Challenging Assumptions About Coexistence in Jaffa

How do current events affect Jewish-Arab relations in Jaffa? Anthropologist Daniel Monterescu, a Jaffa-born expert on mixed cities, believes the recent protests reflect a desire for integration, not a shift toward religious extremism.

Ilan Assayag

Last week’s demonstrations by Jaffa Arabs to protest the events at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque did not shake Daniel Monterescu’s confidence in relations between Jews and Arabs in the city. Monterescu, an urban anthropologist who specializes in ethnically mixed cities, has found in his research a genuine desire on both sides for normalcy, even if it is largely anomalous.

Normalcy and anomaly in Jaffa, says Monterescu, are two sides of the same coin. Ignoring the complexity of relations and the deliberate tendency to extremism is a dangerous, sensationalist trend that plays into the hands of extremists on both sides and does not fully reflect facts on the ground. His words are an invitation to turn down the heat.

I met Monterescu — an associate professor of urban anthropology at the Central European University in Budapest and director of its doctoral program in sociology and anthropology — at Cafe Tursina in Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood, where Monterescu conducted research on Arab masculinity two decades ago.

The coffeehouse, as yet undiscovered by hipsters, doesn’t try to please its customers. There’s no sign, no air-conditioning even on a blazing summer day and beverages are served in the very cheapest of disposable cups. It’s men-only: My presence is accepted with polite disinterest, and Monterescu explains that it’s a “transgression permitted only to female tourists and Jews.” At peak hours, it is a cosmopolitan, colonialist urban microcosm straight from the movies.

The customers are young Palestinians, Jews recently moved to Jaffa seeking an Oriental fantasy, a group of older Lebanese Jews who came here after 1967, finding “an urban Arab space we can’t find anywhere else.” There is also a Hebron-born Jew who fought in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and who lives in north Tel Aviv. He comes here to “recapture, over coffee and a nargila,” or water pipe, the reciprocal relations that Jews and Arabs once enjoyed and which are now broken.” For Monterescu, this café serves as a laboratory for examining under one roof some of the forces — nationalist, capitalist and quotidian — operating in the city.

Simplistic and arrogant conception

Monterescu was born and raised in Jaffa, to parents from Romania and France. After earning a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Chicago, he moved with his family to Budapest.

Most of his work focuses on the implications of urban development for daily life in mixed cities. His books and articles, published in Israel and abroad, always contain ambiguous messages that stir controversy on both sides of the conflict.

Zoltan Kluger /GPO

In his new book, “Jaffa Shared and Shattered: Contrived coexistence in Israel/Palestine” (Indiana University Press), he analyzes the features that distinguish Jaffa in comparison to divided cities such as Jerusalem that have spatial ethnic separation. He tries to show how establishment-guided dichotomous divisions in mixed cities “collapse in face of a recalcitrant and subversive reality.”

Monterescu argues that to understand a city, one must examine the history of its collective memories, the existential angst of its residents and their relationship with city and state institutions.

Jaffa is defined not by any particular demonstration, but by a continuous web of processes reaching back into time: its conquest in 1948 and earlier, to British and Ottoman rule. In daily life the national conflict is repressed but resurfaces periodically, he explains. Arab residents usually opt to join a party-affiliated political group or civil society organizations, but usually they just stay on the sidelines.

Current events bring the problem to the fore, with “repressed issues resurfacing and forcing people to deal with open wounds” says Monterescu. “This doesn’t usually mean an active engagement in the national struggle, but is expressed as sporadic ad hoc responses, which local leaders find hard to anticipate or control.” This is well-known in European cities as well, where “demonstrations can get out of hand,” he adds.

Jaffa’s Arabs aren’t “only” Palestinians or “only” Israelis — they are Palestinians with Israeli citizenship who live in a mixed city, with all the contradictions that entails. Monterescu doesn’t view this as a lack of desire to integrate into Israeli society or to live alongside their Jewish neighbors. He quotes Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling, who noted, in connection to the violent clashes in northern Israel in October 2000, which resulted in the death of 13 Arabs, 12 of them Israeli citizens, that “the pointed, even violent, manner in which Arabs demanded their civil rights only points to their growing integration into society, not a wish to disengage from it.”

Demanding that Jaffa’s Arabs (and Israeli Arabs in general) choose between their Israeli and Palestinian identities, says Monterescu, “expresses a simplistic and arrogant conception in view of the complexity of defining Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”

Jaffa’s Arabs, he says, cannot accept their nonrecognition as a national minority. The protests target government policies and are an exercise of democratic freedoms. “Reactions by police and politicians that turn this into a religious conflict are dangerous and will lead to a foolish war.”

In contrast to the conception of Jaffa as a city polarized between Jews and Arabs (or between veterans and newcomers) it is the undefined “contact zone” which is formed between different communities in the urban spaces which defines the city’s character and allows daily life to run counter to official state policies.

Ilan Assayag

The false authenticity of the ghetto

Whereas in Jaffa Monterescu examines the forces operating in a mixed city, in Budapest he follows the transformation of Europe into a mixed-community continent. Viewing the demographic anxieties and clash of civilizations here and there, he tries to see beyond the talk of a “crisis.”

In the context of urban ethnic mixing, he proposes learning from the colonial history of big European cities such as Paris, London and Berlin, which migrants turned into prosperous, bustling centers.

“A wise and thoughtful integration of refugees can transform them, within a generation or two, into new European citizens, saving the continent from a prolonged demographic drought that could lead to its demise.”

Daniel Vegel

In a Jewish context, ghettos, which for centuries were a symbol of ethnic demarcation in Europe’s urban spaces, have in recent decades become real-estate assets, world heritage sites and desirable tourist attractions. From Amsterdam to Krakow, Prague to Budapest, says Monterescu, the ghetto has become part of Europe’s self-examination, a window to the rediscovery of urban history, following 70 years of under-investment, destruction and repression.

As part of the new politics of identity, “Jews and non-Jews come in their masses to renewed ghettos in order to experience a spurious authenticity,” even when all that remains of Jewish culture is is an empty shell, like the remains of Palestinian culture in Old Jaffa, without its Arabs.

Next week Monterescu will take part in a conference, “Tomorrow’s City — Living in a Mixed City in the Future,” in Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim.

Ethnic mixing touches on sociology’s basic question: how strangers can live together. That is the main question on a global scale, in view of the refugee crisis in Europe, the North American striving for a melting pot and ethnocratic policies, such as in Israel.

There is no doubt, says Monterescu, that “We live in interesting times, as the Chinese curse goes.” At times like this one could see this as a light at the end of the tunnel.