Al Jazeera English, March 11, 2011
Yafit Cohen is a wife and mother of four – her youngest child is just a few months old. Cohen makes her way up the stairs, slowly, easing her baby carriage around a gaping hole. “Watch out,” she says to me.
I look down. I can easily imagine her 8-year-old son, a talkative little boy who has raced ahead, falling through. I gasp at the thought.
“I know. It’s dangerous,” Cohen says, adding: “And it’s not legal.”
Cohen, a Jewish Israeli, lives in low-income, subsidised housing. Worried that her children, or those of her Palestinian neighbours, could be injured or killed, she has asked the state to fix the stairs. They have not.
What the state is working on, however, is making Cohen and her family homeless. The housing authority wants to put Cohen, her husband, their four children, her brother-in-law and niece – “eight souls,” as she says – on the street.
Between the two companies that manage public housing – Amidar and Halamish – over 800 Palestinian and Jewish families throughout Yafo and Kfar Shalem, an impoverished neighbourhood in South Tel Aviv, face eviction.
“We have nowhere to go,” Cohen says, explaining that her parents and her siblings are also in dire financial straits.
When I ask Cohen why the state wants her apartment, which is decorated with Israeli flags, she answers: “I have no idea.”
But the second I step inside, I know. The doors might be sagging, but the wood is original, antique. The roof might leak in the winter, but the ceilings are high, elegant. And the walls might have mold, but its windows are capped with pointed arches – trademarks of Arabic architecture.
Once it is repaired, Cohen’s home will make a beautiful, expensive loft apartment. I can already imagine the Orientalist advertisement, over-written and flowery: “In the heart of historic Yafo, a place that evokes the smell of blossoming orange groves and the echoes of shouting spice vendors ….”
Gentrification is happening all over the world. But, like everything in Israel, here it comes with historical baggage and deep political implications.
In 1948, Israel forced some 700,000 Palestinians from their homes. Villages and houses were destroyed. And some of those that remained standing were Hebraicised. The city of Jaffa, for example, was given the Hebrew name Yafo. Salame became Kfar Shalem.
But the young state did more than rename places. It also repopulated them. Both Israel and the Jewish Agency turned over “abandoned” Palestinian properties to poor Jews. Oftentimes, the new residents were Mizrachim (Easterners) – Jews from Arab countries.
Today, some of these Mizrachi families still live in poverty. And now they face eviction as the government sells their homes to the highest bidder.
The state settled Cohen’s grandparents, who immigrated to the then-nascent Israel from Turkey and Iraq, in Yafo. Like her parents, Cohen was born and raised in Yafo, as was her husband. While they do not get along with the Palestinian family downstairs – due to a neighbourly dispute that is personal and not political – Cohen’s husband maintains close relationships with the Palestinians he grew up amongst.
“They’re like brothers,” Cohen says.
But, gentrification is not the only problem in Yafo. Jewish settlers are also moving into the area and holding right-wing rallies. And Cohen’s children are growing up in a much tenser environment than the one she and her husband recall from their childhoods.
Cohen used to let her children play outside but, recently, she has been keeping them indoors.
“Whenever the settlers have a demonstration, [some of the Arab children] start to yell, ‘Get out of here,’ and ‘Jewish trash,’” Cohen says.
At the same time that settlers threaten the delicate relationship between Jews and Palestinians in Yafo, the struggle for housing and dignity is building some new and unusual alliances.
Mizrachim have traditionally leaned to the right, voting for political parties like Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud and the ultra-Orthodox Shas. But a recent protest against home evictions – held in Yafo – found hundreds of Likudniks and Shas supporters standing alongside Palestinians.
While the picture was not entirely rosy – one Jewish Israeli protester refused to speak to Al Jazeera, and asked me, mockingly, if “the Arabs” pay well – the crowd was united around two issues: Poverty and home evictions.
And the anger of some residents was palpable.
Sima, 39, shouts: “[Halamish] wants to throw us from our house. They want to throw us without giving us anything. And we don’t have any money.”
“What are we? Dogs? Cats? What are we?” Her family members tell her to calm down. Sima’s daughter asks that their last name be omitted. A teenage girl, she is less worried about housing, and more concerned that her friends at school might found out that she and her family faces homelessness.
“It’s embarrassing,” she says.
Marsela Edri does not live in Yafo or Kfar Shalem. She came to the protest from Ashdod, about 45 minutes away, because, she says: “This could happen to me.”
“[Home evictions] have taken place in Kfar Shalem, Jerusalem, everywhere in the country,” Edri says.
While many of the protesters – both Jewish and Palestinian – attribute the issue to racism, Edri, who was born in Morocco, points out that the increased concentration of wealth is also a problem. And the role the government plays in this is troublesome.
“There is just the appearance of democracy [in Israel],” Edri says. “This place is a democracy for the people who have cash in their pockets.”
Nava Shanani, 55, invites me to visit on a Saturday. It is Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest that is usually spent with friends and family.
The moment I see Shanani’s stone house, tucked back from the street, I realise that it is not the home that is valuable – her house is one tiny room, a kitchen and a bathroom. It is the land, which the state can sell for a handsome price.
But I can also see that this small place has a lot of history.
“This place was Palestinian?” I ask.
“Of course,” Shanani answers, adding that she does not use the term Palestinian. “They’re Arabs.”
Shanani’s relationship with her home, and its surroundings, is more complicated. She grabs my hand and leads me into the neighbour’s yard, explaining that, before 1948, this was one, large property. She knows the name of the Palestinian family that lived here and she wonders, aloud, what happened to them. She seems saddened by the thought. But she also seems excited to imagine what their lives here must have been like. She uses bits of crumbling architecture to tell the story.
She points at an arch: “They kept their horses here.”
She stands by the remnants of a stone wall and remembers when the state came to tear it out.
“Do you think they did it on purpose like some people say?” Shanani asks. “Do you think they wanted to erase the history?”
“I don’t know,” I say, keeping my opinion to myself.
“I don’t think so,” she says. “But I’m not sure.”
And then she points to the remains of the roof. Claiming that it did not meet the city’s codes, the state removed it a few months ago.
“In the middle of winter,” Shanani says. Now, she lives under tin, held down with rocks.
Shanani’s family story is similar to Cohen’s. Her grandparents came to British Mandate Palestine from Yemen, in 1934. Not long after the 1948 war, the Jewish Agency placed them, and other Mizrachim, in Kfar Shalem.
This is more than her land, Shanani says. “It’s my air.” She was born in the house and both of her parents and one of her brothers died here.
And now the state wants to take it away.
“I voted for Bibi [Netanyahu],” Shanani says. “And where is Bibi now?”
Shanani hints that she might break her family’s long tradition of voting Likud in the next national election. She is a big fan of knesset member Dov Khenin (Hadash), who attended the recent protest in Yafo.
And she voted for Khenin during the municipal elections in 2008, when he led a non-partisan party, Ir LeKulanu (City for All) that was focused, primarily, on housing issues. Although the bid was unsuccessful, Khenin got 34 per cent of the votes and his supporters came from a wide cross-section of Israeli society.
Yudit Ilany, an activist and the community advocate at Darna, the popular committee for housing rights and land allocation, remarks: “People have woken up. They might still have a certain ideology, a Zionist ideology, but at the same time they realise that they’re being screwed over twice – once by the state and once by Shas. They realise that the [Shas] housing minister has not helped at all.”
So will the Mizrachim go out and vote left next time?
“There are people going through this process,” Ilany responds. “They realise that Shas doesn’t do anything, Likud doesn’t do anything. No one is addressing their housing problem. It’s slow and on a small scale, but I think something is happening.”
“People realise they’re being taken for a ride,” Ilany adds. “And they realise that [Palestinians] in Yafo are in the same boat.”
But by the time the next national election comes around, Shanani’s house could be gone, bulldozed to make way for luxury apartment buildings or a college campus.
Shanani, who is currently unemployed, is so impoverished that she cannot pay the lawyer who is helping her fight the eviction. Still, she says: “I don’t want money, I don’t want anything. I just want to stay in my home. That’s it.”
“And I want the people to open their eyes.”
Illustrative photo: Mya Guarnieri. Gentrification threatens impoverished areas of Tel Aviv and Yafo.