Opinion

Don't Be Fooled by Its Israeli Jewish Gentrification - Jaffa Largely Remains an Occupied Military Zone

Israeli Jews seeking 'authenticity' drove up home prices in disadvantaged Arab neighborhoods of the city, and now it's blowing up in their faces

Gentrification in Jaffa, Israel.
Tomer Appelbaum

Some of my best friends live in Jaffa. Some of them decided to be pioneers there when Tel Aviv became too expensive. As exiles from Tel Aviv, they have integrated well into their new environment, or at least they think they have. In the morning they eat hummus at Abu Hassan’s and buy faqqus at the corner produce store. Five years ago, who knew from faqqus? Israeli Jews in the know peel, dice this relative of the muskmelon, also known as snake melon or Armenian cucumber, into their salads in order to feel like locals.

Palestinian babies come into the world clutching a faqqus in their tiny fists. I was born clutching a boiled beet, for cold borscht with sour cream. I too have the right to eat faqqus, but I wouldn’t fight for that right. The natives here ate faqqus for centuries before I arrived. I never forget that when I dice one of these hairy cukes before sprinkling on olive oil, salt and lemon juice.

I have friends who have bought apartments in Jaffa. They are part of the gentrification process. I wouldn’t buy an apartment in Jaffa. Mainly because I can’t afford one, but also on principle. Jaffa has become irrationally expensive over the past few years. Israeli Jews are coming in and buying penthouse and duplex apartments, en masse. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There’s nothing wrong with a Palestinian who lives in the Ajami neighborhood selling, for a few million dollars, the crumbling house he inherited from his grandparents to some Israeli Jew who made his fortune in high-tech; he gets to survive the Nakba and profit at the Jews’ expense at the same time. It’s the ultimate revenge.

I know people who have moved to Jaffa in order to feel “authentic.” They’re fed up with the fakery of Tel Aviv, a city of plastic and metal that is increasingly turning its back on regular folks in favor of luxury high-rises. Jaffa, as everyone knows, has “real” people. If you prick them, do they not bleed? If you prick someone on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, they’ll probably bleed dollars. In Jaffa, one can still smell the nostalgia of the stone buildings and the old neighborhood, undisturbed by rapacious capitalism.

True, there are more and more doorman buildings. But this is still Jaffa, in the words of the old song. And it satisfies the orientalist fantasy of a Mediterranean urban space, where the past and the present blow through together, like a warm deser wind. And the kaffiyeh shall dwell with the iPad. But not too much kaffiyeh, please. There is a limit to what iPad owners can take.

Clashes erupted between Jaffa residents and police on July 29 2017 after police shot and killed one young Arab man and moderately wounded another. Police say the two were fleeing the scene of a previous shooting. Rioters burned tires in Jaffa streets.
Tomer Appelbaum

Jaffa has become a lifestyle. Restaurants open in the Flea Market at a frantic pace. The newest trend is Greek restaurants on the shore. Have no fear, Jaffa won’t turn into Crete. Though one could dream about that, too. American tourists stroll through the lanes where only a year or two ago alley cats pawed through the garbage. The Jews are pleased. Way too pleased. They are self-confident, financially and personal. Too confident.

They think this is how it should be, how it always has been. As though Jaffa was born the moment the first tapas bar opened its doors. This ahistorical attitude is typically Israeli. Money and real estate impart a false sense of ownership, shoving out anyone who isn’t part of the game. Jaffa’s Arabs are being marginalized. They don’t go to the fancy restaurants to drink expensive cocktails. They simply subsist, as they have always subsisted. Outside of the new sources of power that have sprung up under their noses.

But even within this ostensibly flexible and improved reality, some things never change. This had to explode, and it has. There is a match floating over the luxury homes, and it’s only a matter of time before someone comes along and lights it.

You bought an ocean-view penthouse in Jaffa? Be aware that it came with a powder keg. It’s not the coexistence that will explode. Coexistence is a hollow, meaningless word. People who live together don’t talk about coexistence. They simply live. Coexistence is a word used by deceptive politicians, and the last thing they want is for Arabs and Jews to get along. What will explode in Jaffa is the mistaken assumption that Jews can live their lives, pursue their “lifestyles” in peace and economic prosperity while Arabs suffer from oppression at the hands of the establishment. This, of course, is not true only in Jaffa. All of Israel is built on this lie. On closing one’s eyes. Israelis have learned to see the world through closed eyes.

We owe a thank you to the Israel Police, for once again opening our eyes and forcing us to see the real power relations clearly. On July 29, police shot and killed Mahdi Sa’adi, 20, during a pursuit. He was not a threat to them, and of course they wouldn’t have shot a Jewish man in the same circumstances. But the random killing of Arab citizens is nearly official policy of the police (and definitely of the army). This is not something that merits much discussion. Tacit agreement. Dear Jews, we will kill Arabs the way you kill flies while giving you a warm feeling of trust in the power of the state. Good deal, no?

Did you think Jaffa became a sleepy, bourgeois seaside resort, fragrant with sweet Arab pastries and coffee with cardamom? Only in your most Jewish dreams. In a day or two, riots will erupt and SWAT teams will take control of the streets. What was it that a close friend said? “It’s like in Gaza,” she said. Yes, dear, it’s like in Gaza. Why shouldn’t it be like in Gaza? The occupation is creeping. In a place where Arabs live, they immediately apply what Alex in “A Clockwork Orange” called “ultraviolence.” They aren’t going to send in Luis de Funès-style neighborhood cops, even though we all know the Israel Police is an inept organization. It isn’t, though. They dispatch SWAT teams and Border Police to Jaffa — not to calm things down, but rather to stir things up. To show who’s boss. Jaffa is not Tel Aviv. To a large extent, it has remained an occupied military zone, as in 1948. Mayor Ron Huldai has no authority there. In times of crisis, the police chiefs show what they really think about Jaffa: It is de facto enemy territory. Can you blame the residents who riot and burn garbage cans? Each one could be the next to get a bullet in the head. What of the guy in high-tech who paid $2.5 million for a rooftop apartment overlooking the beach? He’s bummed that SUVs are blocking his route to his favorite hummus and grilled meat places on Yefet Street.

Relax, pal. Have some ful and kebab and wait for things to calm down.

Welcome to the jungle.