Seth Freedman
The Guardian (Opinion)
February 8, 2010 - 1:00am

For all that Jerusalem is perpetually mired in clashes between rival groups of Arab and Jewish residents, there appears to be a glimmer of hope. Plans were announced recently for a fully integrated mixed neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city, in a move which could herald a change in the way Jews and Arabs coexist in the Holy City.

Elsewhere in Israel, many communities have embraced the idea of mixed living – such as in Nazareth and Jaffa – but Jerusalem has long remained a divided city, and the ostracism and isolation has done nothing to promote harmony between those on either side of the divide. When it comes to Jerusalem's set-up, east is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet – until now, that is. If the proposal for Tantur comes to fruition, a town of 800 housing units would be constructed, and further plans are slated for a similar community in the northern part of Jerusalem.

While the mayor of Jerusalem has not vetoed the idea, he is said to prefer it to be sited elsewhere in the city, and those behind the project rate their chances of success as being 60% at best. However, several key Jewish and Palestinian academics and civil servants are backing the plan, and the scheme has won approval from Middle East envoy Tony Blair as well, which serves as a ringing endorsement, despite general scepticism about his role.

While there are many hurdles in the path of the project, it would be a major disappointment were it to founder at this point, because mixed communities represent one of the best methods of bridging the gulf between the majority of Jews and Arabs in Israel and Palestine. I have experienced both sides of Israeli living during my five years in the country, and have seen first-hand the wildly differing effects of segregated and integrated neighbourhoods.

My first four years were spent in the ultra-homogenous, insular German colony in West Jerusalem, which styles itself as a bastion of well-off, conservative Jewish suburbia. Located only a few miles from Bethlehem, the residents are nevertheless totally cut off from their Arab neighbours, thanks to the separation wall and checkpoints which hermetically seal south Jerusalem. The same divisions exist between west and east Jerusalem, where despite relatively free access between the two sides of the city, Arabs and Jews stick to their own territory (apart from the continually encroaching settlers in Silwan, Sheikh Jarrah and beyond).

The upshot of such separation is a perpetual air of suspicion and distrust from both sides towards the other. In such a climate, it is little wonder that rapprochement remains so elusive. However, in parts of the country where Jews and Arabs live side by side, conditions are far more clement.

Jaffa, where I have lived for the last year, is a case in point. The city is by no means a bed of roses, and tensions still abound over a variety of issues. However, for all that the set-up isn't perfect, it is the closest thing there is at present to a model of co-existence. Everyday contact with members of "the other side" is key to breaking down stereotypes and overcoming prejudices, and as such there is no substitute for first-hand experience of living in the same apartment blocks, shopping in the same supermarkets and walking the same streets.

Coming from London, one of the most ethnically mixed cities on earth, cities like Jaffa and Haifa are nothing new, and certainly nothing of which to be apprehensive. However, for the average Jew or Arab in Israel, the level of scepticism that exists when it comes to such living arrangements speaks volumes about the historical segregation between the two groups. Cab drivers routinely turn down fares from Tel Aviv to Jaffa, fast food companies refuse to deliver south of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa border, and as soon as a non-resident hears I live in Jaffa, nine times out of 10 times I'm met with the shocked response: "But aren't you scared living with all those Arabs?"

For all the downside of Jaffa's continuing gentrification, one positive aspect is the amount of exposure that Tel Aviv Jews get to the mixed city on their doorstep now that Jaffa has become a magnet for diners, revellers and tourists alike. Likewise, Jaffa's Arab residents know far better than residents of Palestinian cities such as Ramallah and Jenin that not all Israelis are marauding settlers or gun-toting soldiers, and as such are far better placed to see the nuances in Israeli Jewish society.

It would be over-simplistic and over-optimistic to assume that as soon as Jews and Arabs begin living together across the country, peace will automatically follow. Decades of each side mistreating the other and the inevitable resulting hostility and tension will not disappear overnight. But given that neither the Jews nor the Arabs will disappear either, there has to be a concerted effort to push past the current status quo and learn to live in some degree of harmony with each other.

Proposed communities such as Tantur, and existing models such as Jaffa, must be given every opportunity to thrive; to do otherwise is to condemn yet another generation to a lifetime of division and distrust.


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