Boosting Jewish populations in Arab neighborhoods stokes tensions


JAFFA, Israel (JTA) — It is said that there has been a continuous Jewish presence in the Galilee village of Peki’in since the days of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

Always small, that Jewish presence dwindled in recent years to near zero. Then, this year, a group of about five religious Zionist Jews moved into the largely Druse town.

Michael Teplow, an Israeli lawyer who is one of the investors in the project, said the goal is to build a Jewish community in a place where Jews have especially deep historic roots.

But some Druse residents of Peki’in don’t see it that way.

“We fear these are extremists who want to make Peki’in into a Jewish village,” Mofeed Mohana, a former city councilman, told JTA. “They are buying homes and walk around with guns. We are not against Jews living here in equality and partnership, but we are against this.”

Teplow dismisses Mohana’s fears.

“I frankly don’t care what they think. My attitude is that a Jew has a God-given right to live in the Land of Israel and I’m not stealing anyone’s house — I’m buying it,” Teplow said. “What is Zionism? It’s Jews going back to their land. If you are going to put limits on Jews going back to their national homeland, you end up hampering Zionist goals.”

The tension in Peki’in is playing out in cities and towns across Israel as a movement to boost the Jewish presence in mixed Arab-Jewish cities gains steam. In places like Jaffa, Lod, Ramle and Akko, seed groups of Orthodox Zionists are buying property in predominately Arab neighborhoods where there is a minimal Jewish presence, moving in and setting up yeshivas.

Supporters see their efforts as an attempt to strengthen the morale and infrastructure of local Jewish populations in such cities, where the Jews often are poor. The Web site for one such seed group in Akko, Garin Ometz (The Bravery Group), says its members are on a mission “to fulfill a vision that the city of Akko remain a Jewish city and become a leading, thriving city.”

Over the last year, both Akko and Peki’in became the site of violent ethnic clashes. Four days of Arab-Jewish clashes in Akko were sparked by an incident last Yom Kippur, and in Peki’in a Jewish-owned home was set on fire in 2007. Police at the time said they suspected the fire was set by Druse youth intent on sending a message to locals not to sell property to Jews.

Critics of the movement to bolster Jewish populations in Israeli Arab towns view the trend with cynicism. They say religious Zionists are transplanting tactics from the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, where Jews buy up property to establish exclusively Jewish communities. They say the Jews moving into Arab neighborhoods around Israel are not interested in good relations with their neighbors; they want to take over.

Jews involved in such projects say they are not out to push out local Arabs; rather, they seek to boost the Jewish share of the local population.

The Israeli government supports similar efforts nationwide, with various government ministries and the Jewish Agency for Israel long supportive of bolstering Jewish demographics in predominantly Arab areas of Israel, especially parts of the Galilee and Negev. This effort spans the political spectrum, and includes President Shimon Peres. But for the most part the government has sought to carry out the program by building new Jewish towns and neighborhoods rather than by establishing Jewish enclaves in Arab population centers.

“I think I speak for the majority of Akko’s Arab residents and Arabs from other mixed cities that we are not against Jews living here, too,” said Sami Hawary, director of Alyatar, an organization that promotes multiculturalism in the city, which is just north of Haifa. “But we prefer it’s not in the style of settlements with separate building projects like the ones we are seeing.”

Hawary was referring to plans in some areas to build apartment buildings specifically for religious Jewish residents.

In Jaffa, a group opened a yeshiva about four years ago in the predominately Muslim neighborhood of Ajami. Nearby, a real estate company called Bemuna, which advertises as catering to the “religious public,” bought a public lot of land with the intention of building a housing project. The company’s Web site advertises homes with “attractive prices” and a chance to live in a “Torah community.”

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel charged that Bemuna had an unfair and exclusionary policy and took Bemuna to Israel’s Supreme Court, which issued a temporary order barring the Israel Lands Authority from granting the land to Bemuna.

“We think people can live wherever they want to, but they cannot put up a housing project that basically says, ‘Arabs cannot live here,’ because that is outright discrimination,” said Gil Gan-Mor, the ACRI lawyer overseeing the case.

Bemuna did not return calls seeking comment.

About 20 percent of Ajami’s population consists of relatively recent Jewish arrivals. Most live in gated communities and large homes along the seafront. There are also other Jews, like Yehudit Ilany, a photographer and community organizer, who live among their Arab neighbors.

Ilany is among those who have been active against Bemuna’s efforts to come to the neighborhood.

“The language they use is of strengthening the Jewish community,” she said. “But pardon me, if that is their interest, why don’t they go to the neighborhoods of Jaffa where there are many economically disadvantaged Jewish families?”

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