Monday, November 23, 2020

Religious Zionism in Jaffa

By Sophie Crowe - November 15, 2011
Section: [Main News]
Tags: [Racism] [Jaffa] [Religious Zionism]

In the heart of Ajami, the sole remnant of Jaffa’s Palestinian identity and culture, sits a hesder yeshiva, so called for its special blend of torah study and military preparation.

The institution was established three years ago by the Garin Torani, a countrywide religious Zionist organization. The Jaffa branch includes about 50 families. Ostensibly the group exists to provide support for disadvantaged Jewish families. This is one of the faces the Garin Torani shows to the world. Another, their proliferation in mixed cities, is less innocuous.

Judaization, which demands segregation between Jews and Palestinians, is an important part of the Garin Torani ideology. From this perspective, Jaffa, home to 20,000 Palestinians (alongside 40,000 Jews), is an internal frontier waiting to be settled.

Sami Abu Shehada, Palestinian community activist and municipal member in Jaffa, muses on the agenda behind positioning the yeshiva in Ajami.

“The national religious have a political project,” he asserts. After the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, the national religious decided to settle inside the Green Line, where their presence would have a greater effect.

“No one would notice them in the occupied territories,” Shehada adds with a sense of irony.

“The national religious have a political project

Commentators like Nadav Shragai, a right wing journalist with Haaretz, explain this logic of internal settling as based on “strengthen[ing] the ranks of Jewish inhabitants in mixed towns that are being abandoned by their Jewish residents.” For Shragai the demographic contest is pivotal. Acre, Lod, Ramle and other mixed towns and cities must be populated with Jews. If disrupting Palestinian communities in Israel is the Garin Torani’s goal, they have been somewhat successful.

“Since the settlers came you can feel the tension,” Shehada says. The students, many of whom come from settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, are known to be provocative and menacing at times.

Locals have complained about aggressive behavior, such as youths ranging raucously through Ajami’s streets shouting nationalistic slogans and jeering at people.

Beyond such intimidation, the real crux of Garin Torani’s agenda is consistent with the defining principle of Zionism – settling the land.

They are buying property in Ajami and won a significant coup last year when B’Emunah, a housing company specializing in development projects for the national religious, won a public tender for a plot of land in Ajami where a market once stood.

This was hotly contested by locals, who brought the case to Israel’s Supreme Court protesting of the misuse of public land – objecting that the land was being used to build housing for one particular group. But B’Emunah’s contract won.

Another approach taken by Garin Torani is enticing new recruits to settle in Ajami. “Thousands of people come on tours, called 'Jaffa in the steps of Rabbi Kook,’ led by the rabbi,” Shehada says. “He tries to convince Jews of the importance of settling here.”

Rabbi Kook, the first chief rabbi in Mandatory Palestine, lived in Jaffa and founded Israel’s most important religious Zionist yeshiva in Jerusalem in 1924. “Kook gave permission to Jews to settle throughout Palestine, expanding from the four holy cities of Hebron, Jerusalem, Tsfat and Tiberias where they were initially concentrated,” Shehada explains.

In promotional films on their website, the Garin Torani inform people of Palestinian violence in Jaffa, making it seem urgent that Jews settle in the neighborhood.

The Jaffa branch of Garin Torani’s 25-year-old leader, Itai Granek, insists the organzation’s presence in Ajami is innocent. He told Haaretz last January that Palestinians are “glad that a young community has come, even a religious one, to Jaffa.”

“Most people understand that if a young, quality community comes here, it improves everything – both the Arab community and the Jewish community,” Granek added.

Shehada, conversely, believes this kind of rhetoric masks sinister intentions. Evidence suggests that the Garin Torani’s activities and recruitment of youths that hail from extreme ideological settlements in the West Bank into Ajami, a Palestinian neighborhood, are more baneful than innocent.

Last month two cemeteries in Ajami, one Muslim and the other Christian, were desecrated.

Tombstones were broken and painted with the phrases “death to Arabs” and “price tag,” mirroring recent trend among Jewish settlers that inflicts arbitrary collective punishment on Palestinians for alleged anti-settlement government policies.

The vandalism came in the wake of an arson attack on a mosque in Tuba Zangariya, a Bedouin town in the Galilee.

Then last week saw more menace against Ajami’s community when people broke into a Palestinian restaurant in the early hours of the morning, setting fire to the place and scrawling “Kahane was right” on the wall.

Rabbi Meir Kahane headed the militantly extremist Kach party. Though the party was outlawed in Israel for its openly racist agenda, it continues to operate under a different name.

Some Ajami locals believe the yeshiva students are responsible for the cemetery vandalism. But Shehada is not convinced. “Their main role is in inciting against Arabs in Jaffa,” he maintains, “which could have motivated outsiders to do it.”

The idea that yeshiva students were responsible for despoiling cemeteries has aroused the ire of some voices in Israel, such as MK Ya’akov Katz. Katz denounced what he described as the “organized blood libel against the Jews of Jaffa.”

The cemetery attacks happened because of a racist atmosphere that was allowed to develop

Katz is the chairman of the National Union, a political collective that advocates the transferral of Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line to Arab countries.

He was “absolutely positive that the vandalism was committed by radical leftists, or Arabs working on their behalf, in an attempt to make the Jews look bad.”

It is this attitude that has allowed a sense of impunity to grow among settlers. The whitewashing of extremists by Jewish officials allows them to feel safe from legal consequences. Silence has a similar effect.

Up to 12 mosques have been vandalised in the West Bank over the past two years; and 2011 saw a 40% spike in settler violence, yet no real consequences for the perpetrators. Settler crime elicits no response from the state, which is obligated under international law to protect the people it occupies.

Violence against Palestinians in Israel is also present. “The state has killed about 40 Palestinian citizens in Israel since 2001,” Shehada balks.

Shehada believes that racism is deeply rooted in Israeli society. “The cemetery attacks happened because of a racist atmosphere that was allowed to develop,” he says.

Moreover, Shehada adds that “the waves of racism since 2000 have been led by politicians.”

Israel’s political elite have persistently resented the presence of the Palestinian minority, maligning them as a fifth column that would never be loyal to a Jewish state.

For Shehada “attacks like the ones in Tuba and Jaffa are not surprising.”

“Palestinian leaders warned that what they were doing was dangerous, that the gap between racist speech and action was closer than they imagined,” he says.

“If our prime minister is talking about 20 percent of the population as a demographic bomb and a strategic threat, it will have an effect.”

The mood in Jaffa after the recent attacks is one of frustration, Shehada says.

“People do not believe the police will punish those responsible.”

Religious intimidation is one way Zionism settles the internal frontier. In the next installment of our series about Palestinian communities in Israel, Sophie Crowe will explore the role of gentrification and development in Jaffa.


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