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Once and Future Bride of the Sea: A historian discusses the history of Jaffa from the Nakba until today

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This upcoming Thursday, the Tel Aviv Cinematheque will host its first Nakba film festival, featuring films about the Israeli-Arab War of 1948 and the catastrophic repercussions it has had for the Palestinian Arabs. The official Zionist narrative of Israel’s War of Independence and its causes and effects is drummed into every citizen from the earliest age, but the Palestinian Arab perspective on the same sequence of events is nearly unknown to almost all Israeli Jews. The Nakba film festival hopes to educate the Israeli public and facilitate a deep discourse about the ramifications of the 1948 war and its implications for the future.

The festival’s opening film is a full length documentary by my colleague, friend and fellow Canadian-Israeli, The Real News producer Lia Tarachansky. This past February, while working on the film, called On the Side of the Road, Lia and I collaborated to interview the historian and Tel Aviv – Jaffa City Councillor Sami Abou Shehadeh about the history of Jaffa, pre- and post-Nakba. Unfortunately, none of the sequences we shot with Abou Shehadeh made it into the final cut of the film, but Lia and I both felt that the material was far too important to be abandoned, so I edited it into a half-hour mini-movie for your viewing pleasure.

From the ancient Jaffa port, to the windy alleys of the old city, from the neglected neighborhoods of Ajami to the new gated garrison communities overlooking it, Abou Shehadeh weaves a compelling portrait of what was, before the 1948 war, the economic and cultural capital of Palestine. As one might expect, Abou Shehadeh is highly critical of many of the changes that have been wrought on Jaffa since Israel conquered it. At the end of the guided tour, Abou Shehadeh opens up about his own vision for the future, suggesting that an acceptance of the Palestinian Nakba narrative could precipitate a real peace between Arab and Jew.

David Sheen

David Sheen is an independent journalist and film maker who lives in Dimona. His website is

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11 Responses

  1. kayq on November 25, 2013, 11:45 am

    Thanks David and Lia for your brilliant journalism, and thanks Sami for that brilliant history on Jaffa.

    It’s such a shame to see what the Zionists have done to the place, they’ve practically pillaged it.

  2. Stephen Shenfield on November 25, 2013, 12:40 pm

    I just listened to the marvelous talk by Mr. Shehadeh. He says so many sensible things and the message of hope at the end is especially welcome.

    I want to comment on his style. It is a gently ironic style that I perceive as “Jewish.” Because, I think, it expresses a distancing from the social reality, a perception of that reality as absurd. It is a style that reflects the position of a marginalized minority. Very few Israelis have this traditionally Jewish style, it was “normalized” out of them long ago. Few Arabs in countries where Arab culture is dominant have this style either. The Israeli Palestinians have become Israel’s “Jews” and in this sense the dismantling of the Zionist entity will (God willing) bring into existence a polity that is for the first time “Jewish” as well as for the first time democratic.

  3. Walid on November 25, 2013, 1:35 pm

    Great story and great pictures as it appeared in EI in 2009:

    Jaffa: from eminence to ethnic cleansing
    Sami Abu Shehadeh and Fadi Shbaytah
    The Electronic Intifada 26 February 2009

    “… Some of the most difficult stories are those of the Palestinian farmers and peasants from the villages of the Jaffa district. They describe how they were forced off of their land, how they managed to stay in Palestine, how the Israeli government handed their land over to Jewish settlers, and how these settlers then hired the same Palestinian farmers to work on their own land as day laborers exploited for the personal profit of the Jewish settler off the produce of the land that Palestinians had cultivated for generations. In fact, after their properties and enterprises were seized or shut down, the vast majority of the Jaffa Palestinians who remained became cheap labor for Jewish employers. Their employment was contingent on their “loyalty” to the new state. And so it was that the people who ran the economic hub of Palestine before 1948, became its orphans feigning loyalty to the ones who orphaned them in order to feed their own children.”

  4. Mike_Konrad on November 25, 2013, 3:36 pm

    I look at those Arab houses in Ajami with crumbling whitewashed plaster on the outside.

    Are they allowed to paint or re-plaster the white wash on the their front of the house? Or do they need permits – which are withheld.

    In some parts of the USA, no permit is needed for upkeep. In some parts of the USA, you do need permits.

    So what is the deal with Ajami in Jaffa. Can an Arab paint the front of his house, or plaster it? I am not talking about adding a room, or a new floor. I am merely talking about upkeeping the front of his house.

    Answer only if you know for sure.

    The reason I ask is because the houses look slummy. However, a good coat of paint could fix that. If permits are denied for painting, then the authorities want to maintain the slum appearance, maybe as an excuse to later demolish the area.

    But I do not want to accuse the authorities of minor indignities without being sure.

    • talknic on November 25, 2013, 6:17 pm

      @ Mike_Konrad “Answer only if you know for sure.”

      Uh? You posted without knowing for sure…

      “…. the houses look slummy. However, a good coat of paint could fix that. If permits are denied for painting, then the authorities want to maintain the slum appearance, maybe as an excuse to later demolish the area.

      But I do not want to accuse the authorities of minor indignities without being sure.”

      Of course you don’t…

      “The reason …” you ask is because … you want to make an accusation against Arabs by inference

  5. jon s on November 25, 2013, 4:53 pm

    Mr. Abu Shehadeh provides a fascinating tour of Jaffa, past and present.
    I was especially impressed by the epilogue and his vision of the future when the conflict which seems so unsolvable today will be a thing of the past. His description of the obscene Andromeda project is spot-on. On the other hand his reference to the Palestinian population of Jaffa being “expelled” in 1948 is simplistic and inaccurate.

    A bit more on the history: Jaffa is indeed one of the oldest continuously existing cities in the world, dating back to the 18th century BCE. It’s also mentioned in the Bible, as a port through which timbers from Lebanon were sent to Jerusalem (2 Chronicles, Ch.2) and the port from which the prophet Jonah embarked, before being swallowed by the fish (Jonah, Ch.1).
    On a personal note: growing up in Tel Aviv, I always felt an attraction to Jaffa: I loved to explore its alleys, watch the fishermen, hang out around the clock tower, go to ball games at Bloomfield, inhale the bakeries. It’s where I liked to bring my dates for a romantic evening…
    There’s nothing wrong with building and development, as long as it’s done with an attitude of respect towards the historical heritage and benefits the entire population (unlike the Andomeda project).

  6. on November 25, 2013, 5:55 pm

    Many houses in south Tel Aviv look similar. These are older areas with mostly poor and old population mixed with small workshops, garages, etc. Those who could moved to newer houses in north Tel Aviv. South Tel Aviv was and to some extent still is the area with high crime rate and notorious social problems.

    The situation is changing as the prices of real estate go up so certain parts become popular among real estate developers. They buy and remodel some of the old houses and sell to more affluent people. Latest such popular areas are Florentin and indeed the Ajami in Jaffa. The old houses shown are probably either before remodeling or perhaps were not yet sold to the developers. Since the prices go up I would expect that they will eventually be sold and remodeled.

    This is not different from what I saw in US. Like many areas in Cambridge Mass, in early 80’s or Roxbury in Boston Mass, or some areas in NYC, etc.

  7. Obsidian on November 26, 2013, 9:57 am

    The Arabs of Israel have to take some responsibility for the failure to preserve their cultural heritage.

    Majestic, ancient khans, located in Arab towns like Jaljulia are turned into dumps. Tombs of Arab sheiks are left in disarray.

    Much of the same can be said for ancient buildings in Arab neighborhoods, like in Ramle.

    Admittedly, many Arab heritage sites have been destroyed or neglected by the State of Israel, but that doesn’t excuse Arab failure to repair and upkeep their patrimony. Does it?

    • talknic on November 26, 2013, 12:34 pm

      @ Obsidian

      Uh huh Can Arabs get the permits necessary

  8. Obsidian on November 26, 2013, 2:41 pm


    A permit to clean garbage out of a lot? A permit to put up a perimeter fence?

    Jaljulia is an Arab municipality. How hard should it be for local Arabs to get your imaginary permits from their town government?
    Please. Stop making excuses.

  9. SQ Debris on November 26, 2013, 5:22 pm

    Obsurdian seems unaware that municipal serves like garbage collection are apportioned on an ethnic basis in Israel. Even in the Eternal Capital of the Jewish people entire neighborhoods don’t get their garbage picked up because they are predominantly Palestinian. Take a walk through the Anata neighborhood and see for yourself. The focus on garbage reminds me of the old “dirty Arab” canard. Deny access to water, then claim that people whose faucets have run dry are inherently dirty.

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