Fearing for Jaffa's Coexistence, Residents Fight Effort to Judaize City

Two groups running initiatives that aim to strengthen Jaffa’s Jewish identity have Jewish and Arab residents worried for what they describe as their largely harmonious way of life.

Jews and Arabs demonstrating outside a building in Jaffa where yeshiva students moved in, September 2016.
Moti Milrod

The Garden of the Two is named after Ilanit Ohana, who was stabbed to death by a Palestinian in 1992, and Abdel Ghani Karim, an Israeli Arab who was killed defending her. It’s at one end of Jaffa’s Siona Tagger Street, where there's also a bilingual Jewish-Arab kindergarten. This is a narrow street laden with history, both real and rewritten. 

After standing empty for a long time, house No. 15 in the middle of the street ended up in the possession of the Shirat Moshe Hesder Yeshiva, based over a kilometer away. The building underwent a long restoration, and yeshiva students began living there over the summer. Many veteran Arab residents and more recent Jewish arrivals consider it a dangerous “settlement” designed to destroy their way of life.

George Mansour’s home overlooks Sionna Tagger 15. He says he particularly notices the new neighbors on Friday afternoons, just before Shabbat, when “30 to 40 yeshiva students go out together into the street, some of them with weapons.”

“When the police are here, my son has to show an ID card so he can come home,” Mansour says. “We have no problem with anyone, not with religious families either, but we won’t agree to a change to the existing harmony and status quo.”

In recent weeks, the residents have protested outside the building. Last week Knesset members from left-wing Meretz and the Joint List of Arab parties protested, as did city council members from Meretz and Ir Le’kulanu, whose name translates as City for Us All.

Security cameras have been installed on the building’s facade. You can’t see clearly into the high windows, but you can notice silhouettes filming the demonstrations. One day last week a side window remained open, and you could see a room filled with bunk beds.

The organization that operates the yeshiva dorm, Ma Yafu Pa'amey Bat Zion, works alongside another group, the Torani Community of Jaffa, to run projects and initiatives that aim to strengthen Jaffa’s Jewish identity.

Some 100 students study at the yeshiva, while the Torani Community, made up of about 60 families, runs a college for young women doing national civilian service. These efforts include activities about Judaism in state-run schools, family-counseling centers and a hiking school. Some of these efforts are done in partnership with the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality’s welfare department.

“We know how these organizations try to spread their nests across mixed neighborhoods,” Mansour says. “That’s how it starts. They sow seeds, a stalk starts growing, and soon it’s too late because everyone says it’s a fait accompli. This plant doesn’t suit the ground here. We have a brotherhood like no other in Jaffa. We have to protect it, not undermine it.”

Sabrine Souad, another neighbor, recalls a harsh exchange between yeshiva students and residents a few days earlier.

“They said things like ‘you’ll stay inferior,’ ‘look at the Arab countries – you only live well thanks to us,’ and ‘there’s no PalFestinian people,’” she says. “Good neighbors don’t speak to each other that way. I fear the next step will be that they won’t let us walk freely in the street.”

‘In the spirit of the Torah’

According to neighborhood residents, Arab owners fled the house on Siona Tagger Street in 1948 when Arabs fled Jaffa during Israel’s War for Independence. The building was transferred to the state by the Absentee Property Law and the Amidar Public Housing Authority, which placed two Jewish families in it. They lived there until about a decade ago.

The house then passed through a few owners until an Argentine Jew bought it and apparently transferred it to the yeshiva. A request by this reporter to visit the building was refused, as was a request for a response to a few questions and the neighbors’ comments.

“We operate in the spirit of the Torah, whose paths are peace, despite attempts to harass us and portray us in a negative light,” said the head of the yeshiva, Hanan Hechster. “Everything we do is legal, and our orientation is to increase peace and maintain good neighborly relations.”

The Shirat Moshe Hesder Yehsiva was founded in 2008. On its website, it boasts that its activities in the city stoke “faith among the Jewish residents, injecting forces of growth and Jewish renewal in Jaffa.” The big sign hanging on the yeshiva on Jaffa’s Tolouse Street thanks the American donor Irving Moskowitz, who died in June.

All this is reminiscent of efforts to Judaize East Jerusalem – efforts for which Moskowitz donated a lot. Rabbi Eliyahu Mali, a former head of Jerusalem’s Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva, moved from the West Bank settlement of Beit El to Jaffa to head the Shirat Moshe Yeshiva. His brother, Rabbi Yehuda Mali, is a leader of the right-wing group Elad.

Eliyahu Mali doesn’t give many media interviews, but a long conversation recorded years ago on a religious website provides a peek at his understanding of neighborly relations.

“The city is empty of Jewish content,” Mali said. “There’s an intense spiritual problem here, and our role is to revive the Torah and prayer. [This is part] of the general process to restore the Jewish spirit to cities in the center.”

Meanwhile, the college for young women doing national civilian service is designed to serve as “a hub that will attract Jaffa girls from the mixed schools,” Mali said, adding that efforts were being made to prevent Jewish girls from Jaffa from spending time with Arab boys.

As Mali put it, the status of Jaffa Arabs is that of “resident foreigner.” Also, Mali accused unnamed politicians of inciting local people against the yeshiva.

Two months ago, amid the protest at Siona Tagger Street, the yeshiva head’s lawyer sent a warning to Eitan Shmueli, one of the street’s Jewish residents.

“You have no right to provoke and incite people against yeshiva activities,” he wrote. “If you continue these actions, the appropriate steps will be taken against you, including, but not limited to, lawsuits for restraining orders and financial compensation.”

Attorney Gabi Lasky, a city councilwoman for Meretz, responded that “the letter’s only goal is to threaten and silence the legitimate protest Shmueli is taking part in.”

‘Integration leads to assimilation’

In any case, Mali isn’t fighting alone in Jaffa. “When there are mixed marriages in almost every building in Jaffa, we must strengthen Jewish identity,” a leaflet reads. It calls for support for the Jaffa Torani Community, which is led by rabbis Yuval Alpert and Itay Kramer.

According to the leaflet, “There is on average at least one assimilated family per building. “Some 20 percent of children in Jaffa classrooms are born to mixed marriages, usually Jewish girls with Arabs.”

As Alpert told Haaretz, “We want to instill the local population with the Jewish tradition. This isn’t a declaration against the Arab population. We just want marriages to be solely based on Jewish law and tradition .... There is no doubt that integration in the schools leads to assimilation.”

Meanwhile, the right-wing party Habayit Hayehudi hovers over the two organization’s initiatives. For example, Kramer headed Habayit Hayehudi’s ticket in the municipal elections for Tel Aviv suburb Bat Yam. As part of a plan by the Religious Service Ministry’s Jewish Identity Administration, Alpert was appointed head of Jewish identity efforts in south Tel Aviv. The city opposed his appointment.

Meanwhile, Itay Granek, a senior member of the Torani group, heads Zehut, a body that represents centers for deepening Jewish identity in the state education system. It has received a generous budget increase under the aegis of Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads Habayit Hayehudi.

Alpert’s Jaffa Torani group submitted its last report to the registrar of nonprofit companies in 2014. It shows that the organization received 640,000 shekels ($170,300), two-thirds of it through a number of Education Ministry ordinances, and the rest through the municipality. Sources familiar with the situation say the municipality merely served as a pipeline for funds from the Construction and Housing Ministry.

In 2014, the nonprofit group that operates Mali’s yeshiva and its branches received about 1.5 million shekels from the government, but it did not provide further details. In both cases, funding soared from 2013.

It seems the original residents of Siona Tagger Street have made peace with the government’s support for the Torani groups, whether out of resignation or not.

“It’s hard to understand how they take a residential home designated for conservation and turn it into a hostel for dozens of yeshiva students,” Mansour says. “The municipality knows very well how to inspect a building, but here it seems the settlers are doing almost anything they want.”

According to Lasky, the Meretz councilwoman, newcomers are trying to change the “character of the neighborhood by harming coexistence.”

The Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality, however, says everything is being done aboveboard. “According to the urban building scheme, the building may be used for living. Municipal law enforcers visited the place after the current renovation, and after checking the law did not find anything that exceeded what was permitted,” the municipality said in a statement.

“The city continues to inspect activities at this place to ensure that the use does not exceed what is legally permitted. Even if its use does not look seemly to the city, it is operating within legal authority.”

A municipal official added: “We don’t check how many people live in a private apartment every night. What happens in the house hasn’t reached the stage allowing enforcement. We understand the residents’ disquiet, but this step is tied to a broader issue of Torani groups. We aren’t happy or satisfied with this phenomenon, but our toolkit is limited.”