What does ‘coexistence’ look like in a segregated city?

‘Coexistence’ in one of Israel’s major mixed cities means Palestinian citizens must forget who they are, where they were born, and whom they were born to.

By Zohar Elmakias

Two eighth grade girls from Ramle’s Juwarish neighborhood stabbed a security guard at the central bus station last Thursday. Following the incident, I thought a lot of about Ramle. I was born and raised there, and many of my family members still live in the city. Ramle is, for better or for worse, the landscape of my childhood, the place I always go back to. As a child, I participated in various “coexistence” activities with local Arab children. We met at the pool, at summer camp, at school. But I did not live in a “mixed city” — I lived in a segregated city: I did not know their language, and it took me time to understand why our neighbors put up a Christmas tree in their living room, or why fireworks lit up the sky on Christmas Eve.

The knife found in the backpack of one of the 13-year-old girl's backpack following the stabbing attack in Ramle. (photo: Israel Police)
The knife found in the backpack of one of the 13-year-old girl’s backpack following last week’s stabbing attack in Ramle. (photo: Israel Police)

And though I lived in a segregated city, Haaretz recently published a list of education experts and local leaders who praised the city for its coexistence, among them was Mayor Yoel Lavi, who said: “Ramle is a multicultural city where Jews coexist alongside Arabs as neighbors. We will continue to be good neighbors with no difference between sectors.”

In an interview in 2005, Lavi said: “There are homes in Juwarish that are nicer than those in Kfar Shmaryahu. How can people call it a refugee camp? There is an excellent school there…and houses that are reminiscent of the Loire Valley.” In that same interview, Lavi talked about the local elections and his relations with the Arab population of the city:

I come crawling on all fours, begging that they vote for me. Someone gets up and says: ‘How can we vote for you when you have a sign that says ‘The people are with the Golan?” I did not let him continue. I told him, ‘Listen. I don’t like your wisecracks. I didn’t come to talk about national issues. I came to deal with the fact that you don’t have water or sewage infrastructure, that you don’t have roads and sidewalks. If the Arab sector wants to talk to me about national issues, I will be the first to shoot you. I have a lot of life experience. Every time I shot at Arabs I stayed alive and they didn’t. Fuck off.’ So I left. I solved all the infrastructural problems in Juwarish. There is a reason they vote for me. Whenever they break the law I strike. But I am the first to defend them when it comes to their rights.

In those same years, Lavi refused to give Arab names to the streets in Ramle, saying that those who don’t like the decision can either move to Arab towns or “change their Allah.” He later apologized, although two years later Israel’s attorney general decided not to appoint him to head the Israel Land Administration (ILA). Even the chairman of the ILA, one of the most discriminatory and problematic bodies in Israel, cannot stand Lavi’s remarks and policies.

Lavi’s remarks show exactly what kind of “coexistence” is acceptable to him: the kind in which people are made to forget who they are, where they were born, and whom they were born to. The kind where people are made to forget their language, their culture, and their god. People will talk endlessly about brainwashing or fanatical identification with the Palestinian struggle, while forgetting one simple fact: Palestinian citizens of Israel are part and parcel of this place. Infrastructure, water, sewage, education, professional opportunities, cultural budgets — these are all rightfully theirs. Talk of acting “for them” or “in their name” is nothing but a patronizing distraction from this truth.

As usual, words of wisdom come directly from those we refuse to listen to — those we prefer to forget. At the end of the Haaretz article, the children of Juwarish say, “On the bus ride here we felt that everyone was staring at us and was afraid of us. It’s frightening to be children in this city because everyone suspects you.” I don’t know which city Yoel Lavi lives in. Probably a different one altogether.

Zohar Elmakias is an editor for Haokets, where this article was first published in Hebrew.

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