Gender and Ethno-Gentrification in a Mixed City

Amira Ziyan Smira, 2017 Digital photography, 100X100 cm
Teaser Image Caption
Amira Ziyan Smira, 2017 Digital photography, 100X100 cm

Six months before the violent events of May 2021, I met in Jaffa with Shira (name changed), a member of the religious settlement group (garin torani), who moved to live there in 2009 with her spouse and their five children, from one of the Gush Etzion localities. I asked her about her relations with her Arab neighbors. She told me the following:

"It was shocking when I moved to Jaffa. For me, an Arab is an enemy. I grew up in a settlement that, if someone enters it, he is not coming peacefully, he is coming to kill me… I walked around the streets here… Women wearing hijabs, as if I were, where? In Gaza? And then I learned how to make this distinction… Sitting on a bench in a garden with a woman who is completely covered in veil, you know, it's crazy. I used to see them through the bullet-proof bus when we were travelling to Kiryat Arba… But she really wants to live just like I do, we're at peace, both of us want to live here… [she wants to] go down to the garden, as I do, and play peacefully with the children. I've got a neighbor who's given birth with me, twice… We talk about life, a woman in the full sense of the word, it's amazing".

Shira's identification with her Arab neighbors' feminine and maternal experience has been described as facilitating a dialog and familiarity between different ethno-national groups, which might not have been possible otherwise. For a moment, it seemed that, alongside the well-known narrative of segregation and tension between mixed cities’ Jewish settlers of the past decade and Arab residents, there exists another story as well, one of women encountering each other during their day-to-day lives in that divided space. Yet, a few months later, the ethno-national segregation became apparent in its full intensity. In retrospect, it seems that also in a "routine" situation, the ethno-national hierarchies have not been undermined by day-to-day life and gendered identification. "A woman in the full sense of the word" summed up Shira in amazement, proving the very same thing she wished to refute; ethno-national identity is the one that is expected, certain, overshadowing any other identity – including the gendered one – otherwise there would have been no need to mention the latter with such amazement. The shared gender identity, it seems, did not undermine or challenged ethno-national belonging.

Nevertheless, one could hardly ignore the "masculinity" of the events and the meaningful role gender played in them. Thus, even if the positioning of women represented neither an alternative to the events nor a resistance to ethno-national segregation, at least it was not equally complicit in them as the masculine one. During the first days of the riots, almost all of those at the center of events in the streets and news broadcasting studios were men. The protestors, the attackers, those defending themselves, the wounded, the killed, the cops and the commentators were mostly men. Men who ran a militant campaign in civilian areas. How can this be understood? Does it have a meaning, and if so, what is it? In this essay, I'd like to reflect on the role gender played in the events of May 2021 in Israel’s mixed cities and on its meaning in relation to women's modes of protest and objection.

The protest on the home turf: the intersection of gender, class and ethno-nationality

In feminist research, systems of oppression and relations of power towards different groups, including women, disadvantaged economic classes and racial and ethnic minorities, do not exist on their own, but rather operate simultaneously to create a multi-dimensional, complex system of oppression. Thus, social and cultural categories and axes of identity combine with each other to form what Kimberlé Crenshaw has conceptualized as "intersectionality". Intersectional theory calls for a more precise and sensitive lens, one that takes into consideration multiple elements in an individual's identity while explaining social systems of power; in Crenshaw's description:

"Intersectionality is an analytic sensibility, a way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power… Intersectionality draws attention to invisibilities that exist in feminism, in anti-racism, in class politics, so, obviously, it takes a lot of work to consistently challenge ourselves to be attentive to aspects of power that we don't ourselves experience".

The concept of ethno-gentrification (Monterescu, 2015) aims to apply an intersectional lens; the intersection of class and ethno-nationality in view of the spatial relations within the mixed cities. The concept of gentrification describes the influx of the middle-class into the centers of disadvantaged cities, while displacing a population of a disadvantaged economic class. Although this phenomenon has been studied in the context of economy and class, it is impossible to ignore the ethno-national context in which it occurs. As a result of gentrification, minorities and ethnic groups are displaced due to an intersection of class marginalization and ethnic origins. In Israeli mixed cities, gentrification does not only reproduce class power relations, but ethno-national power relations as well, in what has been described as "ethno-gentrification" (ibid.). Yet, as I previously claimed (Shmaryahu-Yeshurun, 2020), this displacement is not just a by-product of an intersection of class and ethno-nationality, but also an intentional institutional objective to gain territorial control in a reality of a conflict between a majority and a minority. By de-politicizing gentrification and by concealing it under the image of a neutral economic process of urban renewal that benefits everyone, control of the mixed city along ethnic-national lines is being promoted. At the same time, it is paradoxically presented as a national, Zionist mission to strengthen the city's Jewish character. Among other things, this is achieved by state and municipalities’ support of non-profit organizations and settlement groups, and has, therefore, been described as state-led ethno-gentrification (ibid.; Shmaryahu-Yeshurun and Ben-Porat 2020).

Thus, the phenomenon of Jewish settlement groups in the mixed cities reveals complex power relations, pitting settlement members with state support against existing residents, Jews and Arabs of a less advantaged economic class. Religious settlement groups are one of the many ways for organizing within Israel's urban communal-settlement landscape, one which originated in religious Zionism, following the wish of religious-Zionist activists to promote social integration and strengthen the cities and their residents. These aims have been combined with the wish to "settle in the hearts" of the Israeli society, connecting it with the vision of ‘Greater Israel’, and to consolidate the Jewish presence and character of the mixed cities. The state has been mobilized for this settlement mission, offering budgetary support from its various government ministries. Along the years, this phenomenon has spread, and today there are over eighty religious settlement groups in Israel, almost in every Israeli city. In the mixed cities, ethno-gentrification has created an experience of double marginalization among the minority population: both of class and of ethno-nationality.

To this double marginalization, a gendered one was added as well, as manifested in recent violent events. Yet, as previously mentioned, despite the multiple marginalization of women residents, both Jewish and Arab, in the mixed cities, their voices have rarely been heard. Similarly, the voice of women members of the settlement groups in the mixed cities remained relatively mute, and representation in the streets comprised mostly of men, either members of the settlement groups or right-wing activists who came to their aid from outside the cities. Thus, while the public and scholarly discourse has managed to elaborate and interpret the intersection of class and ethno-nationality, it has relegated the issue of gender to the margins. It seems that, in order to provide a comprehensive account of the patterns of protest and violence, it is important to view them through an intersectional lens and gendered patterns, beside those of class and ethno-nationality. The public-nature of the "masculine" violence and protest raises questions as for patterns of women’s protest and why has it been almost completely missing from any visible and public representation?

This question has also occupied me while conducting my research, when I met men and women residents of the mixed cities. While many interviewees, both men and women, described objection to and criticism of the policy of supporting settlement groups and the institutional discrimination they experienced, men, more than women, reported that they participated in violent actions and incidents. Thus, for instance, an Arab youth I met in Lod told me about the hard feelings towards the institutional discrimination in the distribution of resources between Arab residents and members of the religious settlement groups in the city, saying:

"They get opportunities, a new neighborhood, houses and money, they get invested in. What have I got? I'm responsible for paying the electricity in my home… So I too wish to go out to the streets, burn up things, raise chaos in order to make myself heard that I too wish to move up in life".

In contradistinction, women shared more about their attempts to fight in legitimate ways. Others even described giving up any expression of criticism or resistance and their effort to accommodate the hardships they experienced. For instance, in a conversation I held with an activist Arab resident of Lod, she told me that in spite of actively participating in the protest activities throughout the years, she's wary of the price she has to pay for them and these days tries to accommodate herself to the urban reality:

"Two years ago, I was one of those fighting for the reopening of the [Chicago] community center that was closed down, and abandoned for years. We've made a community center on the street, correspondences, Knesset members from our city, we've raised chaos, and when the community center opened, I was the first they refused to hire, the municipality rejects me for holding up a fight… I learned to keep myself back, to be a politician like everyone else… I give up my principles… I want us [Jews and Arabs] to succeed together in doing something with each other. Recently, I even started going to municipal welfare representatives with the aim of cooperation, I even sit in front of the municipal director general, who's from the religious settlement group, and listen, I don't care, there's a project, there's a budget, there's cooperation, there are organizations they wish to promote, that's my aim, all other things and all my thoughts, these I keep inside, and when we speak, I sometimes let out my anger, but in the meantime, I've started holding myself back".

It seems that the recent violent events as well did not differ essentially in relation to the different reaction patterns of men and women, and that, also during the events, women expressed a "quieter" resistance, one which is not necessarily visible. While I do not wish to provide, at this early stage, a comprehensive interpretation and analysis for its reasons, I would like to suggest an initial consideration: that the force of violence and its positioning, along with the social norms in relation to women's protest, have turned it into a "masculine" performance. The violent frontline took place on the streets, in the homes, between children's bedrooms, in day-to-day life, while going to the kindergarten and school. It included burning down houses, hurling stones and Molotov cocktails, going out to the street and involved open displays of real life-threatening physical force. These patterns of protest and violence are less characterizing women's protest and resistance, not necessarily due to women's lack of will or ability, but due to the social norms dictating the correct and appropriate modes through which a woman can resist.

Looking at the modes of women's violence provides a glimpse into the social boundaries that define women's identity through their relationships, caring, responsibility and attachment to others, what Carol Gilligan (2003) called an "ethics of care". In social thought, this identity is based on values of justice, equality and fairness. In contrast to men, who adopt, according to Gilligan, an "ethics of rights" based on values of justice, equality and fairness.

 These codes, it seems, are internalized by women and men and were expressed, among others, in patterns of protest and violence we have witnessed during the events.

Although women, both settlement-group members and long-term residents, seem to have acted similarly by not participating publicly in the events, it would be wrong to blur the social boundaries between them and ignore their positioning within the social fabric in the urban space. Nevertheless, the gendered perspective and its intersection with the ethno-national dimension uncover a singular complexity in relation to the modes of gendered action in mixed cities.

The violent events of May 2021 in the mixed cities have placed the issue of the intersection of class and ethno-nationality at center stage. The phenomenon of ethno-gentrification has revealed that the displacement of Arab residents from the cities is not only informed by their economic, but also by their ethno-national disadvantage and marginalization. Yet, while this intersection received attention in public and scholarly discourse, the issue of gender remained at the margins of discourse. In this essay, I suggested that gender, just as class, did not undermine existing ethno-national hierarchies. Similarly, it did not challenge patterns of protest. It seems that the violent and public character of objection positioned both Jewish and Arab women at the margins of the events and revealed the social norms and boundaries in relation to the accepted ways for expressing it by women. It seems that there is a need to delve into an examination of the impact of gender on spatial relations in mixed cities, and especially analyze its impact on patterns of action and objection in these unique environments.  


Gilligan, Carol. (2003). In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Monterescu, D. (2015). Jaffa shared and shattered: Contrived coexistence in Israel/Palestine. Indiana University Press.

Shmaryahu-Yeshurun, Y., & Ben-Porat, G. (2020). For the benefit of all? State-led gentrification in a contested city. Urban Studies.

Shmaryahu-Yeshurun, Y. (2020). Mediniut hityashvut Garinim baperiferia vebearim meoravot beyisrael [Settlement policy in the Israeli peripheral and mixed cities: Between nationalism and neoliberalism] [Doctoral dissertation, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev] (Hebrew).