A Growing Arab Middle Class Makes a Home in Jewish Cities

The community aspires to services better than what’s available in Arab towns, but Jewish residents often put up resistance.

Zahra and Samer Aziza and family.
Gil Eliahu

Zahra and Samer Aziza married eight years ago. She came from a village north of Acre, and he’s from Nazareth, a largely Arab city. Like any young couple, they wondered where they should settle down.

The default should theoretically have been Nazareth, a bigger city with more opportunities, and Samer knows it well because he grew up there. Both he and his wife are urban professionals; Zahra works in human resources and Samer is an accountant. Their salaries are likely to keep increasing.

But they knew they probably couldn’t build a house there, or buy one, because of price and the lack of land allocated for development. So they bought an apartment in a relatively new neighborhood in the city next door, Upper Nazareth, newly defined as “mixed.”

“We were attracted to the idea of living in a family home with a garden,” says Zahra. “In Nazareth it would have cost us double.” The former owners of the apartment, Jews, moved to Kibbutz Mizra.

A “mixed city,” according to the definition by the Central Bureau of Statistics, is one where at least 10% of the residents are registered as Arabs.

The Azizas are actually emblematic of a trend: middle-class Arabs moving into Jewish cities and neighborhoods. They can’t build in Arab cities and towns because of discriminatory planning and construction policies. Also, a lot of space in these places is taken up by single-family homes built on private land, rather than multifamily high-rises.

Also, the dream of a private house with a garden – for example in residential neighborhoods being developed in moshavim and kibbutzim – is out of the question because of a 2011 law letting small communities filter applicants by their “suitability to the sociocultural fabric” and “community life.”

In fact, middle-class Arabs have been migrating to Jewish towns and areas for over a decade. They’re more educated than their parents’ generation following the higher-education revolution of the 1990s and 2000s in the Arab community, and they seek a better quality of life, just like their Jewish peers.

This is what’s happening in Afula, for example, where 43 Arab families won a tender from the Israel Land Authority to build houses, provoking objections by city residents.

Some 16,000 Arabs are estimated to be living in 16 cities not officially defined as mixed, or in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods of big cities such as Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. And the cities Upper Nazareth and Ma’alot Tarshiha have been reclassified as mixed over the past decade.

Nitzan Shorer

Murky stats

Cities already defined as mixed include Ramle, Lod, Jaffa, Acre and Haifa. According to statistics from 2012, the most recent available, 19.2% of the residents of Upper Nazareth were Arab, though unofficial estimates put the figure closer to 30%. One reason for the murkiness is that many Arabs migrating to cities don’t change their official address, for whatever reason.

The official Arab population of Carmiel is just 2.5%, but this town too has seen heavy migration and sociologists say the real figure could be between 10% and 15%. In Be’er Sheva,15% of the population is Arab.

Dr. Rassem Khamaisi of the University of Haifa says the migration to Carmiel consists of young people from the neighboring towns.

“Most of the Arab community would prefer to live in quality Arab towns, but since nothing is available, they move to the nearest possibility, which is usually a development town,” he says. “These young people also want to live in a quality urban society, more open and more achievement-oriented. This is also the model in Upper Nazareth.”

Other reasons for the migration are processes in Arab society, such as educated people’s desire to get away from the traditional environment where they grew up. “The influence of the original families in Arab societies has lessened,” says Dr. Aziz Haidar, a sociologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Van Leer Institute.

“Studies have proved that the more distanced the young families are from the original family, the more individual they feel. Young families want quiet and privacy that they can only find in the bigger urban space.”

That lifestyle is particularly characteristic of Tel Aviv, where there are fewer Arab families than in northern cities. A given building might have one. It’s no coincidence, says Haidar.

“Arabs moving to Tel Aviv aren’t looking for community life, and they don’t want to stand out. They’re scattered almost all around the city, though concentrations are higher in areas like Ramat Aviv and Givatayim. According to our study, almost half the Arab families living in Tel Aviv are the only one in their building,” Haidar says.

“That means they want to be more involved in city life, in culture and society, not community life. These families are attracted to Tel Aviv for the same reasons other families are – because of the employment opportunities, the quality of services and everything else the city offers.”

Jewish flight

Dr. Manal Totry-Jubran of the University of Haifa law faculty studied the topic for her doctorate on mixed cities taking form.

Manal Totry-Jubran and her family.
Rami Shllush

“Since there is very little supply and a lot of demand, members of the community also buy at higher prices. What happened in Afula looks from the outside like something organized. Nothing like that has happened before, just a gradual process of one family and another family,” she says.

“In some neighborhoods in Israel, something has been happening like what’s been happening in the U.S. with blacks moving into white areas, leading whites to move out. Thus Jews slowly leave neighborhoods that Arabs move into. But there’s a difference because in some cases, Arabs enter an elite neighborhood and even boost its prestige.”

Totry-Jubran has lived in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Haifa for 15 years with her husband and three children. Only one other Arab family lives on their street in Ramat Tishbi, she adds. She grew up in Haifa’s Lower City, once a mixed neighborhood and now exclusively Arab.

“I live in a quiet, spacious neighborhood far from the density typical of the Arab areas in the city,” Totry-Jubran says. “The kids are at the age of school- and after-school activities. My older son plays soccer at the Leo Baeck school, but most of the after-school activities and schooling is in the Arab environment.”

The neighborhoods high on Haifa’s Mount Carmel are predominantly Jewish. Halfway up the French Carmel neighborhood is now about half Arab.

A women who requested anonymity moved with her family to a Jewish area of Haifa not necessarily because she wanted to live in a Jewish neighborhood, but because wanted to live in a nice neighborhood.

“We’re busy people and intensive social contacts in our busy day-to-day life don’t suit us,” she says. We also like to have fun, we like culture, so it suits us to live here.” She also likes the quiet on Saturday mornings and the special atmosphere of Friday afternoons, she says.

As a kid Arieh Tsilik, a former head of the Upper Nazareth education department, was one of the first residents of that city, which Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion established in the ‘50s to create a Jewish presence between Wadi Ara and the eastern Galilee. Tsilik favors the Arab migration.

“I don’t expect them to stand for the anthem or on Memorial Day, but we can live together. This week I was at the supermarket and was very moved to see Arabs and Jews lighting candles together,” he says.

“I think there’s nothing wrong with the Arab migration. On the contrary, they boost economic growth and development, as the Russian aliyah did in the ‘90s. The Israeli government didn’t let them develop. Nazareth didn’t develop. They began to buy housing here.”

Bilingual preschool in Jerusalem

Tsilik lives in the city’s best neighborhood and estimates that 80% of its residents are Arab, mostly Christian.

He says that during times like last year’s Gaza war, tensions rise. And even in normal times, Tsilik and other Jewish residents don’t like it when Arab driving instructors come to the neighborhood to teach. He understands the convenience because the roads in the villages are unworkable, but the racket takes the rest out of Shabbat, he says.

Jerusalem also attracts Arab migration, notably students from the north coming to study at the Hebrew University. The story in the capital is more complicated because Arabs in East Jerusalem are often considered West Bank Arabs while those from the Galilee are Israeli Arabs.

Many Arabs visit the French Hill neighborhood, mainly from the nearby Isawiyah neighborhood for supermarket shopping and similar jaunts. But most of the roughly 50 Arab families in the neighborhood came from the Galilee. Many are couples who met at university and stayed in Jerusalem.

Basma and Said Ghalia bought an apartment in French Hill three years ago. She’s a physiotherapist and Said owns a law firm in the city center. They moved there from Beit Hanina, a Palestinian village north of French Hill.

For all the proximity, the two neighborhoods are different in every way; Basma says “it’s a completely different quality of life.” It’s near the city center, whereas a trip from Beit Hanina to the center takes an hour.

Beit Hanina has no parks and the infrastructure is inferior. The houses look great but there are no sidewalks. Garbage is collected every two weeks or every month. Sometimes kids burn the garbage, which stinks, but Beit Hanina is still the best neighborhood in East Jerusalem, she adds.

“I’m a good citizen. I pay taxes and I want to feel that I get what’s right in return,” she says. “In French Hill, I feel I get it – the trees are trimmed. When you go to the community center there’s always an answer and the people are very nice.”

Their children go to the American school in Beit Hanina; none of the local schools teach proper Arabic. Education is a huge issue for Arabs moving to Jewish areas. Usually they wind up sending their kids to nearby towns so they can study in Arabic.

The new mixed cities such as Upper Nazareth with its 20% Arab population have no Arab schools. In Upper Nazareth it’s because of the municipality’s opposition, led by (suspended) Mayor Shimon Gapso, who says Upper Nazareth is a Jewish city so no Arab school will be established.

Nor are the community centers equipped to handle Arabs, especially young children who don’t yet speak Hebrew.

Carmiel is estimated to have 8,000 Arab residents and has no Arabic-language schools. The municipality can shelter behind the claim that it has only 2,000 registered Arab residents; other Arabs are registered in surrounding villages.

Four years ago, Arab residents in Upper Nazareth demanded a school; their plea reached the Knesset Education Committee, but it remains on paper.

“This city is kind of like a hotel for us,” says Zahra Aziza. “We come home, sleep and eat, but our whole life, all the services we need, are in Nazareth,” says Zahra Aziza.

“Just this year, for the first time, I placed the older boy in a judo class near our home, with children who speak Russian and Hebrew. Unfortunately, he hasn’t really found his feet there.”