The Haifa Neighborhood That Came to Symbolize Dispossession, First of Palestinians, Then of Jews

A new exhibition tells the story of Haifa’s Wadi Salib neighborhood, an icon of the Mizrahi struggle in Israel

Residents of Wadi Salib demonstrate at Haifa police headquarters, July 9, 1959. All the protests were suppressed.
Avraham Halpert, Israel Police

From the end of the 19th century, the Wadi Salib neighborhood in Haifa was a lively, vibrant place with an extensive community life. But a process of deterioration began in the 1950s, and the area was wracked by conflict, leading to widespread protests known as the Wadi Salib revolt in July 1959. A new exhibition at the Haifa City Museum recounts the history of the neighborhood and the “Wadi Salib events,” which became a symbol of the Mizrahi struggle in Israel.

In the words of the Etzioni Commission’s report on the revolt, the area had become “a poverty-stricken neighborhood, densely populated, ... with buildings pressed and squeezed against each other and some built on top of one another, twisting alleys mostly with steep steps ... [residents lived] in “congested, dark buildings, some of them hovels unfit for human habitation.”

Like many significant historical episodes, the revolt was triggered by a seemingly random occurrence. A local man, Akiva Elkarif, got drunk and staggerd from one café to the next, smashing bottles and running amok. Someone called the police. Officers arrived and shot him and Elkarif was left paralyzed in both legs. The date was July 8, 1959.

A rumor spread that Elkarif had died, and a violent protest broke out, lasting from that evening until the next day. There were demonstrations, property was damaged in the affluent Hadar Hacarmel neighborhood adjacent to Wadi Salib, streets were barricaded, cars were torched and buildings belonging to Mapai, Israel’s ruling party (and forerunner of Labor) were attacked.

At first police tried to negotiate with the protesters, but in short order they entered the neighborhood, armed and with reinforcements, broke into homes and left a trail of violence. They arrested the leaders of the protest – David Ben-Haroush, Haim Maman, Naftali Sabag and Yosef Shem-Tov – along with hundreds of neighborhood residents. But the protest had already spread. Solidarity demonstrations were held in nearby Tel Hanan, in Acre, Kiryat Shemona, Be’er Sheva and Jerusalem.

The Wadi Salib revolt was not the first uprising by Mizrahim – Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin. “There were hundreds of struggles before 1959,” says Galia Aviani, a feminist and political activist and the exhibition’s curator. “There were hunger strikes, demonstrations in Tel Aviv, protests in the transit camps. Iraqi communists led many of the struggles, but they were not alone; there was also cooperation with Palestinians. All the protests were suppressed with a heavy hand and labeled ‘rioting with a criminal background.’”

According to Inbar Dror Lax, the curator of the Haifa City Museum, conditions for these protests, and specifically in Wadi Salib, had been brewing for more than a decade. “Poorly paid seasonal work [for residents] for only a day or two a week, the flimsy infrastructure, a high rate of school dropouts, all contributed to the genuine distress of the neighborhood’s residents. At the same time, local folk liked the neighborhood. They didn’t want to leave; they wanted conditions to be improved.”

In the late 1950s, approximately 20,000 Jews lived in Wadi Salib. Until 1948, the neighborhood was home to about 4,500 Palestinians, many of them among the elite of Haifa – wealthy merchants, intellectuals, writers, former mayors. After the neighborhood emptied out in April 1948, on the eve of Israel’s War of Independence, only about 10 Arab families remained, comprising 170 people. Holocaust survivors entered empty homes as the establishment looked the other way, and in the 1950s, immigrants from Morocco streamed in. Under the Absentees’ Property Law, the homes were transferred to the Development Authority, the Israel Lands Administration and Amidar, a public-housing company.

The 1959 protest was aimed mainly at Mapai institutions, Aviani says. “Mapai tried in all sorts of ways, including violence, to suppress the struggle. There was an attempt to buy off leaders of the protest – it was suggested that they join the party, for example. The establishment also initiated ‘Operation Star,’ in which undercover police spied on political activists with the aid of local residents who collaborated with them in return for housing and employment. “Mapai controlled everything, [including] the budgets,” Aviani says. “Maki [the Communist Party] and Menachem Begin’s Herut were the only two political forces of the time that supported the Mizrahi struggle.”

Wadi Salib, 1950s.
Amiram Arav

It was the first time a protest of this kind led to the creation of a commission of inquiry, Dror Lax notes. However, the commission, appointed about 10 days after the events and headed by Supreme Court Justice Moshe Etzioni, did not blame anyone except the organizers and participants in the protest actions. Its report spoke of a “feeling” of discrimination and prejudice among neighborhood residents, but asserted that “deliberate discrimination on the part of the state and national institutions does not exist.” Its most dramatic recommendation was that the neighborhood should be evacuated, as it was deemed unfit for habitation.

“It’s a neighborhood whose existence no one wanted,” Aviani says. “It was a Mizrahi enclave in a very Ashkenazi city. Hadar Hacarmel was the Jewish-Ashkenazi magnum opus, a very well planned and orderly neighborhood, with gardens and electric power, and right below it, masses of people no one knew how to digest.”

Regime of fear

The population of Wadi Salib was largely of Moroccan origin, though there were also immigrants from other North African countries, as well as Poles, Romanians, native-born Sephardim and Palestinians. Many of those who were brought in during the selective aliyah of 1954-56 directly from cities in Morocco to frontier farming communities, had since moved to Wadi Salib. “It was a place of shelter from the regimentation,” Aviani says. “People fled from transit camps, from [cooperative rural] moshavim, to Wadi Salib. It was a place of freedom, a city of a kind they were familiar with.”

But the Mapai regime took note of this turn of events and took measures. Aviani: “It was a regime of fear. People who left the moshavim at their own initiative, without authorization, could not get ration cards or make a living. They were marked. The Egged bus cooperative was instructed not to allow entire families to board a bus.” But they reached Wadi Salib nonetheless.

This unknown history of the neighborhood and its residents is told in an exhibition from below, through the voices of the people. “There is a disparity between the very good memories of people who lived in the neighborhood – who are today 60, 70, 80 – and the difficulties of life there, and of course the way they were perceived and talked about,” Aviani notes. “With all the difficulties, the neighborhood possessed community resilience,” she adds. “For many of the residents, the dispersal of the neighborhood’s inhabitants was an expulsion.”

From 1959 until the late 1980s, all the neighborhood’s residents were evacuated from their homes. “The local Mapai establishment said: Not only will we disperse them, we will also divide them so that they will not be a united group,” says Dror Lax. “From the residents’ perspective it was a catastrophe. Actually, a communal and spiritual center was destroyed. There were many synagogues there, a Turkish bath house, and a very meaningful community life. They were transferred to nondescript neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city in a period of inadequate public transportation. Neighborhoods without synagogues or cafés, far from the city they knew, far from everything.”

Aviani has been engaged with Wadi Salib for years as part of her political activity. “Did you manage to see the neighborhood before it was demolished?” she asks me. I hadn’t. “It was something rare: you’re in the heart of the city and you have hundreds of abandoned Palestinian homes. You hardly find that in Israel – homes of Palestinians standing empty for 50-60 years.” The neighborhood’s demolition began in the 1990s; the last homes were razed in 2014.

The voices of the residents, testimonies, documents and historic photographs from the archive of Oskar Tauber enabled the curators, with the aid of academic consultant Dr. Yali Hashash, to create a timeline of the neighborhood from 1947 to the present day. “Many questions came up on the part of the Jewish residents with whom I spoke about the date at which I would start the story,” Aviani relates. “I told them that I was going to tell the story of the neighborhood and the place. The focus would be on them, but the story is wider. The timeline makes reference to the physical space that was at first Palestinian; there’s reference to the Nakba, and then to the immigrants, who settled there in all kinds of ways. There are actually many cases of Mizrahim arriving at abandoned Palestinian property, and that is something that needs to be talked about.

Wadi Salib, 2017.
Eyal Toueg

“The story of Wadi Salib, if told from every angle, contains all the conflicts,” Aviani continues, and adds that it’s also an opening to a subject that’s not commonly talked about: Mizrahim vs. Palestinians. “The people who lived in these homes couldn’t return, and others came out of distress. That space between Palestinians and Mizrahim merits discussion. I felt that in some places it was a threat to people, but I hope the exhibition will arouse people’s awareness and not threaten them.”

It has been five years since the neighborhood’s ruins were cleared away. “That was more painful than seeing the destruction,” Aviani says. “The destruction said something, generated questions, but this erasure – it’s like the neighborhood never was.”

This last layer of the timeline – capitalism and the world of real estate – is also part of the exhibition. “We have built a model of the neighborhood that shows three layers: Palestinians, Mizrahim and real estate investors,” Aviani explains. Nearly all of the hundreds of houses were leveled, apart from a tiny fraction, “which are supposed to be artists’ houses,” she says, “without a trace of what was there, of any of the communities that existed there.”

Beyond the gentrification process, which is widespread in Israel, the story of Wadi Salib is also more relevant to the present than ever before.

“A Black Flag in a Red City: Wadi Salib 1948-2019,” Haifa City Museum, 11 Sderot Ben-Gurion, phone 04-9115888; Sun-Wed 10.00-16.00, Thu 16.00-19.00, Fri 10.00-13.00, Sat 10.00-15.00; until May 2, 2020