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.
In nearly 64 years of statehood, some 700 communities have been established in Israel, and all but a small handful of them were intended for Jews only. The land for those 700 towns and villages came in large part from the roughly 350 Arab communities that were abandoned during the War of Independence, in 1948-1949, when some 700,000 of the more than 800,000 Arabs living in Mandatory Palestine became refugees.
Today, the 150,000 Arabs who remained in Israel and became citizens have multiplied tenfold to some 1.5 million and constitute 20 percent of the population. Yet the proportion of land owned by Arabs has dropped from over 80 percent to under 5 percent during the same period. So, even if there weren’t middle-class Arabs who aspired to live in predominantly Jewish towns, the shortage of land and housing in all-Arab communities leaves some with little choice.
Unlike most phenomena having to do with Arabs and Jews in Israel, the trend of Arab migration has largely taken place under the radar, grabbing headlines only when public figures decide to use the trend to stoke populist fear. In 2010, for example, the chief rabbi of Tzfat issued an open letter to the 30,000 Jews of that northern city instructing them not to rent space in their homes to Arabs. (Tzfat hosts a small college where more than half of the students are Arab; some rent rooms from local residents.) His letter was signed by 18 other local rabbis.
That same year, Oren Milstein, the deputy mayor of Carmiel, was fired by the mayor in the wake of a campaign he initiated to encourage Jewish residents not to sell the homes to Arabs. Milstein had even set up an organization to which locals were encouraged to report anonymously on neighbors who were selling or renting to Arabs.
Shimon Gafsou, the mayor of Upper Nazareth, has also been outspoken about the need he sees to maintain his city’s Jewish character by attracting more Jewish residents. “I am building a neighborhood for Haredim only,” he told me over the phone, and he anticipates drawing 3,000 families, “with lots of children.”
I asked Gafsou he wasn’t concerned about attracting a population group that typically has high unemployment rates, and that, by nature of its highly restrictive way of life, often drives other populations out and property values down. He responded that the ultra-Orthodox he’s building for are a “quality” population of “working religious.”
Gafsou emphasized that Arabs have a legal right to live in his city and acknowledged that when they move there, it’s often because the state has historically “made mistakes, and they couldn’t develop in their own towns.” But tolerating the presence of individual Arab citizens is not the same as recognizing that they have collective needs, and Gafsou minced no words in declaring that “there won’t be an Arabic-language school” in Upper Nazareth so long as he is mayor. “Someone who wants to study in Arabic can go to study in Nazareth,” he said, which is exactly what most of the children from Arab families do, including Soliman’s.
At the same time, Gafsou said that Arabs are welcome to study in Jewish schools: “They don’t have to put a kippah on their head.” But Israel has always had separate schools for Jews and Arabs—not to mention Jewish children from secular and observant backgrounds—and the law mandates that if a certain minimum number of residents demand a particular type of school, the state has to accommodate them. There are already at least three Arabic-language public kindergartens in Upper Nazareth, but so far no primary schools.
City council member Shukri Awawdi says that a primary school for Arab children is a priority for his constituency and that “we’ll apply to the High Court of Justice if we need to. It’s not acceptable that I pay property tax and we don’t have schools. Our parents have become like taxi drivers, driving their kids every day to school and to after-school activities [in Nazareth], when it a basic right to study where you live.”
I asked Gafsou about the huge Israeli flag I saw hanging from a flagpole in the middle of a traffic circle in the Har Yona neighborhood, which is home to many of the city’s Arab families. It might not qualify for the Guinness Book of World Records, but it’s certainly one of the biggest flags I’ve ever seen, and I wondered aloud whether he thought that the people who hung the flag there were really trying to make Arabs feel welcome.
“I put up the flag,” Gafsou told me proudly. “It’s a Jewish town, and people who want to live here have to understand that it will always be Jewish.”
“Did you see the flag?” asked Fidaa Tabuny Abu Dbai, a longtime feminist activist who is leading the group of Arab women, including Soliman, that’s working to force the city to open an Arab grade school. “I think it’s a sign of insecurity. They have a feeling they’re losing control.” She compares Upper Nazareth to cosmopolitan Haifa. “Haifa is 11 percent Arab, but it feels like a mixed city. Upper Nazareth is 18 percent Arab, but it’s a Jewish town. Its streets are named for Jews, its cultural life is Jewish. You don’t feel it’s a place where Arabs live next to Jews.”
If most Arabs migrate to Jewish towns seeking a better life, they may well begin to think of their presence in political terms if they encounter hostility once there. Abu Dbai told me that she had previously invested her political energies in other people’s causes and that it is only within the last year or two that she began thinking that the Arabs of Upper Nazareth—where she has lived for a decade—could organize to press for their rights. “We started having conversations, why don’t we have a school? We always said, ‘We’ll live here a while and then we’ll go back.’ But there’s nowhere to go back to.” Abu Dbai said she was instigated by smaller things, too. “When you go down with your girls to the playground,” and the other kids ostracize them, or worse, that can strengthen a family’s resolve to stand its ground.
Consider Zenat and Issam Kadry, a couple I met in Carmiel, the growing middle-class city of 40,000 that was established in the heart of the Arab Galilee in 1964. The pair moved here from the nearby village of Nahef in 1998. Today Issam owns an electrical contracting business with some 30 employees in Carmiel. The family lives in a lovely apartment built along the side of a hill on the city’s northern edge, looking out on the northern Galilee and Lebanon. But since the birth of their twins three years ago, Zenat and Issam have been looking for a bigger place.
Issam is self-assured, and even when is describing a case of petty racism, he seems more amused than irritated. He says, for example, that he has encountered real-estate agents who, when they hear that the Kadry family already lives in Carmiel, have responded by saying, “That’s already better. You won’t upset the balance.” Another agent, he recalls, an Arab woman, instructed him: “Don’t speak loud. I’ll find you something but don’t make a big deal.”
Zenat, 37, for her part, is angered by the way she and her family have been received in Carmiel. She has sent all five of her children to Hebrew-language pre-schools in Carmiel. It’s important to her that they be proficient in Hebrew. Over the years, however, very few Jewish children have been permitted by their parents to visit her kids at home. She’s also a charter member of a Jewish-Arab group that has formed in the town to organize for equal rights for all residents—and one of the first goals of the group is to have the city open up a bilingual Arab-Jewish kindergarten. (Both this group and the group of Arab women in Upper Nazareth are receiving assistance from Shatil, an organization that helps build civil society in Israel.)
At the same time, however, she said that she does not view herself as an Israeli: “I am completely Palestinian,” she told me. Yet she wouldn’t consider leaving Carmiel because “this is my land.” I asked her what she meant by that. Was she referring to the land on which the city was built, because it was expropriated from a number of Arab villages in the area? “My land is all of Palestine,” she responded. Later, when we talked about their search for a new house, she made a point of declaring that when they sell the house in which I’m visiting them, she will consider selling “to Arabs only.” Issam said that she doesn’t mean it; Zenat insisted she was serious—and both were smiling, as if this wasn’t the first time they’d had this argument.
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