Jewish Women in Mixed Cities – A Closer Look

Amira Ziyan, Seven Sisters, 2019 Digital photography, 100X200 cm
Teaser Image Caption
Amira Ziyan, Seven Sisters, 2019 Digital photography, 100X200 cm

Mahapach-Taghir is a Jewish-Palestinian, feminist, educational, community grassroots organization, working in Israel's geographic and social periphery. In the past 23 years, the organization worked with excluded Jewish and Palestinian communities across Israel, including the mixed cities of Jaffa, Jerusalem, Acre and the currently mixing Nof HaGalil. Mahapach's community work focuses on afterschool programming for children operated by university students, and community organizing of women residents.

 

The term "Mixed Cities" is a concept of social and political implications that are different in each locale. Acre has a different story than Nof HaGalil, and Jaffa is different from Lod. Their common characteristics are usually related to the fact that they are all defined as socio-geographical peripheries, and that are managed with similar policies, not only towards their Arab residents but also the Jewish ones.

 

In this short article, I will argue that understanding the realities of Israel's mixed cities, necessitates analysis of the socio-economic situations and practices of exclusion of Jewish women and families, alongside the analysis of the situation of the Arab community in these localities.

 

This article centers on those Jewish communities in Acre and Nof HaGalil that areexcluded. Who are they? What are their economic and social characteristics? These groups usually remain out of the general public's sight and awareness. Also, they are excluded from the prevailing discussion about mixed cities, which is usually framed in a political context of rivalry between the Palestinian community and the recently arrived Jewish religious groups (Gar’in Totani).

 

The Jewish women we meet in mixed neighborhoods in the past few years are not long-term residents, many of whom, usually of Mizrahi origins, have either left to stronger areas within the same city or are not in need of our direct services. The groups we do meet are divided in two – first, single mothers, who recently migrated to Israel from Russian speaking countries, who perceive living there as temporary, until they are financially organized to move forward. The second group is of elderly women of Ethiopian origin, whose children and grandchildren left to other neighboring cities (from Nof HaGalil to Afula, for example) residing by themselves.

 

Many of them do not speak fluent Hebrew and therefore municipal services are not as accessible for them. Their sense of ownership over the city is limited. They usually live with their peers in the same neighborhood and are not connected to other groups across the city, even when those living in the same building or area. This way the groups live separately with very little contact between them: the Jewish women we meet in Acre are single mothers from former USSR countries, neighboring Palestinian families. In Nof HaGalil women of Ethiopian origin live near families from former USSR countries. There are differences between these two groups – for example, the Russian speaking groups in Nof HaGalil will usually live in better kept buildings. We currently work with their Ethiopian originated neighbors to create building committees that will advocate against municipal neglect in these locales. This is challenging, as there is not a common language (neighbors speak Amharic, Russian and Arabic and none is sufficiently fluent in Hebrew).

 

These women did not choose where to live, or who will be their neighbors. Naturally, they never asked to live in a mixed city. Their placement there is the result of housing and immigrant absorption policies, together with the household's financial situation. In July 2020, the Knesset Absorption Committee suggested that new Olim (Jewish immigrants to Israel) will be directed to mixed cities, and proposed a grant conditioned with consecutive 5-year residence. The defined aim was to strengthen mixed cities and halt the phenomenon of families moving out to other locales. The image of mixed cities across public opinion is usually based on their perception as influenced by Arab criminal activity, and a perceived need to strengthen those cities with newcomers from "strong" countries. This is the direct continuation of a historic government policy to place immigrants in weaker areas, situated in Israel's social and geographical periphery.

 

The real question to us, at Mahapach-Taghir, is what happens to those immigrants as they are placed in Acre or Lod? What happens to the city as it deals with frequent immigration waves? In addition, who pays the "price" of the policy putting excluded Jewish communities at the fraction points with the Palestinian community? It is certainly not paid by the country's privileged Jewish population.    

 

Financial problems, housing, scarcity of employment opportunities, immigration, inter-generational challenges, alienation, language, and daily survival are at the focus of these women's lives and the place from which they come to meet their Palestinian neighbors. The Palestinian community is often perceived as more capable, with more financial means, more connected. Sometimes, these assumptions prove to be true. Additionally, the women's political and historical understanding of the relations between Jews and Arabs in the city (and country), is limited. These are all factors that pose a concrete challenge for these women as they try to get to know their Arab women neighbors. More so, they challenge the ability to mutually acknowledge that women from both groups are marginalized from the patriarchal and capitalist society and both have no significant support. Most of them deal with similar oppressive structures, and similar disregarding policies. But this might be the place where change can take place. Taking on Paulo Fraire's terms of critical pedagogy – can we imagine an 'Alliance of the Oppressed' in these locales? How can we create it? What would such an alliance be based on?

 

Strengthening each community, in a way that is relevant to its daily problems, is a precondition for the creation of community resilience. In addition to forces emerging from the community itself, one should also remember that each community, as excluded as it might be, has electoral power, in its meaning of ability to demand better conditions.

 

This is part of our organizational work with Jewish and Palestinian women from excluded communities across the country and is also relevant to women from mixed cities. It has no short-cuts and includes strengthening each group separately while building its internal community resilience, engaging the women in processes of needs identification, and mapping their environment, exhaustion of rights in areas of education, employment and housing, gaining actual experience in changing their community reality, building themselves as community leaders and meeting other groups that have been through similar processes. This is a completely different meeting than the one of more privileged 'dialogue groups'. It relies not only on shared needs and interests, but on a shared process of change that is based on learning the social and political structures, and power relations at both local and broader levels. This way, two years ago we have created Mahapach-Taghir's national women's council. The participants, who turned into leaders in their own communities, wanted to continue and broaden their scope of influence. They are now working, together, on the issue of economic violence towards women, as a current issue with which they would like to deal.

 

We would like to propose the following questions as initial analysis tools and basis for action as we address possibilities for change in these communities:

What are the pressing issues for these women? Are these related to employment? Neglect of their physical environment? Educational opportunities for their children? What is their socio-economic situation? What are the relations between them and the other Jewish communities? What is the housing policy for these areas? What is the city's image? Who will never come to live there? How do these women imagine their city? Are they organized and how? Who are the group members who can lead the community? How, where and when the meeting with the Palestinian community takes place? What are the groups' shared interests? Can they form an alliance based on shared experiences of exclusion and potential opportunities?

 

These questions propose an analysis that focuses on daily realities and immediate needs of women in mixed cities, who share experiences of marginalization. This analysis is proposed as a tool to broaden the political discourse over Israel's mixed cities and might be a starting point for the creation of a new reality for these communities.