Jaffa Tales, Real and Imagined

In vintage Guardian style, Harriet Sherwood presented us with a potted history of Jaffa on July 18th which is about as authentic as some of the ‘antiques’ in that town’s famous flea market. Whilst cursorily acknowledging that “here every stone and blade of grass comes with a bitter and contested history,” she then predictably goes on to highlight only one side of this disputed history, thereby promoting her own highly politicized narrative.

Having chosen as her guide “local historian and political activist Sami Abu Shehadeh”, Sherwood neglects to inform her readers that Abu Shehadeh is hardly some tweedy local history buff, but a seasoned political activist with a specific agenda for whom history is but an integral part of an ideological arsenal deployed in the service of dismantling the Jewish State.  As secretary of the political party Balad in Jaffa, Abu Shehadeh is one of the chief organizers of demonstrations against the establishment of “settlements”, as he terms them, in this neighborhood in Israel’s largest city.

Balad opposes Israel as a Jewish state and advocates its replacement with a bi-national state which would include over four million official Palestinian “refugees” taking advantage of the ‘right of return’.

Abu Shehadeh is also a founder of the Jaffa Popular Committee for the Defence of Land and Housing Rights, aka the Popular Committee against House Demolition in Jaffa, a signatory of Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) and a board member of Zochrot; an organization devoted to promoting the Nakba narrative and working to achieve the Palestinian ‘right of return.’ Zochrot is also an endorser of the Free Gaza movement – an organization (which includes the International Solidarity Movement), behind the recent violent flotilla incident, in co-operation with IHH, a radical organization with proven ties to terrorist organizations such as Hamas. Abu Shehadeh’s views are made amply clear in this essay written for Badil entitled ‘Jaffa: From Eminence to Ethnic Cleansing’.

“This collective depression eventually led many of Jaffa’s ghettoized Palestinian residents down the path of dependency on drugs and alcohol as a way of escaping the burden of powerlessness in the face of colonial oppression. It was this form of colonial oppression that transformed the thriving Bride of the Sea to a poverty and crime-ridden neighborhood of Tel Aviv.”

So now that we know from whom Harriet Sherwood chooses to take history lessons we can apply the mandatory pinch of salt necessary when reading her inevitably one-sided article. In a neighbourhood of 54,000 people, 40,000 (74%) of whom are Jewish and 14,000 (26%) Arabs, Sherwood would have us believe that a building project which will provide homes for twenty families is liable to “destabilise the delicate balance” of coexistence in Jaffa. Jews have of course lived in Jaffa for hundreds of years and continue to buy property there to this day, but this particular project raises objections due to claims that it will be ‘barred to locals’ – as it is aimed at religious clients.

Besides the fact that it is not outlandish to suggest that some of the locals in Jaffa may well be religious people to whom such a project would appeal, it is significant that the prospective purchasers of these as yet un-built apartments are already defined by Sherwood as ‘hardliners’ simply upon the basis of their religious beliefs. Such stereotyping can surely not be compatible with claims of a ‘haven of coexistence’.

Sherwood ‘conveniently’ forgets to inform her readers that the second and larger building plot on Etrog Road has been proposed by the Mayor of Tel Aviv-Yaffo as a likely site for “a project for young families from the local Arab population who are having difficulty finding appropriate housing.” Strangely, whilst housing for religious Jews is deemed racist, housing for Arabs appears not to fall into the same category.

Sherwood’s potted history of Jaffa begins with the claim that “[t]he vast majority of the 100,000 Arabs in Jaffa were forced to leave in fear for their lives.”  Not only does this claim fail to withstand the reality of available evidence , but it ignores the turbulent history of riots in Jaffa throughout the 1920s  and 1930s in which many Jewish residents of the town were killed or forced to relocate.  At the other end of the spectrum, Sherwood also fails to relate to the lucrative sale of land to Jews by such prominent figures as the Mayor of Jaffa Asim Bey Al Said during the time of the British Mandate.

Sherwood’s shoddy style of ‘investigative journalism’ also apparently allows her to take Shehadeh’s claims that “500 families have been issued with eviction or destruction orders and more are facing huge fines”  entirely at face value and publish them as gospel truth without taking the trouble to hear the other side of the story from the officials concerned at Amidar.

But, of course, squatters do not fit into Sherwood’s narrative of poverty-inflicted Nakba-survivors fighting to protect a ‘haven of coexistence’ from an ‘influx of Israeli hardliners’ who have somehow, in the course of this tall tale, become settlers in their own country.

Her myopic tale, of course, would never include the fact that Jaffa is at last beginning to move beyond its status as an area rife with poverty, crime and drugs and becoming a place where increasing tourism revenue has resulted in extensive neighborhood renovations – communities where, increasingly, young families (of all backgrounds) are flocking and, often, thriving.

14 replies »

  1. This is yet another well researched and meticulously written account of a Guardian scrap that doesn’t deserve the serious attention you give it IsraeliNurse.

    Yaffo is a city of areas, each one with its own character. I’m sure that the new religious one and the new young Arab families areas will add to the mix and hope it adds to the mutual understanding. There is a chance of the various communities that inhabit our country getting to know each other better if they live within chatting distance of each other.

  2. Sherwood’s article is so slanted as to be worthless. She couldn’t even get the history of the town’s name right, listing it as “Jaffa- the Bride of Palestine!”

    Ms Sherwood clearly doesn’t know that Yafo, the correct historical name is listed in ancient Egyptian texts and in the Old Testament, predating the Arabic name by several centuries and the term” Palestine” by a couple of millenia.

  3. Well done, as always, Israelinurse. One of the important facts that are missing from Shehadeh’s history lesson to Sherwood is of course that the Arab population of Yafo, similar to several other towns in “historic Palestine”, grew enormously due to the economic development spurred by the Jewish immigrants. I read about that a few months ago — pity I don’t remember where, but it was really impressive.

  4. In the month or so that she has been in Israel, replacing the egregious McGreal, she has not managed to write one article that in any way shows a positive side of Israel. She is hopelessly biased – I still do not understand why Israel does not simply revoke her visa and those of others like her.

  5. History lesson aside, this attempt by an extreme Orthodox group to insert itself into the heart of an Arab neighbourhood is truly a deliberate provocation that can only have a negative influence on coexistence. Before you all attack me, I want to remind you that the campaign by Ajami residents is identical to the one currently being waged by secular Jewish residents in Ramat Aviv to prevent Chabad from deliberately building its institutions in this totally secular neighbourhood. In both cases the groups in question do not want to respect the current residents. I have personally been to this street in Jaffa and my conclusion was that the selection of this particular site can only be viewed as a deliberate provocation. In addition, every Jewish resident of Jaffa that I have spoken to is against the construction of this center for the same reasons.

  6. MTC

    I’m not living in TA and I’m not familiar with the Ajami neighborhood, maybe you are correct. But this is absolutely irrelevant regarding Sherwood’s rantings. What to do with an allegedly provocative bulding in Yafo with the readers of a British newspaper? Does the Guardian publish articles about building a Shia mosque in a dominantly Sunni neighborhood in Kabul, Baghdad, or even in London? Have you ever seen any stuff in an Israeli paper about building a Catholic culture center in a protestant quarter in Belfast?

    Do you consider professional journalism not to mention the political affiliation of the source of the article and not to ask the representative of the other side?

    Sherwood’s article is a political propaganda piece, even a very stupid and bad one and it has nothing to do with objective reporting.

  7. MindtheCrap’s comment is – as usual – very interesting and penetrating. That the Guardian – as peter points out – will scour the dustbins of Israelis to find outrages to report back to its readers is a given. The Guardian, when it comes to Israel, is a ‘sensationalist’ newspaper. The Guardian reserves the term – ‘sensationalist reporting’ – for the Daily Mail, the ‘Murdoch Press’ and so on and is incapable of seeing that this is exactly the way it reports on Israel. Blinded by its bigotry.

    Anyone know what the court decided in this case?

  8. MTC – I suppose it depends how one chooses to define co-existence.
    For myself, I am not in favour of the British model whereby communities exist within their own cultural and geographical bubbles, barely coming into real contact with each other.
    I prefer a model whereby people of different backgrounds and ethnic groups literally rub shoulders with one another, be it at the supermarket, in cafes or at local council meetings. It may be fraught at first, but I believe that in the long run, a much healthier society is created that way.
    When all’s said and done, all those concerned in this story are Israeli citizens – that is the fact which should be important, both in Yaffo and Ramat Aviv – and as Israelis we need to look for our common denominators, not those factors which keep us apart.
    Artificial opposition to market forces by means of ‘nimbyish’ ethnic/cultural lobbying is not the way forward to a cohesive or vibrant society in my view.

  9. PetertheHungarian:

    I do not disagree with what you said; I was trying to provide some background material on the topic. Just because the Guardian raises the issue doesn’t automatically mean that there is no truth in the underlying story.

    A better analogy – since you mentioned Belfast – is whether the Guardian recites the entire inglorious history of the brutal 800-year occupation of Ireland every time it prints a story about sectarian related problems in Belfast. It doesn’t.

  10. Israelinurse:

    Agreed. As I said above, I know Jews who live in mixed neighbourhoods in Jaffa. They live there in the spirit and with a belief in coexistence and respect. This group is openly stating the opposite. If you go to the site and look around the neighbourhood you will immediately see how ludicrous the idea is. I don’t object to orthodox people moving to Ramat Aviv, but I object to an organisation whose stated mission is to target the children of the neighbourhood, in deliberate opposition to the wishes of their parents. Both cases are the same – lack of respect for the current residents.

  11. @ Israelinurse

    For myself, I am not in favour of the British model whereby communities exist within their own cultural and geographical bubbles, barely coming into real contact with each other.

    Doesn’t sound like the Britain I grew up in – specifically in Handsworth, B’ham.

    Here’s a nice pic from my old primary school:

    Contrary to your view (and, yes, despite the riots), I always saw Handsworth as a model of multicultural interaction.

  12. MTC

    Just because the Guardian raises the issue doesn’t automatically mean that there is no truth in the underlying story.

    I agree with you even I would add that most of the problems within Israeli society mentioned in CIF are real and existing phenomena. But…

    1. These articles are not showing anything regarding the context and the circumstances.
    2. These articles are containing many lies, distortions and exagerations.
    3. The purpose of these articles is not to help to solve these anomalies, their only purpose is the delegitimization of Israel and the Israelis.
    4. These articles are greatly biased against anything Israeli.
    5. These articles are totally irrelevant in the UK thousands of miles from Israel – an average British reader has nothing to do with them.
    6. These articles are speaking about problems that exist in virtually every Western society (including the UK) but they try to show these as they are existing exclusively in Israel. (I remember an article of Freedman about an alleged slap given to an allegedly Arab youth by an Israeli policeman – the same week when a British bobby beat a random passerby to death without any reason in London)

    As you certainly know most Israelis incl. yours truly is very well informed about our warts and dirty linen but they know the other or third even the fourth sides of these issues and they don’t need to read CIF, they can find all of them in the Israeli media analysed from every possible direction.

  13. MindTheCrap:

    Unless it was postponed, he High Court hearing took place today. Not sure if there will be a definite outcome for publication later today or tomorrow.

  14. MindTheCrap:

    Unless it was postponed, the High Court hearing took place today. Not sure if there will be a definite outcome for publication later today or tomorrow.