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.

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