The Arabs Next Door
Thousands of Israeli Arabs are moving into Jewish towns seeking affordable housing and better quality of life. A warm welcome rarely awaits them.
Until a year ago, Tahani Soliman, a 37-year-old Israeli Arab, says she didn’t feel any strong connection to Upper Nazareth, the Central Galilee town where she lives with her husband and two children. Soliman describes the predominantly Jewish suburb of about 40,000, which looks out over the ancient Arab city of Nazareth, as serving as little more than a “hotel” for her family. “There’s no school here for the kids, no after-school activities,” so her son and daughter, 16 and 12, respectively, spend their days in Nazareth, just to the southwest. That’s also where she and her husband, Ratb, operate the print business and school-supplies shop they own. They return home each evening to Upper Nazareth to sleep.
But on March 30, 2011, Soliman had an experience that made her feel she had something at stake in her bedroom community. Every year on March 30, Israel’s Arab citizens and Palestinians commemorate the anniversary of the 1976 protests that resulted in the killing of six Arab citizens by Israeli security forces in the nearby Galilee town of Sakhnin. The original demonstrations—the central event in what was called “Land Day”—were intended to express anger over the state’s expropriation of Arab-owned lands in the region, and they continue to be a vehicle for Arabs’ general frustration over their treatment by the state.
Soliman, who is active in the Arab-Jewish socialist party Hadash, decided to join fellow party members at their 2011 Land Day demonstration. “I had a black-and-white kaffiyeh I wanted to wear”—an article of clothing that she wouldn’t wear publicly in Upper Nazareth, where she says that her family doesn’t speak Arabic in their grocery store for fear of drawing unwanted attention. Because the checkered scarf was damp, she hung it outside to dry. The next thing she knew, “stones were being thrown at my house from all directions.” Nothing was broken, and no one was hurt, but Soliman told me she saw the teenagers who threw the stones, and heard them call out “Death to Arabs.”
Tahani Soliman and her family are among an estimated 7,000 Arabs—the equivalent of about 18 percent of the population—living in Upper Nazareth. I spoke with her about what it’s like to be an Arab in a predominantly Jewish town. Although she initially described it as placid and uneventful, once she told me about the kaffiyeh incident, she began to recall other acts of anti-Arab racism.
There was, for example, the time “someone sprayed the words ‘Kahane was right’ on my neighbors’ house,” a reference to the late American-born rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated for the expulsion of Arab citizens from the state. “It’s a very lovely house,” she added.
“We didn’t make a big deal about these things,” she said. “The police came, and the slogan was erased, and forgotten.” That was then. Today, Soliman is part of a newly formed group of Arab women in Upper Nazareth who have organized to pressure local government to give them their due.
In the Jewish state, Jews and Arabs generally live separately. Even in so-called mixed cities like Haifa, Akko, Jaffa, Lod, Ramle, and Jerusalem—whose heterogeneous populations predate statehood—there are Arab neighborhoods and Jewish ones. It’s unusual to find members of the two communities living on the same block, let alone in the same apartment building.
Most people seem to like it this way. Even for those who consider themselves liberals, their ideal is more often “separate but equal” than equal and integrated. But in recent years, things have been changing, if only because conditions in Arab municipalities are anything but equal to those in Jewish towns.
Prof. Aziz Haidar discovered just to what extent several years ago, when he and his colleagues at the Jerusalem Van Leer Institute began mapping the Arab citizenry of Israel. They started with the raw population statistics compiled by the Central Bureau of Statistics, but when they added up the numbers of Arabs living in all the country’s Arab municipalities and in its mixed cities, “we discovered that there were 60,000 missing,” he said. That is, that the sum they arrived at was 60,000 less than the total number of Israelis classified in their identity cards as Arabs—in 2010, some 1.5 million. “It turned out,” Haidar said, “that they were living in Jewish cities. That was a big surprise.”
Haidar, an Arab born in the Western Galilee town of Majd al-Krum, has become an expert on the phenomenon of Arab internal migration. It’s far more common than most Jewish Israelis are aware of, with significant Arab presence in the “Jewish” towns of Carmiel, Nahariyya, Tzfat, Hadera, Afula, Kfar Sava, Tel Aviv, Netanya, and Givatayim, in addition to Upper Nazareth.
The most basic reason Arabs leave their traditional homes for bigger Jewish cities, Haidar said, is an inability to find affordable housing. In other cases, they move because of a job, something that is becoming more common as Arab young people get university degrees and are unable to find appropriate work in their rural hometowns. The best example of this is the Negev city of Be’er Sheva, where Arabs, both from the Galilee and from the surrounding Bedouin communities, have resettled in the thousands, many of them after attaining degrees at Ben-Gurion University.
Then there is the “quality of life” calculation. Many Arab towns lack community services and infrastructure that are standard in Jewish towns: paved roads and sidewalks, parks and gardens, community centers, as well as banks and police stations. Arab municipal governments are poorly funded and often dysfunctional, if not corrupt and nepotistic.
Haidar said that the prospect of urban anonymity—the ability to live in a place “where you’re able to sit in a café and read the newspaper without anyone recognizing you”—is also a major draw for people who have grown up in communities where your every action is known and scrutinized by your neighbors, many of whom are also members of your clan. For women who don’t want to be saddled with the restrictions of a traditional lifestyle, this can be particularly alluring.
When Soliman and her husband, Ratb Gommed, crossed the city line from Arab Nazareth to Upper Nazareth four years ago, they weren’t looking to make a political statement. They would have preferred to remain in Nazareth, Soliman said, but “we wanted privacy, and there were no villas [detached houses] or [semidetached] cottages in Nazareth.” Now, they are looking to move into a larger residence, a private house, but Tahani says she’s no longer interested in returning to Nazareth: “I live in Upper Nazareth,” she explained. “It’s ours too. It’s not a ‘Jewish’ city.”
That last remark isn’t just rhetorical: Soliman explained that her family owned agricultural land in the pre-state village of Jabl Sikh, now the site of the middle-class Upper Nazareth neighborhood of Har Yona. In an ironic twist, Har Yona is where the Soliman-Gommeds’ house is situated.
Upper Nazareth was established by the government of David Ben-Gurion in 1957 to serve as an anchor for Jewish settlement in the Galilee. Bringing more Jews to this verdant and historically rich part of the country has always been a national priority. Upper Nazareth and Ma’alot (on the northern border) were founded in the 1950s, and Carmiel, to the west, a decade later, together with a whole network of gated hilltop communities called mitzpim (lookouts) that accept only Jews as members. Nevertheless, the Galilee remains about 70 percent Arab.
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