The New Mixed Cities

Why are Arabs moving to largely Jewish cities, and how are they being received?

Sign to Nazareth & Nof HaGalil (Wikimedia Commons)

During and following Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, around 500 Arab villages were destroyed. Thereafter, Israeli governments adopted a policy of not building new villages or towns to serve this minority population. There were eight exceptions to this: Rahat, Tel Sheva and five other Bedouin townships in the Negev, and Basmat Tab’un, which was established in the north of the country for Bedouin tribes who had settled in the area during the Mandate period. By contrast, over 1,000 new Jewish communities were established. Since 1948, the Arab population of Israel has grown more than tenfold, while the municipal area available to Arabs hasn’t changed. Today, it remains less than three percent of the state’s lands.

There are, however, places where Arabs and Jews live together. These are known as the “mixed cities”: a somewhat misleading term, as even in these places around 75 or 80 percent of the population is Jewish. The most well-known mixed cities are Haifa, Jaffa, Ramla and Lod. A majority of the Jewish population of these places moved there after 1948. In recent years, though, a rising Arab middle class has moved to Jewish areas, as a result of housing shortages in Arab locales. This article looks at what is happening in a number of these places, including Nof HaGalil (previously Nazareth Illit), Ma’alot-Tarshiha, and Afula. Is there genuine coexistence in these cities? Or does the connection between Arab and Jew begin and end with the place of residence which appears on one’s ID card? What do these places tell us about relations between Arabs and Jews more broadly?

Nof HaGalil was established in 1956 by then Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, as part of the government’s “Judaization of the Galilee” policy. The aim of this policy was to increase the Jewish population of the Galilee, which at the time had an Arab majority (today, it is about 50 percent Jewish and 50 percent Arab). The new city was first called Kiryat Nazareth, and then became Nazareth Illit (Upper Nazareth). In July 2019, Mayor Ronen Plot led a successful campaign to change the city’s name to Nof HaGalil (“View of the Galilee”), so as to distinguish it from the adjacent Nazareth. “It’s the last Christmas where we’ll receive a bouquet of flowers that was meant for Nazareth,” he said. In a city referendum, 80 percent of residents supported the move. Interestingly, despite the fact that the motivation for the initiative was to distinguish a largely Jewish area from the big Arab city of Nazareth (Al-Nasra in Arabic), and that the new name seemingly excludes Arab residents, many Arabs living in the city and Arab representatives on the municipal council supported the move. Deputy Mayor Dr. Shukri Awuda, head of the Joint List’s branch in the city, said: “Changing the name gives uniqueness to Nazareth, which is the city of Jesus. Upper Nazareth is a completely different city with a different demographic character. As long as the name suits all of the residents we don’t see this as a harmful or cardinal problem.”

25 percent of Nof HaGalil’s residents are Arab (a greater percentage than Haifa, which is 18 percent Arab). Most of them are middle class: doctors, lawyers, judges, businesspeople, and more. 64 percent have an academic degree. It is an affluent population, and many residents claim that the city is not merely satisfied with coexistence, but aspires toward genuine harmony. But is this the truth? In the past, the city earned a bad reputation regarding Jewish-Arab relations. Former mayor Shimon Gapso openly called on property owners not to sell or rent property to Arabs, and opposed the establishment of an Arab school in the city because he feared it would become a magnet for Arabs wanting to move to the area. The fight over the school has now reached the Supreme Court, with the municipality claiming that there is “no demand” for an Arab school—despite the fact that 25 percent of the city’s residents are Arabs. As a result, thousands of Arab pupils must travel daily to schools in surrounding areas, mostly Nazareth, and Nof HaGalil is the only mixed city in the country without a single Arab school. Meanwhile, Krayot Magistrate Court judge Yaniv Luzon has dismissed a lawsuit which charged that the northern city of Carmiel was violating its obligation to provide transportation for Israeli-Arab children. “The construction of an Arabic-language school or providing transportation for Arab students, wherever and whoever wants it, could change the demographic balance and the character of the city,” he ruled. Carmiel was built as a Jewish city in the mid-1960s; today six percent of its population are Arab.

What’s more important? The welfare of the residents or the desire to preserve the area’s “Jewish character,” even when it has long since become a mixed city? The mixed cities are the main place where Jews and Arabs encounter one another. This gives them great potential for building relations, partnerships, and shared society. But it also puts them at risk of greater friction and tension. In Akko in 2008, an Arab resident drove his car into a Jewish neighborhood on the eve of Yom Kippur. Some people threw stones at him, leading to violent clashes which resulted in the vandalization of more than 100 cars and storefronts. This, however, is not such a common occurrence. Research carried out by the Abraham Foundation in November 2019 found that most residents of mixed cities think that Jewish-Arab relations are positive. But this changes from city to city. In Ramla, for example, 20 percent of Jews and nine percent of Arabs classified relations as “not good” or “not good at all,” while in neighboring Lod the figures were 15 and 13 percent. In Haifa, by contrast, only nine percent of Jews and five percent of Arabs said that relations were “not good” or “not good at all.” In response to a separate question, 41 percent of Jews and 32 percent of Arabs agreed that “there should be separation between Jews and Arabs and each should live in a separate neighborhood.” In Ma’alot-Tarshiha and Akko, though, 54 and 52 percent agreed with the statement, while in Haifa support for separate neighborhoods was lower than the national average.

64 percent of Jews in Jaffa and 60 percent of Jews in Lod supported establishing joint neighborhoods, while in Akko and Ma’alot-Tarshiha 73 percent and 66 percent of Jews were opposed. Perhaps this explains the discrimination in Ma’alot-Tarshiha’s Givat Oranim neighborhood, where housing units were sold only to Jews—resulting in Adalah, a human rights organization championing equal rights for Israel’s Arab minority population, petitioning the Israel Lands Authority (ILA) to stop this practice. Today, 30 to 35 percent of Givat Oranim’s residents are Arab. Ma’alot-Tarshiha, though, is a unique case. Ma’alot and Tarshiha were originally two separate municipalities, which merged in 1963. Today it is a mixed city on paper only, with the Jews remaining in Ma’alot and the Arabs in Tarshiha, a few exceptions aside. Meanwhile, nearby in Kfar Vradim, the municipality halted tenders for new residential project after 58 of the first 125 plots were purchased by Arab families. There, the then mayor Sivan Yechieli was very clear as to the reasons why: “I want to protect the Zionist-Jewish-secular character of the community,” he said, further noting: “Transforming established Jewish communities into communities with mixed population…is not an issue specific to Kfar Vradim. It is also an issue in Afula, Nahariya, Karmiel and throughout the Galilee.”

He is not wrong. As mentioned above, the housing shortage in Arab towns combined with the rising Arab middle-class is driving these demographic changes. Kfar Vradim is not the only locale to respond so shamelessly. In 2019 Avi Alkavetz, the mayor of Afula, his deputy Shlomo Melicho, and other municipal members joined a demonstration against the sale of homes in the city to Arab families. Lehava, an openly racist organization which opposes relationships between Jews and non-Jews, were also present. The municipality even tried to close the city’s park to people from outside Afula as a way of preventing Arabs from coming there, with the mayor warning about the “occupation of the park.” The municipality reversed the decision following an Adalah petition, Judge Dani Tzarfati ruling that closing public property was illegal: “Just as you don’t close a street you don’t close a park, regardless of discrimination.” As for the building tender, the municipality claimed that the Arab families had coordinated prices between them. The district court accepted the petition, but it was partially overturned by the Supreme Court, which ruled that only 10 of the 27 allocations should be canceled. Afula’s mayor attacked the ruling, saying: “Afula is a Jewish city and will remain so.”

Harish is another place which is slowly, and accidentally, becoming the solution to a housing crisis in Arab locales, in this case the Triangle area abutting the Green Line. The irony is that Harish was intended to be another wedge of Jewish settlement in a majority-Arab area, but has instead become a magnet for Arabs who want greater personal security, better municipal services, and lower prices. Harish and Afula might not be called mixed cities, but this is a growing phenomenon that should surprise nobody. Professor Rasem Hamisi, a city planner and urban geographer at the University of Haifa’s Faculty of Geography and Environmental Studies has noted that more than 65,000 Israeli-Arabs live in areas classified as Jewish, including places like Hadera, Nahariya, and Rishon LeTzion.

Of course, this trend is inconsistent with the “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” which includes the following clause: “The state views the development of Jewish settlements as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.” This law sought to weaken the status of the Arabic language in Israel and to make Arabs Class B citizens; but on the ground, new shared spaces are emerging, however unintentionally. “Mixed city” remains a problematic term. It describes a mix of Jews and Arabs but tells us nothing about social and economic gaps, which still find expression in housing, education, welfare and other areas. “Together but separate” might be a more accurate term, given that the two groups only really meet in places of commerce and entertainment, like shopping malls and parks. At the same time, grounds for optimism in these areas can be found in municipal politics, where there are many cities with right-wing mayors and Arab representatives in the municipal coalition, whether as independents or affiliated with national parties. This is a stark contrast to national politics, where Arab parties becoming part of the governing coalition remains a taboo, whether the government is left or right. In Nof HaGalil, for example, there are 17 Arab citizens of Israel on the municipal council. Perhaps this is the inspiration for MK Mansour Abbas’s declaration that he is willing to work with Prime Minister Neyanyahu despite opposition from most of the Joint List. Will we finally see an Arab party in a governing coalition? It’s still hard to believe, but it’s clear that Abbas is trying to carve out an Arab equivalent of Shas, and the precedent from local municipalities suggests that his vision has potential.

Despite these intriguing anomalies, the bottom line remains. As long as the Israeli government does nothing to solve the housing shortage in Arab areas, we will see more Arabs moving to Jewish areas like Afula, Harish, and Nof HaGalil.

The hope is that these new mixed cities can overcome the obstacles and become exemplary symbols of diversity.

Translated from the Hebrew by Alex Stein. 

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