This is what I learned today. Quite to the contrary of what I had been taught in Hebrew school, Tel Aviv was not simply empty land purchased by Jews. A lot of the land was inhabited by Arabs, in some cases for many hundreds of years. Even where Tel Aviv University lies today.
When I first heard this after making aliyah, I pushed it aside. Yeah, that’s terrible, but I’m too overwhelmed and jet lagged to think about it now and in any case, every country destroys. A sad fact (and true), and I couldn’t really bear to think of where I fit into this context.
Many good Jewish boys and girls like me in the U.S. are taught that basically Arabs (most of whom today identify as Palestinians) simply packed up their bags and left in 1948 with the hopes that the Jews would be destroyed and they could come home. While it’s entirely possible some people felt this way and I wasn’t there to verify it, it seems rather implausible that an entire mass of people would abandon their homes to make space for someone else to commit genocide.
So I’ve done some research and lo and behold, there were other reasons why people fled. For instance, the Deir Yassin massacre. Over a hundred Arab civilians were massacred by two Jewish paramilitary groups – Etzel and Lehi. The former is now the name of a street in South Tel Aviv where I buy yogurt.
Not surprisingly, a lot of Arabs fled the country fearing they’d be next. It’s a complex issue and for sure, people have suffered and been killed on all sides here. Let’s stop pretending that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians packed their bags for shits and giggles. Or that it was easy for them. Or that it was entirely voluntary. There are documented instances of the Israeli military destroying Arab villages and to this day, not only can Palestinian refugees outside Israel not return, but even displaced Arab citizens of Israel can’t go back if they moved to another city.
Which brings us to today. I had heard rumors that South Tel Aviv used to be an Arab village. Not Jaffa, which is more well known and still has an Arab community, but one that was entirely emptied of its inhabitants.
That village, which my neighborhood sits on, is called Salamah. It’s also the inspiration for the street called Salameh in Tel Aviv where a bunch of hipsters live.
Salamah looked like this in 1932. I can still recognize the town center based on the streets today. A few weeks ago when I picnicked in the area over Shabbat, I remember seeing an old abandoned building with no signage. Which is strange in Israel because if it was “historically significant” or a tourist site, it’d have signs all over. As I later discovered, it’s a mosque.
So today, I decided to explore and accept the reality of my privilege in this country.
First off, the old mosque is in a state of utter neglect, to put it lightly. Barred so nobody can enter and now attached to some sort of shed with barking dogs, there is dung all around the rear wall. There is Jewish graffiti spray painted on its walls. There is trash everywhere. It somehow still manages to be beautiful. Let’s say that if this was my childhood synagogue, somebody’s head would be rolling by now.
I then headed to the mukhtar’s house. A mukhtar is a village chief. His house was one of the few other buildings left from a town of over 7,000 people. Now filled with synagogues and menorahs and Stars of David and, sadly, poverty.
His house looked terrible. For sure, you could see how once it was grand. And it still had a charm to it. It was in utter disrepair. I think the pictures will speak for themselves:
It particularly kicks me in the kishkes- it wrenches my soul- to see Jewish religious graffiti on this building. One about the Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Breslov and another saying it’s a mitzvah- it’s a good deed- to always be happy. How one could be happy looking at this ruin baffles me. How one could think it’s Jewish to defame it infuriates me.
It occurred to me as I looked at these buildings, as I tried to feel the presence of their former inhabitants- that this is probably what the synagogues of my ancestors’ shtetls in Eastern Europe look like now. If they still exist. Abandoned, neglected, if we’re lucky turned into a tourist trap. My people know from suffering and we have had our treasures robbed from us time and again– from Morocco to France to Poland to Spain to Russia- everywhere.
So why here? And not only why did this happen but why can’t these people come home? Why is their heritage neglected? Why- this is the key question- was I given money from this government to move to Israel and become a citizen when a Palestinian born in Salamah can’t even come home?
These are the uncomfortable, difficult questions I wasn’t ready to answer when I arrived. And now I’m starting to explore.
The concept of property is a difficult one. Especially because I work towards a world where things are shared more equally, where borders are nonexistent or more fluid, and where all people are treated fairly.
Oftentimes Jews and Arabs get caught in a spiral of “who was here first?” Jews claim God gave them this land in the Torah. And that their ancestors lived here. That Israel and Jerusalem have been a focal point of our hopes and prayers ever since the Romans expelled us. And I can understand this and I agree with much of it. And there’s a lot of history and culture to back it up.
The issue is that we’re not the only ones here. And when we started coming back in record numbers- often fleeing persecution- the local people at the time were displaced. Their lands were bought, often with the help of money from Diaspora Jews. And eventually, 80% of them were driven out or left during the War of Independence. And not allowed to return.
The Holy Land, to the contrary of what some people like to claim, was not some barren wasteland with no human life which Jews came to perfect and turn into one beautiful hiking trail from kibbutz to kibbutz. Salamah, my town, had citrus and banana fields. It had an elementary school for boys and one for girls. It had Muslims and Christians. It’s even listed in a 1596 Ottoman Census.
Were there Jews living here then too? Sure! I even met families up north that have been here since the Second Temple.
It doesn’t mean that these people – or anyone – needed to be kicked out. Or that it should be easier for me to visit their mosque than it is for them!
That’s privilege. Sometimes the word can twist us in endless debates but sometimes it’s useful. The Israeli and American Jewish left-of-center ideology distinguishes between a Jew living in Tel Aviv and one living in a “settlement” in the West Bank. The former is living in “internationally recognized” Israel and the latter is a vagabond.
Here’s the issue: they’re wrong. The problem is much greater than that. The reason I got money from the Israeli government to move here- something unheard of in most countries you’d immigrate to where they’re eagerly kicking people out- is because I’m a Jewish body. I’m a settler. And if you’re a Jewish Israeli, you are too. We also have a reason to be here and I believe a right to live here- or anywhere. It’s our Holy Land too. I’m just asking us to recognize the way we got here. And that maybe it’s not the most ethical or kind way to go about building a society.
What if instead of granting extra privileges to Jews and none to Arabs, we leveled the playing field. Perhaps we’d keep open the option of aliyah, of Jewish immigration, to protect our people from distress and violence. And come to an agreement that allows Palestinians the same opportunity. In one state. With everyone enjoying the same rights.
I’m not a big fan of the nation state. I think all states, to varying degrees, protect the wealthy and the powerful and harm their residents at least as much as they help. So while I work towards a more equitable and less hierarchical future, if we do need a temporary solution, I have an idea. It’s called democracy. And democracy means one person, one vote. It means the government doesn’t favor any religion. It means fair distribution of resources. It means equality.
It means Muammar Qaddafi, despite being a brutal dictator, was actually on to something with his “Isratine” one state solution. I can’t guarantee this will work. There are many fractious states, like Belgium, that struggle to treat different groups equally.
I just think that whatever we’re doing now isn’t working. So let’s at least start the conversation about some better options. So my unknown neighbors living in a refugee camp in Lebanon can come home, hang out with me, share some hummus, and be friends.
My cover photo is my little protest from today. On the metal fence surrounding the mukhtar’s house, I wrote my favorite Syrian proverb: “kull ta’akhira fiha khira”. In every lateness, there is goodness. It took me a while to confront the pain and privilege that is living on top of a depopulated village. And the good – and hard – part is now I know.
Israelis love to blame each other. Secular against Orthodox and Orthodox against Traditional and Arab against Haredi etc. etc. In particular, Secular Jews like to rail against religion and religious Jews. I have a special message for you: the Haredi brigade didn’t expel my neighbors from Salamah. It was the secular Haganah. I get that you’re angry about the direction of this country. What you have to understand is that if Orthodox Jews in the government now are increasingly strident against Arabs, it’s because they’re trying to emulate many of your forefathers. Who did this damage.
So let’s put aside the cycle of blame and realize we all need to look in the mirror, do some soul searching, learn, and build this place together. Jews and Arabs. Secular and Orthodox. Everyone.
The name of Salamah today is Kfar Shalem. The Complete Village. It is anything but. So let’s make it our goal to help this place- and our country- live up to its name. To make it whole, to make it at peace. So it may not only be Kfar Shalem, but also Kfar Shalom. The Village of Peace.
May we make it so.