In Jaffa, Relentless Gentrification Complicates an Already Strained Arab-Jewish Reality

A timely new documentary series stresses the interplay between Jewish-Arab tension and systematic gentrification targeting people ‘of a certain color’ in the oldest part of Tel Aviv

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A scene from the documentary 'The Guide to Gentrification.'
A scene from the documentary series 'The Guide to Gentrification.' 'At a certain point in our research we realized that we’re talking about dispersal of a population and its distancing from the city.Credit: Courtesy Hot8 TV Channel
Eness Elias
Eness Elias
Eness Elias
Eness Elias

The tension that erupted again in the streets of Jaffa last week was not a result of the COVID-19 crisis or localized violence. What is provoking residents of this southernmost part of Tel Aviv to protest are long-term problems for which no solution is in sight: deliberate neglect, an absence of infrastructure, crime, and police violence and over-enforcement, along with a lack of opportunities and a reality in which veteran residents are being squeezed out of their homes.

One of the causes of the protest, largely centering around rising Arab-Jewish tensions in Jaffa, is a plan to sell a building in a traditionally Arab quarter to a yeshiva.

The messages and discourse of the demonstrators are directly in sync with a new documentary, “The Guide to Gentrification,” which deals with various ongoing processes in Jaffa and the systems behind them. The series, created by filmmakers Osnat Trabelsi, Keren Shayo and Lavi Vanounou (and supported by the Rabinovich Foundation for the Arts and the Mifal Hapayis national lottery), is now being aired in three parts on Hot cable TV’s Channel 8.

A scene from 'The Guide to Gentrification.' 'I didn’t realize the scope of the steps constantly being taken against certain people.'Credit: Courtesy Hot8 TV Channel

The term “gentrification,” coined by the late German-British sociologist Ruth Glass, is a negative term that describes a phenomenon of rampant capitalism, whereby members of the middle and upper classes move into impoverished neighborhoods in urban centers, raise the rents and push veteran residents to the outskirts of the cities or to other locales. During this process, sometimes called “urban renewal,” neighborhoods that were once totally neglected suddenly undergo massive improvements in infrastructure and significant changes in the appearance of streets, homes, businesses and public spaces.

But at what price?

“During my childhood there was an incident that was etched in my memory,” Lavi Vanounou tells Haaretz. “I heard shouting, and from the balcony I saw my neighbor in Eilat’s Alef neighborhood standing on the roof with a gas canister and a box cutter, shouting that he was going to cut himself because he was being evicting from his apartment. I was in elementary school and I didn’t understand what was happening, but the trauma was embedded in me and surfaced once again when we started work on our documentary. It’s exactly the same maneuver being used on the same people.”

Keren Shayo adds: “At a certain point in our research we realized that we’re talking about dispersal of a population and its distancing from the city center. And in our case that also includes the Mizrahi residents (of North African and Middle Eastern origin) who arrived in Jaffa in the ‘50s, and in the ‘70s were evacuated to housing projects in the southern part of it. It was very clear which population they wanted to bring and how this method affects weaker, poor people.”

Vanounou notes that “after four-and-a-half years of watching dozens of hours of evictions from all different places, it was amazing to see how such processes always affected the same people of a certain color. We were familiar with the subject from earlier on, too – from the Givat Amal, Ha’argazim and Abu Kabir neighborhoods in Tel Aviv. It’s the same thing. In Ramle and Lod, too. You’ll never see the eviction of an Ashkenazi family (of Eastern European descent). You could say that it’s a coincidence but I don’t think it is. There’s a system here that pushes you to the edge. Even if you wanted to buy [an apartment] they don’t let you. You won’t get a loan to buy a house. There’s a mechanism of poverty here and it has a color too.”

Arab citizens demostrate against the sale of ‘absentee ownership’ properties in Jaffa, this week.Credit: Hadas Parush

Even in Manhattan, Shayo says, “there are areas earmarked for public housing. The government tries to moderate the free market for communities who can’t afford it, in order to give them an opportunity to develop. Even in the most capitalistic city in the world, things work better.”

Vanounou poses a question: “Who decided that only rich people can live along the beach [in Tel Aviv-Jaffa]? The idea is that only one-10th of the population will live from the KKL Interchange to the Wolfson Interchange [from north Tel Aviv through Jaffa] – only the top 10th percentile. In Tel Aviv too there’s an urban continuum from the old north to Yehuda Hayamit Street. Ajami [in Jaffa] became an upper-class neighborhood within a decade.”

Prices and pressures rise

Osnat Trabelsi, the third arm of the team that produced “The Guide to Gentrification,” who decided the series would center around Jaffa, describes the phenomena they focused on: “Not only do housing prices increase due to the influx of a strong population, but the whole cost of living increases. Prices rise because there is now a population with different economic capabilities. The pressure steadily increases. Yet on the other hand, the new residents don’t register their children in the local public schools and don’t really blend into the community among which they now live. In Jaffa people know that if there’s a natural goods shop, a pet store and a hipster café – it’s a Jewish area. I realized that something is happening here that’s changing the city and people’s lives.”

Riots in Jaffa this week.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Shayo: “The subject of ethnicity is always present during gentrification, but in Jaffa there’s also the nationalist story of Jews versus Arabs.”

In 1948, Vanounou adds, “the State of Israel received a city as a gift: The buildings and land in Jaffa constituted 25 percent of all the real estate in the country at the time. That’s a lot of money and a huge amount of assets the state didn’t pay for. To this day, 70 percent of the veteran Arab residents of Jaffa aren’t the owners of the assets; they pay a monthly rent or are protected tenants [who cannot be evicted except under specific conditions]. Anyone who couldn’t afford to be there was forced to leave.”

Trabelsi also stresses the importance of Jaffa as an Arab city, with its cultural infrastructure and educational system – and the hostile attitude toward it on the part of the police. All these are central parts of the local story, and of the documentary as well.

A scene from 'The Guide to Gentrification.'Credit: Courtesy Hot8 TV Channel

“Work on the series made us realize many things” about gentrification and other processes afoot in the city, she says. “The extent to which everything is planned and institutionalized, the extent to which it isn’t only a matter of market forces. I didn’t realize the scope of the steps constantly being taken against certain people.”

Shayo cites a few examples: “The bidding processes, the plans of the Israel Land Authority, the municipal master plans – all these take place above the heads of the protected tenants.”

Of hope and violence

One of the interesting documents the filmmakers found in their research was a 1960s master plan for the Ajami neighborhood, drawn up by architect Itzhak Yashar, including a map with a comment in an elegant handwriting regarding the socioeconomic class of desired tenants in certain areas.

“Someone wrote, in black on white: Here there are residences for well-to-do people, here it’s residences for minorities,” says Shayo. “Suddenly you understand how deliberate this thing is, someone thought of it.”

The precise and defined location of those classes exists to this day in Jaffa, according to the documentarians. The housing situation is steadily deteriorating and eviction of residents continued even during the period of the coronavirus crisis. Vanounou, who studied urban planning, notes that recently public discussion has surfaced on the subject of issuing bids for construction and renovation of buildings and apartments that still house protected tenants.

“We saw this already two years ago,” he says. “But recently there was an accumulation of many bids affecting protected tenants, and demonstrations about the housing situation in Jaffa began. It’s interesting how it will affect the decision makers and what happens on the ground.”

Ajami, the Jaffa neighborhood at the center of the ongoing disputes. Credit: Ilan Assayag

But the ground, as we can see, is burning.

Vanounou says he hopes the series will provoke discussion among locals of the master plan for their neighborhood. At the moment there is no law that requires public participation in planning decisions, beyond the “right to complain,” or to express opposition – which typically takes place after approval of the plans by the relevant bodies.

And in fact, most of the public is not involved in local planning in the country, with the exception of “strong populations in well-to-do communities, one reason being their greater access to information, to relevant professionals and to decision makers” – according to a 2017 report of the Knesset Research and Information Center. As Shayo puts it, “In north Tel Aviv people are very aware of urban planning.”

Vanounou: “That’s how the institutionalized system works. Populations with free time and knowledge also have lawyers and urban planners who can prevent things from taking place in their area.”

For her part, Trabelsi notes that this situation is not “only a matter of knowledge and time, it also concerns a sense of ownership. Who feels that it’s theirs? That they deserve it? [Tel Aviv Mayor] Ron Huldai believes in the survival of the fittest. But inside the buildings there are human beings, there are families. That’s what our documentary shows. The social and political activity of Abed Abu Shehadah, for example, who first of all teaches local children to dream. He asks them: ‘What’s your dream? To work in a hotel that will be built instead of this house – or to be the owner of the hotel?’ If people have hope they won’t be violent.”

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