The Lights of Jaffa

The Palestinian writer and human rights lawyer Raja Shehadeh has an okay piece in The New Yorker on the death of Ariel Sharon. Shehadeh can be a wonderful writer, but this reflection of his seems flat and perfunctory. Seeing his byline, however, reminded me of one of the most affecting passages in his memoir Strangers in the House about his relationship with his father and growing up in the West Bank.

Shehadeh’s family had been expelled in 1948 from Jaffa, a port city with a thriving Arab population just south of Tel Aviv. Throughout his youth, Shehadeh and his father would walk in the evenings to a hilltop near Ramallah and look out on the twinkling lights of Jaffa, far off to the west. They would notice with satisfaction how the town was growing, gradually eclipsing Tel Aviv, its much smaller Jewish neighbor to the north. It was one of his father’s great solaces and pains, to see those lights of Jaffa and think of returning home.

But at some point in Shehadeh’s life, he or perhaps he and his father—my copy of the memoir is buried in Greg Grandin’s basement, so I’m going on memory here—had a terrible realization: the lights they saw were really Tel Aviv. It was the Jewish city that had grown to such massive proportions, surpassing and ultimately incorporating the Arab city to the south.


  1. J. Otto Pohl January 12, 2014 at 9:01 am | #

    I think you mean Ariel Sharon not Israel Sharon.

    • Corey Robin January 12, 2014 at 9:06 am | #

      Yikes! Thanks, fixed.

  2. BillR January 12, 2014 at 10:30 am | #

    This is the same city where your chances of coming across someone speaking Arabic are lower than in, say, Geneva, Switzerland:

    Although 20% of Israeli citizens are Palestinians, only 4.2% of Tel-Aviv residents are. For a major city, that is an impressive lack of diversity. Moreover, almost all these Palestinians live in a few segregated neighborhoods in the far end of Jaffa, mostly Ajame. Excluding these marginal and poor neighborhoods at the edge of the city, Tel-Aviv is almost completely free of Arabs. As such, the city no doubt constitutes a demographic miracle. The below-margin-of-error percentage of Arabs in this “diverse,” bustling, Mediterranean metropolis is lower than in Paris, Geneva, London, or Brooklyn.

    Now that that problem has been taken care of, there’s a new “cancer” that’s eating away at this great city:

    MK Miri Regev (Likud) said in the course of a demonstration in Tel Aviv in May that “the Sudanese are a cancer in our body.” MK Danny Danon (Likud) said in that demonstration that “the state of Israel is at war. An enemy state of infiltrators has been established within the state of Israel and its capital is Tel Aviv.”

  3. neffer January 12, 2014 at 11:47 am | #

    Expulsion from Jaffa seems unlikely. There were people removed but for Jaffa it was not often by Jews.

    • Mark Lefevre January 12, 2014 at 7:43 pm | #

      Yeah, Prof. Robin should read some (gasp) scholarship on 1948. You can only learn some much from activists tweets.

      • neffer January 13, 2014 at 10:26 am | #

        If, Mark, he is unaware that, most particularly in Jaffa, there were substantial efforts by the Arab side to force people out in Jaffa, he has not done all that much homework.

        This has been quite well documented. I realize that the pro-Palestinian side makes a habit of exagerating but, when such people do that, they deserve to be called out for doing so, which is what I have done.

  4. Corey Robin January 13, 2014 at 11:08 am | #

    I would urge anyone who’s interested in this topic to consult Benny Morris’s The Origins of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (Cambridge University Press, 1988, 2004). This is considered the gold standard among historians and scholars (Morris has become a fairly conservative Zionist). Needless to say, Morris confirms that Jaffa was under siege from Israeli forces and that the bulk of its Arab residents fled its environs IN SPITE of calls from local Arab militia leaders for them to stay in the city. I’ve found there’s no point arguing with people who, on this issue, are the equivalent of climate change denialists. So I won’t. But anyone interested in the documentary record should start with Morris and go from there.

    • Mark Lefevre January 13, 2014 at 12:05 pm | #

      I’m not a deniar, in fact I was going to reccomendatikn Morris’ 1948 since, I’m gonna take a wild guess here, you don’t read Hebrew or Arabic?

    • neffer January 13, 2014 at 2:32 pm | #

      You might want to read Morris’ book, 1948, and, at the same time, Ephraim Karsh’ book, Palestine Betrayed, which find evidence not, perhaps, referred to in earlier scholarship. Karsh had a lot to say about Jaffa, which was the source of my information in particular on this point.

      • Mark Lefevre January 13, 2014 at 5:15 pm | #

        Yes, getting Jaffa this wrong is a sign of not being up-to-date with scholarship. It’s intellectual tourism to read only the last generation of work.

      • s. wallerstein January 13, 2014 at 7:33 pm | #

        Neffer and Mark Lefevre:

        Instead of assigning bibliography, why don’t you summarize the information which we all should have read?

        That way you might convince some readers.

        I (and many other readers) have no access to a university library nor an unlimited budget to buy books with.

  5. Mark Lefevre January 13, 2014 at 7:48 pm | #

    As Corey Robin surely knows, the book he cites (Benny Morris’ early work) has been partially disavowed by the author for two reasons. First, he saw himself as attempting to correct the excesses of Zionist historiography and, thus, wanted to highlight crimes committed by erstwhile heroes and, Two, he was a bit too skeptical of official accounts. In his later work, specifically 1948 (which is a popular history, available cheaply on Kindle, here
    he presents a full picture of all the events of 1948. Many of the Jews wanted the Arab population out, but many more did not, and the impetus for “expulsion” came almost exclusively from bullying Arab legions. Morris, whose control of the scholarship is unquestioned, has not come circle in his appreciation, but now sees the dynamic as one of unintended cooperation. Extreme Zionists (who were the minority among leaders and fighters in the Yishuv) wanted the Arabs gone, and the Arab nationalists did too. Most of those who left fled out of either ideological commitment or fear of retribution from Arabs–a fear that was entirely justified. There was no “explosion’ from Jaffa, Morris contends.
    Corey Robin may or may not know this–but if he’s going to use Morris as source (and he has to) he has to present his mature work.

    • s. wallerstein January 13, 2014 at 8:21 pm | #

      Mark Lefevre:

      Thanks. Now I understand your point.

  6. Kristofer Petersen-Overton January 14, 2014 at 9:38 am | #

    Ephraim Karsh is not a specialist and his work is not taken seriously by those who are—not even by Morris who you seem intent on holding up as apparently the final voice on the matter (he has a pretty devastating review of Karsh’s effort to attack his scholarship). But it’s intellectually deceitful to cite Morris’s pop history “1948” as the single source denying the expulsion of Palestinians in Jaffa. The city was shelled by Yishuv forces during the war and, following the terror inspired by the Deir Yassin massacre, caused many to flee. As Morris himself makes clear, the Yishuv was directly involved in forced expulsions in only a handful of cases during the war. Most of the time, the threat of violence (what Morris calls a “whispering campaign”) was enough to cause panicked flight. So why are we quibbling about Corey’s post? Do you seriously deny that Palestinians fled Jaffa? I don’t understand what you think you’re arguing here.

    • neffer January 14, 2014 at 11:17 am | #

      Karsh, of course, would differ with your assessment. What he has that, for example, Palestine Betrayed, Morris does not have is extensive knowledge of Arabic. Hence, he has better sources than any other writer on the dispute as to the motivations on the Arab side.

      Further, Morris gave Karsh’s book, Palestine Betrayed, a rather good review, indicating that Karsh’s history was basically correct and brought out important facts.

      I note in particular Karsh’s book describes “good-bye” dinners, I believe in the Tel Aviv, Jaffa area, held by Arabs who, facing demands to leave by the Arab leadership, invited their Jewish friends over for a feasts. This, evidently, was not at all uncommon.

      Further, Karsh has written about fatwas given, with respect to Jaffa, as to the demand, by Muslim clerics, that Muslims leave because of the unholiness of being ruled by non-Muslims, most particularly, Jewish non-Muslims.

      Karsh and Morris, as you may know, do not get along so well. Karsh wrote a book that, in some substantial part, showed that Morris had misused quotations, most particularly by the leadership of the Jewish side in order to make it seem as if they favored expulsion. As Karsh showed – and the two, you may note, clashed in the pages of Commentary, where Karsh beat Morris up pretty badly, showing that Morris had effectively removed the “not” from a statement. Since that time, as I see the matter, Morris has been more careful. Moreover, he has begun to study the Arab side – which did not have much place in his early scholarship, as is pretty evident. That, plus his role in the negotiations in the 1990’s, has altered his perspective pretty dramatically.

      He now sees, as Karsh has shown, the issue that drives the Arab side far better.

      So, I think you have a rather substantial misunderstanding here.

      • neffer January 14, 2014 at 11:18 am | #

        I should have proofread better. My first paragraph above should read:

        Karsh, of course, would differ with your assessment. What he has in, for example, Palestine Betrayed, that Morris does not have is extensive knowledge of Arabic. Hence, Karsh has better sources than any other writer on the dispute as to the motivations on the Arab side.

    • BillR January 14, 2014 at 6:37 pm | #

      Yes, the killings did not have to be too thorough, partly because those who fled did so in the expectation that once hostilities ended they would be able to move back to their villages or cities as had been the case in previous wars in that area. It took a few years before the intent of permanent Ethnic Cleansing via deliberate “tactical massacres”–a commonplace in settler-colonial societies–became apparent:

      “When we reached the entrance to the village, we saw bodies everywhere. The driver panicked, frightened to go back, but forced to drive over several corpses lying in the street to get away…I knew what was being suggested. The eastern side was the border with the West Bank. Palestinians were regularly shot on sight by the police for trying to cross into Israel. If we were killed there, it would look like we were infiltrators.”

      A refugee from Nazi Germany, he had experienced Kristallnacht in 1938 when Nazi troops conducted a pogrom against the local Jewish population. He was saved when a Nazi policeman warned him: “Run home fast, boy.”

      Remembering that moment 18 years later as Arab workers arrived at his checkpoint, he said: “I fired in the air and shouted in Arabic – ‘Yallah, go home fast’ – just like the German policeman who warned me on Kristallnacht.”

      [T]he massacre at Kafr Qassem had changed Palestinians’ response to Israeli violence. “In the 1948 war, many people fled when faced with the Israeli army, expecting to return after the fighting. After Kafr Qassem, Palestinians learnt that Israel did not play by the rules of war. We learnt that sumud [steadfastness] was our only defence.”

      • BillR January 14, 2014 at 6:41 pm | #

        Here is a link from story referenced in last post.

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