The City That Turns Its Back

In his book Yahasim Mohlim - which describes the nature of the relationships between Israelis and Palestinians - social geographer Professor Yuval Portugali of Tel Aviv University quotes a passage from Invisible Cities.

Late last Friday evening in Tel Aviv, the streets were more deserted than usual. At the entrances to clubs on Yarkon St., where a few young people had gathered in any case, police cars were parked nearby and policemen armed with sub-machine guns, with the magazines inside the breeches, were standing guard at every corner. Further south, the cafes were filled with only Africans and East Europeans. Jaffa was deserted, and there were no Arabs in sight in Tel Aviv.

In his book Yahasim Mohlim (Implicate Relations: Society and Space in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict) - which describes the nature of the relationships between Israelis and Palestinians based on a study conducted between 1985 and 1995 - social geographer Professor Yuval Portugali of Tel Aviv University quotes a passage from Invisible Cities, a book by the Italian author Italo Calvino, which talks about two cities called Valderada - one built on a lake shore and the other reflected in its waters. "The residents of Valderada know that all their movements are simultaneously real and mirror image."

Portugali's research serves as a fascinating basis for a closer look at both societies, and not just from an academic point of view. From closely following events in many areas - including employment, urban expansion and the development of the settlements - Portugali concluded that Israeli and Palestinian societies are like the two cities in Calvino's book. Not only do they reflect one another, they are also aware of each other's every movement and innermost feelings. (Among other things, Portugali notes the gap between the real and cognitive maps of the two peoples - in the eyes of the Palestinians, the nearby Israeli city is not real, while in the eyes of the settlers, the nearby Arab cities do not exist).

Israelis may view the influence of the peoples as one-sided - that only Israelis affect the Palestinians - but Portugali proves, step by step, how the influence has actually had more of an impact in the other direction. Tel Aviv, as a microcosm of Israeli society, is a good illustration. Until the first intifada, the city was full of Palestinian workers, with some 88 percent of them coming to work in the morning and returning to their homes in the evening. Portugali writes that their villages became the new suburban slums of Tel Aviv, but forgets to mention an important difference. Unlike those living in the poor Jewish neighborhoods, the various colored identity card holders in those villages had no status as citizens - not of Israel or of any other country. About 12 percent of these workers, who were shoved to the bottom of the wage scale, slept in basements or backyards in the city.

Using the reflection as a frame, Portugali depicts how the first intifada and the immigration from the former Soviet Union sidelined the Palestinians, and how the face of the streets of Tel Aviv changed and became filled with laborers (all of whom also had no status as citizens) from the Far East, Africa, South America and Romania. Portugali even goes so far to describe the thinning of urban Tel Aviv compared to Jerusalem (due to security and ideological factors, the foreigners and the flight to outlying areas, which are closed communities with their own security) and the weakening of the outlying areas because of the settlements; but he missed the rise of Shas.

Shas is a reflection of the growing strength of the Islamic extremists at the expense of the Palestinian Authority (which represented modern secular thought) at the foolish encouragement of the Sharon government. The scandalous decision by Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who disdains the decision of the Supreme Court and refuses to register Reform and Conservative converts as Jews, rests on his security and "Jewish" strength, instead of on citizenship, a phenomenon that has become more widespread in the wake of the current intifada. Shas has turned Jewishness into the main asset of the weaker sectors of society, which in the 1980s were afraid of the Palestinian workers and are now panicked by the foreigners. The more the terror attacks and the collapse of the economy intensify, the stronger Shas will become. For the same reason, Shas ministers are the standard bearers for the blurring of the citizenship status of Israeli Arabs.

Ever since Portugali finished his study, the separation between the Israeli and Palestinian societies has deepened. But it is only a theoretical separation. By the end of the 19th century, British society could already see the damage caused by colonialism, not only from an ethical point of view, but also more so from an economic and class point of view. Whoever didn't understand then is learning now that in northern England, the Pakistanis are enraged, and in France the Muslims have won the struggle over the schools. In Israel there is only a small stubborn group that has been warning for years about the cost of the occupation, and even it did not recognize the invisible cost.

Palestinians may not be seen anymore on the streets of Tel Aviv, but the terror and the fear, the foreign workers, the religious extremism and the blurring of citizenship in the face of blatant nationalism - all these are reflected all too well in the face of the city on the edge of the lake, even if it turns its back to the water.