The Lost Tribes: How Gentrification Decimated Israel's Original Ethnic Communities and Neighborhoods

Seen many carcasses in Manhattan's Meatpacking District recently? Well, there's a similar problem in ethnic Israeli neighborhoods.

The world used to be a simpler place, or so we like to believe. People lived next to people who were like them, and Israel was divided into ethnic communities, each one having its own neighborhood to itself.

What is unique about Israel is the speed with which this ethnic division has disappeared. Over the years, once distinct ethnic groups melted into Israeli society and little remains of neighborhoods that once had distinctly ethnic characters except the names given to some of them. In Tel Aviv’s Kerem Hateimanim (Yemenite’s Vineyard), you will find few Yemenite Jews today. Most of the Greeks fled Jerusalem’s Greek Colony back in 1948. Next door, in the German Colony, few German Templers – the group that founded the neighborhood – have been seen in decades. In Netanya’s Shikun Romanim (Romanian Neighborhood), today you’ll mostly find Yemenite Jews.

“This process of Israelification – the pouring, mixing and stirring of all the ethnic groups – is much faster in Israel than all other countries of immigrants,” says Maoz Azaryahu, associate professor of cultural geography at Haifa University. “That’s why neighborhoods like Kerem Hateimanim in Tel Aviv or other neighborhoods of an ethnic hue lost their character within just one generation. It’s pretty amazing to see.”

According to Azaryahu, the ultimate determinant of neighborhoods’ inhabitants today is money. In rural cooperatives, he says, the ethnic divisions were clear and distinct, and have been partially preserved. In cities, however, the phenomenon of ethnic neighborhoods has disappeared almost entirely.

“In the face of the changes, the new neighborhoods and the organizational dynamics of today, there is no chance of ethnic character being preserved,” says Azaryahu. “The future belongs to young couples and three-bedroom family apartments to urban quality of life. Ethnic identity is, at best, part of the folklore.”

To find the ethnic remnants of these neighborhoods before they are wiped out by gentrification, we visited them to find where the Yemenites, Greeks and others who helped give these neighborhoods their character are hiding.

“People always ask me, ‘How many Greeks are left in the Greek Colony?’ and I answer, ‘Don’t worry, we have a minyan’ [a Jewish prayer quorum of 10 individuals],” says Anistas Damianos, chairman of the committee responsible for the Greek community in Jerusalem.

Momentos of the past

He is standing at the entrance to the club belonging to the city’s Greek community, which is comprised of five buildings that are the focal point of the greatly reduced community’s cultural life. Throughout the compound, mementos can be found of the rich history of the community.

In the club’s central hall, two boards commemorate the names of community members who enlisted with the forces of fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini during World War II and were killed in battle. In the courtyard, there is a small plaza where the patriotic singer Sofia Vembo performed to raise the morale of British officers.

The Greek Colony was founded in 1900 by members of Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox community seeking to escape the crowded conditions of the Old City’s Christian Quarter at the initiative of Archimandrite Euphthymios, who was in charge of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for two decades.

The neighborhood has seen many ups and downs over the years.

Most of the original Greek Orthodox inhabitants fled with the outbreak of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. After the war, many of these inhabitants could not return because they found themselves on the wrong side of a divided land and instead immigrated elsewhere. In a very short space of time, Jewish immigrants from Yemen and Morocco moved into the neighborhood. Additions and hastily constructed apartment blocks were built, ruining the facade of some of the homes. The neighborhood became a distressed, poverty-stricken place.The neighborhood’s long-time residents – most of them descendants of Yemenite immigrants – are dealing with a different twist of fate now. The neighborhood has become one of the most expensive in Jerusalem, along with the adjacent German Colony, and is a favorite destination for French and American immigrants.

“It really changes the neighborhood,” says one of the residents, a daughter of a Yemenite family that moved to the neighborhood decades earlier. “You see this house? Its rent is 10,000 shekels ($2,868) [per month].”

Even if very few Greeks are left in the Greek Colony, that doesn’t mean the community center lacks vitality. On Tuesday evenings, two Greek dancing groups meet. In the old shack that belonged to the Greek Scouts, they teach Greek. There are songs and nights with traditional Greek dancing. However, the people celebrating Greek culture are not necessarily Greek.

“Almost no Greeks come – maybe one or two,” says Damianos. “All the rest are Israelis. Sixty to 70 people come, and it’s really a club full of familiar faces.”

Damianos is a third-generation resident in the Holy Land. Before reaching retirement age, he was a supervisor for Arab-language instruction in the Education Ministry. He says the community is also in the process of opening a café one or two days a week, on a trial basis, to let tourists experience Greek culture.

“Those with means want to have a toehold here, and the simple people who suffered through the bad periods had to clear out their homes and go elsewhere,” says Damianos. “I pray that they won’t change the preservation laws and that the place will preserve its character.”

Among Israel’s former ethnic neighborhoods, Tel Aviv’s Kerem Hateimanim is a perfect example of a neighborhood that has undergone, and is still experiencing, gentrification. The picturesque neighborhood in south Tel Aviv boasts narrow alleyways, low-rise buildings, abutting homes and the Carmel Market next door. There are still a number of restaurants in the neighborhood that serve traditional Yemenite food, but most of the Yemenite inhabitants have been replaced by French and other foreign residents, who bought apartments in the neighborhood as investments.

Enter property developers

In recent years, property developers have swooped in on any property they could lay their hands on. Last July, a preserved building in the neighborhood was sold for 17 million shekels. The investment in the neighborhood’s real estate and the transformation of its population is turning it into the next Neveh Tzedek (the adjacent old Tel Aviv neighborhood that has already been gentrified and is home to a large number of foreign-owned luxury vacation apartments).

“My father bought this home,” says Geula Natan in her one-story house. “It was in 1933, I think, or maybe earlier. [It was] a long time ago, anyway.” Her home is one of the last authentic homes left in the neighborhood – those that were built with cheap materials like wooden beams and tin roofing, a reminder of the original inhabitants’ poverty.

Natan has to push away the offers of property developers and investors pressuring her to sell. “Once, it really was a vineyard,” she recalls. “There were grape vines … we would sit outside and eat outside. But then people left because the apartments here are small.”

Nevertheless, there are those who return. One such person is Avshalom Ratzabi, a pensioner and former Hebrew lecturer at Haifa University. He returned several years ago to live in the building that his father bought decades ago from Geula Cohen, the journalist and Knesset member. “From the old neighborhood, 50-60 people remain,” he says. “I remember the Kerem from my youth. Then there was no street lighting, the roads were unpaved and the streets had no names … To this day, I can’t see how to get to this street or that one because it still isn’t in my head. It was hard, especially in the winter, but it was a pleasure to live here.”

Ratzabi, too, must keep the developers at bay. “Everyone says, ‘I’m giving you the best price, no one will give a better price than me.’ I tell them I’m not selling.”

Eyal Toueg
Eyal Toueg