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Lieberman’s ascent has roots in over 60 years of Israeli history

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The following report comes from Alice Rothchild, a Boston-based physician and author of Broken
Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and
Resilience. A longer version has been posted here.

The appointment of Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu’s outspoken foreign minister, has been met with dismay in much of the American Jewish community.  Israel has long enjoyed a solid reputation as a safe haven for persecuted Jews from Eastern Europe to North Africa, but there is another side to this narrative that is rarely discussed.  Unfortunately, Lieberman represents the culmination of longstanding Israeli policies. Palestinians with Israeli citizenship have over 60 years experience with Israeli-style discrimination.

In 1948, armed forces occupied Jaffa, once the thriving cultural and commercial center of Palestine.  The fleeing Palestinian population shrank from 100,000 to 4,000. In 1949 the Israeli government established the Absentee Property Law, further dispossessing the remaining Palestinians. The Jaffans were forced into an area called al-‘Ajami.  Officials surveyed their forcibly abandoned properties, declared the owners “present absentees,” laid claim to the properties, and gave the homes complete with furniture to olim, desperate new Jewish immigrants.

Palestinians not only lost their property, but frequently were hired to work in their former orchards as laborers, or as factory workers in businesses they once owned.  Arab houses were subdivided, one room to a Moroccan family, one room to a Rumanian, and one room to the original Arab owner.  Sami Abu Shehade, a postgraduate student at Tel Aviv University and a Jaffa community organizer, explains that many Palestinian men, dispossessed, humiliated, and depressed, turned to alcohol, opium, and criminal activities. In 1950 Jaffa, once the most important port in Palestine, became part of the Tel Aviv-Jafo municipality.

For Jaffa, Judaizing meant changing the names of the streets as well as expunging the history. Avenues once named after rich Palestinians were changed to Zionist leaders. Luxurious homes overlooking the Mediterranean, built by wealthy Palestinians, became Jewish mansions. The State is now using legal action against the al-‘Ajami tenants to evict them.  Although al-‘Ajami is socially and economically depressed, its northern area has expensive real-estate possibilities, with tremendous investment potential for high-end clientele at the expense of the local Palestinians

The area has also fallen victim to urban renewal and gentrification, with destruction of whole neighborhoods and inadequate services in Arab areas. As the neighborhoods were neglected, Jews moved to nicer areas and the Palestinians stayed.  Tel Aviv also allowed the demolition garbage to be dumped on the al-‘Ajami shore.  Adjacent to the garbage dump was an old neglected cemetery; the sea gradually eroded the soil and graves began falling into the water near the garbage. Nearly 40% of the Palestinians residing in the al-‘Ajami neighborhood are now living in extreme poverty and owe the State millions in fines due to unapproved housing renovations over the past 60 years. For Arabs, building permits are virtually impossible to obtain.

Sami takes us to an old Jaffa synagogue, Or Yisrael, now under repair.  He notes a number of NGOs are bringing rightwing Jewish settlers from Gaza and the West Bank into “mixed cities” to “Judaize the area.”  An NGO, Harosh Yehudi, is now looking for apartments for extremist Jewish families to strengthen the Jewish demographics. David, an Israeli activist, comments, the problem is that, “we are not dealing with a bunch of racists.  The problem is that the vast majority of the Jewish population believes in this settler discourse and agrees.” 

Sami sees the long-term consequences of this psychological and economic divide: a sense of internal defeat and hopelessness. Ultimately, he argues, this is a consequence of decades of racist policies.  He adds that Arabs are welcome in Israel, if they “are willing to serve but do not expect equality.”

These political contradictions and ethical challenges are seriously problematic for a country that purports to be a democracy.  Lieberman lifts the mask from the myth that a country that privileges Jews over Arabs can also be a land of justice and equality.  How can a country demand civil loyalty when it cannot guarantee civil rights? What are the long-term consequences of this potent mix of exclusion, paternalism, discrimination, poverty, and alienation? How can Palestinians reconcile the painful contradiction that the Peres Peace Center was built on confiscated Jaffa refugee property? Perhaps when Jewish Israelis proudly sing Hatikvah, they need to imagine how this tribute to exclusive Jewish yearning sounds to 20 percent of their fellow citizens who still remember the glory days of Jaffa, “The Bride of Palestine.” Lieberman is not an aberration; he is saying out loud what many of his fellow citizens have thought and done for more than 60 years. Change “Arab” to “Native American,” “African-American,” or “Japanese,” and obvious parallels emerge with our own legacies of colonialism, slavery, segregation, detention camps, and civil rights struggles. Perhaps Israelis can learn from the best of our history; facing inequality and racism rather than talking transfer, ghettoization, and loyalty oaths will lead to a stronger more democratic country. 

About Adam Horowitz

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