maybe we will build homes for them, too."

The aspiration to build housing in Jaffa for Jewish religious families has already entered the practical stage. The director of the religious core group, Itai Granek, is consolidating a number of families who will buy homes in a project at 140 Jerusalem Boulevard in Jaffa. At the end of September he published the following advertisement on a real-estate Web site: "Purchase group of the national-religious public organizing in Jaffa for project of 270 residential units, including synagogues, mikvehs [ritual baths] and kindergartens. Founded by the social-Torah group. Register quickly."

"Very quietly, without our noticing and under our noses, inflammatory core groups are strengthening their hold, and fanning hostility and suspicion between the Jewish and Arab population," says Meital Lehavi, who heads the Meretz list in the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipal council. "I am not sure that the city's residents are aware of the move to Judaize Jaffa by Jewish 'settlers,' who undoubtedly consider themselves the successors of the generation of pioneers and those who drained the swamps.

"Just as no justification exists for the use of these arguments in [the settlements of] Kedumim, Itamar, Shiloh and a host of illegal settler outposts," Lehavi continues, "we are now starting to hear similar justifications for the efforts to Judaize Jaffa's neighborhoods. But anyone who believes that he will succeed in undermining the stability of the ties between Jews and Arabs in Tel Aviv-Jaffa will discover he is wrong. Jaffa will not become a second Acre. The residents of Tel Aviv-Jaffa will continue to reinforce the elements that unite and bind rather than those that divide. Yesha is definitely not here," she concludes, referring to the slogan used in a publicity campaign some years ago by the Yesha Council of settlements.

MK Nadia Hilou (Labor), the chairwoman of the mixed-cities lobby in the Knesset, is determined to put a lid on the simmering ethnic passions in Jaffa. "My experience of growing up in Jaffa was completely different from what we see today. The neighborhood was mixed in the true sense of the word. We celebrated the holidays together - my mother prepared special cookies for Pesach and bags of chocolates for Christmas ... We didn't do these things because we wanted to forgo our identity; [the motivation came from] a place in which you share with others and they share with you."

However, at some point the Jewish residents of Ajami left, she relates: "Jewish families who became socio-economically stronger decided to abandon the neighborhood. By the 1980s almost all the Jews had left, mostly to [the nearby cities of] Holon and Bat Yam. Very serious neglect set in. But the Arabs stayed and created an interesting demographic mix in which people from the lowest to the highest [classes] lived together. These days the residents are lawyers, judges and surgeons, living alongside criminals. The Jews did not start returning to Jaffa until the 1990s, but in the form of a strong, affluent group: Jews who viewed Jaffa as real estate. They built projects like Andromeda [a luxury gated housing project]. Those people never maintained community relations with the Arabs. Not out of malice; they simply send their children to private schools and there is no communication with them."

According to Hilou, the arrival of the national-religious public poses a challenge to the delicate balance of cohabitation. About a month ago, in the wake of the events in Acre, she organized an urgent meeting between Rabbi Mali and Muslim and Christian religious leaders in Jaffa.

"One day a mother came to me and told me about a verbal confrontation she had with a yeshiva student, who told her, 'We will remove you from here,'" Hilou says. "I decided to call Rabbi Mali. I explained to him that I wanted to arrange a meeting of leaders in order to find a channel of cooperation that would prevent the events of Acre from being replicated in Jaffa. All it would take is a minor event that would take a different direction and our home would go up in flames."

Back to October

The group of local leaders met in Mali's home. "The invitation immediately reduced the tension," Hilou says. "We sat with him in a small, modest home. He opened the meeting by saying that he teaches his students love, acceptance of the other and strengthening of the belief in God."

Did that reassure you?

Hilou: "Look, it's possible that my compromise route will bring about two more meetings or maybe four. But do we have the strength to remove them? Will it be to anyone's benefit to launch a struggle? I think not. Resistance will not solve the problem. Jaffa is Arab-Jewish and we do not object to Jews living here. That is not the problem. The problem begins when there are hidden intentions directed against the Arab population. So there are people in Jaffa, such as Omar Siksek, who see things differently and think we should fight back.

"I admit that I did not want to give the matter too much thought. I wanted to believe what Rabbi Mali told me. I think it is convenient to believe, it is the easy way in a certain sense. I am afraid to immerse myself in thoughts and reach different conclusions."

Such as?

"Feeling real fear. Life together was always very good, but during the Al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000, police opened fire in Jaffa and bullets flew over my head. That was the harshest thing I ever experienced. The whole country was burning, and in Jaffa, too, people set tires ablaze and blocked streets, but there were no confrontations between Jaffa's Jewish and Arab residents. There was a conflict, there was tension, but no clashes. Life went on."

But some bad feelings remain.

"There is a bitter residue. I live on the boundary of Jaffa and Bat Yam. On the second day of the tension in the city, I saw soldiers on my street. I didn't think it was serious, but apparently they received a prior warning. At 1 A.M. we woke up to awful screaming of 'Death to the Arabs.' Shirtless Jewish demonstrators from Bat Yam came out, carrying clubs and roaring. They wanted to enter Jaffa through my street. I immediately called the representative of the Arab community in Jaffa, so he would warn the residents. He told me, 'It's all right. We are waiting for them. Just let them come.' I was taken aback. Fortunately, the police blocked both sides and did not let them meet. Today I am driven by a feeling of fear: I don't know where the religious friction can lead. It frightens me: I am frightened that what happened then will happen again."

Jewish Peace News editors:
Joel Beinin
Racheli Gai
Rela Mazali
Sarah Anne Minkin
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Lincoln Shlensky
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Alistair Welchman
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