Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Democratic and 80%-Jewish State

This is a long overdue entry. It was delayed for consultation with lawyer friends who suggested the original could be construed to be libelous. The following is the toned down version:

August 28, 2008
Upper(ty) Nazareth
“I am all for a democratic Upper Nazareth, but first of all a Jewish one" declares Gapso, a Tunisian immigrant vying for the town’s mayorship in the coming elections. With that he dismisses the appeal of a delegation of Arab residents to take their concerns into consideration. He is not the only contender for the post who is dismissive of Arab demands. All candidates quoted in Lily Galili’s report in Haaretz ( express similar opinions, usually in more openly racist language. It should be pointed out that those Arab intruders are likely to be descendents of the area’s native population whose land the Israeli government under Ben Gurion’s leadership expropriated for the benefit of Jewish immigrants some fifty years ago.

An incident I still recall vividly from over twenty five years ago illustrates the maladjustment of the residents of Upper Nazareth to their Arab surroundings. A complaint from the mayor of the Arab village of Reineh was received at the District Health office that I headed temporarily. The city of Upper Nazareth had released its untreated sewage down the valley at the edge of his village, the plaintiff claimed. I immediately called in the Nazareth Sub-district Physician who was in charge of both concerned localities. She happened to be a Russian immigrant residing in Upper Nazareth and her husband happened to be the physician heading the sanitary department in Upper Nazareth’s city administration. When she read the complaint from the neighboring village she assured me that she knew about this and that it is unlikely that the situation will be corrected soon. As an explanation she offered the fact that the village of Reineh has been transgressing against Upper Nazareth since day one of its establishment. The calls for prayer from the village mosque so early in the morning disturbed the sleep of the city residents and the village’s mayor had refused to do anything about it. She didn’t spell it out but I sensed the clear message that she approved the tit-for-tat. Were it not for my own impotence in the system, she would have lost her job.

Over time and with the expansion of Upper Nazareth, the residential area of the native town of Nazareth became more restricted. The creeping encroachment of the favored new twin with its expansive luxurious neighborhoods, parks, industrial zones, and shopping malls, progressively deprived old Nazareth of any land reserves for its natural growth. Some of Nazareth’s younger well-educated residents are lured by the promise of freedom and better opportunity in foreign lands, especially in North America. Paradoxically, as the capital of the Palestinian minority in Israel, it attracts some of the young professionals from the surrounding Arab villages. To my generation the ultimate success story of a young Galilee villager was to attain professional status and sufficient income to qualify for a Nazarene beauty, preferably the daughter of one of the city’s established families. On balance, Nazareth’s population continued to grow to the point that the city no longer could accommodate it within its restricted borders.

Thus, deprived of its natural expansion zone, very early on, Nazareth’s population started spilling over into the new neighboring town that was originally conceived of as a counterbalance to it. The better-off nascent middle class of Nazareth, doctors, lawyers, engineers and the like, started making lucrative offers to home owners in the tidier upper Nazareth with its better infrastructure and services. Many Jewish owners of government-subsidized homes and apartments in Upper Nazareth were less than pleased with its limited urbanity and westernization compared with such central locales as Netanya and Tel-Aviv. Its close proximity to several Arab villages and to old Nazareth, from which it is separated only by a two-lane highway, added to its unattractiveness to Ashkenazi immigrants. They must have sensed that they were ‘exiled’ to this failed experiment in Europeanization of the Palestinian space. After all, the very same agencies, governmental or international para-statal Jewish ones, involved in enticing them to immigrate to Israel, make a regular habit of brain washing such clients into absolute enmity to Arabs and to all things Arabic. In this case this practice proved to be a two-edged sword. Many such immigrants were alienated from Arabs not only to the degree that they had no qualms about taking over their land but also wanted to get away from them altogether.

That is when another Arab strange characteristic came into play: On the whole, Palestinians in Israel have limited economic horizons. They have little incentive for investment and very few business opportunities beyond small family enterprises. What they earn is saved for family-centered occasions: a son’s wedding (and more recently splurging on a daughter’s wedding has become fashionable as well), building a house and buying a good car, all handled on cash-down basis. Many manage to accumulate hefty saving bank accounts toward such major life events.

Now let us step back into the shoes of the disgruntled Ashkenazi immigrant in Upper Nazareth. Sooner or later you manage to meet the heavily subsidized payments on the public housing unit or the fancy home you occupied upon arrival in this God-forsaken locale surrounded on all sides by antagonistic, unclean, ignorant natives. Now you are free of the restrictions placed on you by the contractor who developed the subdivision, by the housing and the absorption ministries, and by the Jewish Agency barring you from selling your house to non-Jews. And now at the door appears a young couple with checkbook in hand willing to pay for it on the spot. You may dislike and suspect them but they speak fluent Russian, your mother tongue, and their Hebrew is even better than yours. And they seem to be rather polite and offer to meet your lawyer to close the deal. And your cousin or aunt or the brother-in-law of your sister’s mother-in-law has located an apartment in a good neighborhood in Tel-Aviv, a walking distance from the beach and hardly any Arabs in sight at all. And you can deposit your cash money in the bank and pay for the new apartment on installments. And if you get proof for your wife’s disability you may qualify for an interest-free housing bank loan. And they think you can get a cashier’s job at the neighborhood’s superette. The hell with the objections of next-door neighbors, with the speeches of the mayor, and with the warnings of the Committee to Keep Upper Nazareth Pure! Let us go see the lawyer.

There is a thin wedge, a panhandle of upper Nazareth that juts out in a westerly direction along the ridge separating the north edge of the misshapen grabben that makes up old Nazareth from neighboring Reineh village. On both sides of this wedge you find the fancy homes of well-to-do Nazarenes, a mix of some of the well-established old landed aristocracy of Nazareth, still with their aristocratic pretentions but without the land, and of a few noveau-riche arrivals from Galilee villages including some of my physician colleagues. The neighborhood is so prestigious that it was the site a decade ago of the first of the two traffic lights in Nazareth, right in front of the falafel joint that attracted diners from all over Israel before its master falafel-maker was killed in a family feud. Arrabeh, my own home village, has since replaced Nazareth as the falafel Mecca of Galilee.

One of the first public housing projects in Upper Nazareth was located in this confiscated land strip and was specifically planned for housing families of army personnel, hence its name, Shkhonat Tzahal – Army Neighborhood. Of course, the Jewish-only clause must have applied. But soon enough, something like the above scenario took place and the first Arab family moved in, possibly feeling some security in the area’s proximity to Arab homes on both sides of the ridge. In retrospect, no one should have been surprised by the ensuing events: The downward spiral in the prices of apartments and homes and the flight of Jewish owners out of Shkhonat Tzahal. It is a familiar phenomenon to American residents of formerly white-only suburbs. By now the residents of the Army Neighborhood of upper Nazareth are nearly all Arabs, though it has kept its name. Despite the local vigilantes and the continued friction, including the threats and actual attacks against Upper Nazareth’s most outspoken Arab resident, former Knesset Member Azmi Bshara, the infiltration of other parts of upper Nazareth by Arab young couples continues by force of necessity. It has reached such proportions that Upper Nazareth has been officially listed as a mixed city, there is an Arab member in the city council, and Arabs dare to make demands on candidates for mayor. You would think it is enough to make the intruders, and who is an intruder depends on which side of that two-lane highway you stand, pick up and leave.

September 09, 2008
Whoring in Karmiel
The municipal election mania is heating up in Galilee ‘mixed cities’. It is a rare occasion nowadays that I see the news broadcast on Israel’s state TV Channel 1; my disconnect from ‘my country’ is that complete. I just can’t focus on what is being reported after the first news item about anything to do with Palestine and the Palestinians. I just sit there glaring at those well-dressed respectable-looking news announcers and their learned political analysts and expert guests. I wonder if they really think about what they say and how they do really feel inside when they casually and regularly dehumanize the other. But an item of this genera caught my attention enough for me to follow it through as I sat waiting for our regular visitors, our friends Toufiq and Zainab. It was about the municipal elections in neighboring Karmiel where several parties catering to Russian and other new immigrants campaign on the strength of their stand against Arabs moving into the Jewish city envisioned by its Zionist planners as the future big beating-heart of central Galilee.

Imagined maps of the Judaized future Galilee feature Karmiel metamorphosing into a massive urban expanse that extends from Maa’lot close to the Lebanese border all the way to and including Upper Nazareth. How do these planners reconcile their standard exclusionary policies with their demographic worries? The Galilee continues to be Israel’s demographic Achilles’ heel, its Arabs maintaining their lead with a fraction of a percentile point ahead of its Jews. A decade or so ago when the tide turned momentarily in favor of the Jews the National Demographic Center, government ministers and the press all celebrated the occasion with much aplomb. What do they plan to do with me and my extended family, I wonder? And shouldn’t I worry?

So far the actual Karmiel octopus of a settlement has engulfed only much of the private fertile fields and olive groves and of the traditional collective grazing lands of the surrounding Arab villages of Rama, Sajour, Nahif, Bii’neh, Dier-el-Asad, Majd-el-Kroum, and the ancient Bedouin localities of Kammaneh West, Kammaneh East, El-Hussainyieh, el-Nai’m and Ramyeh.

The last locality, Ramyeh, was simply imagined out of existence by the planners and mapped as another neighborhood of the new Jewish city. Its original residents however didn’t accept their total absence from the inspirational drama of Judaizing the Galilee and dug their heels in, further infuriating the progressive city fathers with their antics of alerting leftist and activists across Israel and the world. Those raging maniacs, the Bedouin residents of Ramyeh, dared ask the city to take them in as residents and to incorporate their existing modest homes as part of the new development. But, of course, plans are plans and they didn’t show Bedouin shacks as part of the modern subdivision that was being constructed. Besides, the city is a Jewish one and Bedouins can never hide their Arabness even if their boys often volunteer their services to the Israel Defense Forces, not even when they are deployed to drive other Bedouins in the Occupied Palestinian Territories of Gaza and the West Bank out of their homes.

More than two decades have passed since the last time I participated in a demonstration in support of Ramyeh. I am ashamed to say that over the years I grew tired of the daily tug of war between the dozen families in Ramyeh with their leftist and human rights activist sympathizers and the city’s adamant administration set on expelling them from their homes. All I know is that as I drive by I still can see the few simple stone homes overshadowed and rimmed on three sides by multistory modern apartment buildings. I promise I will find out more soon!

All of that is not in the news report, of course. And another major Arab-Jewish flash point is no longer in the headlines: For years Zionist party leaders in Karmiel and their visiting backers from national headquarters waved their anti-Arab banners high while simultaneously claiming the moral high ground: They would loudly declare their objection to the infiltration of Arabs into Karmiel. Arab pioneering youth, daring to challenge the status quo and to cross the ethnic divide, come there mainly in search of vice and debauchery, they claim. Their influx, even as nonresident business customers, further encouraged the booming sex industry that had continued to flourish in the 1990s with each wave of Russian immigrants.

I know what you are thinking: ‘this is slanderous’, no? Let me explain and provide some contextuality for my outrageous statement. Eons ago I attended college at the University of Hawaii and wound up marrying a local fellow student and have been returning there frequently ever since. My brother Sharif also attended the UH but he had already hooked up a South Dakotan. Around the turn of the millennium Didi and I hosted Pat and Sharif in Hawaii after their absence from the island scene of over two decades. They were on their way back from a conference in Australia. At the end of our compulsory stroll along Kalakaua Avenue, the touristy strip parallel to the world-famous Waikiki Beach, as we approached the less refined bar and gaming end of the street I asked my brother if he noticed any change in the ever vibrant Waikiki nightlife. He responded with a one-liner: “The Korean hookers on the street have been replaced by Russian ones.”

Now, if they have conquered Honolulu, could they not takeover Karmiel? Poverty, the dissolution of the political and societal framework of the former Soviet Union, and the advent of globalization have lead to the rapid spread of the business networks of the Russian underworld, including the sex industry and the trade in women slaves. Israel was and still is much affected by this development, the crime bosses taking advantage of its insatiable appetite for Russian immigrants. Much as it uncritically supported the state’s immigration policy, the Israeli media has frequently featured major business and crime scandals of specific Russian immigrants.

In Karmiel the city bosses assume that the sex industry thrives on the pull factor of the ample supply of male customers, the sexually-deprived young men from the surrounding Arab villages. Ergo, Arabs are to blame for the flourishing sex industry in the town and the way to stem it is to prevent their taking residence in it. Still, by now Arab families make up 10-15% of Karmiel’s residents. They have put up their own party for the municipal elections. On TV they even interviewed its lead candidate, Rabea’ Jahshan, a young lawyer who was a good friend of my daughter in high school.

The argument against Arabs, I hear, was recently revived again by no other than Avigdor Lieberman, the biggest Russian political entrepreneur In Israel. He doesn’t restrict his campaign to targeting Arabs in mixed cities. He wants all Palestinians out of Israel. He openly calls for my expulsion from my home. And the Israeli news media brings that as another neutral news item.

Now how can I deal with that without cussing? The Palestinian Arabic vernacular is rich in cusswords and vulgar descriptive phrases that relate to the cussee’s female relatives’ private anatomy and sexual habits. I am told that the Russian language shares that special richness. So, if the two of us ever meet in person, we will have a lively conversation, I am sure.

For now suffice it to say: ”Damn!”

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