Locked in Rage

Letter From an Israeli Town Under Siege

Abou El Afia is the "don" of Jaffa; his stores are institutions. People swear his bread is the best in the country, and horns are always honking outside his stores because of the people who double or even triple park to rush in and buy. He closes on Yom Kippur, "out of respect for my Jewish friends," and shuts his doors during Passover to respect those who can't eat bread. Everyone loves him. But now that there are problems, he's the first to be boycotted.

"I feel awful, I really feel awful," said Ilana Goor, an Israeli artist who made it big in the United States with her iron furniture designs before coming home. Her museum/house in Potemkin Village called Old Jaffa is the number-one tourist attraction in the area, and every visiting head of state pays a visit. There aren't any crowds there today.

"People don't come to Jaffa because they want to punish the Arabs," Goor said. "They haven't come for two weeks. Because of the few that were animals, the rest have to suffer. But we Jews have animals too—we aren't so great either."

Local merchants in a Jaffa market
photo: Staci Schwartz
Local merchants in a Jaffa market

The rumors about both the burned synagogue, which sparked rioting by Jews, and the destroyed mosque, which pulled Arabs into the streets, turn out to be untrue, though police say there were attempts on both. Goor is not amused. "Television feeds people with what they want—hysteria," she said. "They make it worse. I love Jaffa and I'm sick about what's happening."

Elan Pivco, Israel's premier architect, feels the same way. "There is a sweetness to life in Jaffa," said Pivco, who has lived in the neighborhood for 16 years. "Here, you get a sense of a real place, a real town with strata of history. There are so many good things like the sea, the beauty, the mixture of living near a big city but still living in a village. It's not hectic like Tel Aviv, but it's only seven minutes from the center of Tel Aviv. And there are old stones—these things make it full of magic," he said.

Pivco specializes in Jaffa, restoring lovely buildings to their former grandeur and blending his new projects into the prevailing style. He is credited with making Jaffa in with the in crowd. "Living in Jaffa is more than pleasant," Pivco said. "It is the only place in Tel Aviv that you have demographic variety—Christians, Jews, Muslims. There is more depth to life, more quality. It is more aesthetic than Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv has no cosmopolitan side. Jaffa is more Middle Eastern, more Mediterranean, both things that I cherish.

"The trouble was started by a few young hoodlums who don't really represent the mood of the Arab community," Pivco said. "It was blown out of proportion. A lot of rumors were going about. It was just one or two riots by hoodlums. It will take a while, but it will go slowly back to what it was."

He might be right. When the pollsters asked Jaffa residents about the future, 54 percent of the Jews and 83 percent of the Arabs said we would soon be back to peaceful coexistence. But 61 percent of the Arab population felt that the behavior of Jaffa Arabs during the crisis was justified. Questioned about the cause of the initial violence, 39 percent pointed to Sharon's visit to the mosque and 7 percent cited feelings of discrimination.

"There is discrimination," said Hassan Abou Kaoud, 34, who has lived in Jaffa since he was born. "We feel discriminated against—not so much socially as economically. If I apply for a job, I believe that 99 percent because of my name, I will not be accepted. This makes me feel very bad. They look at us as if we are a low-level group. I have to work twice as hard as Jewish people do to prove that I am . . . normal, let me put it that way. I always have to be tested to prove myself."

Michael Roee, vice mayor of Tel Aviv Jaffa, has lived in Jaffa since 1993 and is an ardent campaigner against such discrimination. "I bought my house in the last year that it was possible to buy here at normal prices," Roee said. "In 1995, when all the renovation started, prices became prohibitive. No one with a normal salary can afford to buy here now."

And that is one of the simmering problems. As wealthy Jews and Arabs have bought up the sea-view land, prices have skyrocketed, and the poor Arabs of Jaffa can no longer afford to buy or build apartments for their children.

Roee ticked off a list of things that have caused the Arabs of Jaffa to feel discriminated against. For decades, the government failed to invest in overcrowded, understaffed Arab schools or in Jaffa's infrastructure. Planning in Jaffa was put on hold and people were not given permits to build. The neighborhood began to look like a crumbling wasteland.

While the citizens of North Tel Aviv scored 95 points out of 100 on the government's scale of socioeconomic well-being, Jaffa's rated 4. "Combine all these factors," Roee said, "and you have a ticking bomb."

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