A young boy looks on as Israeli security forces gather during a protest in Jaffa on May 15, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli / AFP)
Main image: A young boy looks on as Israeli security forces gather during a protest in Jaffa on May 15, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli / AFP)
Inside story

The imam’s call: How 2021’s lessons kept Jaffa from sliding into fiery riots on Oct. 8

After deadly unrest engulfed mixed cities 3 years ago, clerics, activists and cops jointly laid the groundwork that halted extremists who nearly plunged Jaffa back into chaos

Main image: A young boy looks on as Israeli security forces gather during a protest in Jaffa on May 15, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli / AFP)

JAFFA — In the empty streets of Jaffa on the morning of Sunday, October 8, Kaley Halperin was packing her kids into her car with the few belongings she could gather, not knowing when she would return. Like the rest of the country, she had woken the previous day to the blare of sirens and booms of the Iron Dome intercepting rockets overhead.

Although she observed Shabbat, Halperin had asked her husband Yossi to check his phone. “There was nothing in the news, because still no one knew anything.”

An hour later, Yossi’s commanding officer called. That was to be the last she saw of him for three months.

That Saturday night, her brother told her to leave town. Fearing he was overreacting, she asked Yossi.

She recalled his reply: “‘I don’t know what’s going to happen,’ he said. ‘Go to your mother’s.’ That was the first time I was scared.”

As she buckled her kids in, Halperin was struck by a dissonance. “Everything was quiet, but it felt like everyone was frozen, looking to see if someone was going to make the first move.”

Her sense of unease sprang from memories of the trauma her community had experienced in May 2021, when Jaffa, along with Israel’s other mixed Jewish-Arab cities, erupted in the country’s worst internecine violence in years.

For eleven days, as Hamas rockets rained down and Israeli airstrikes pummeled Gaza, thousands of Arab and Jewish Israelis took to the streets in violent dueling protests that resulted in four deaths, widespread destruction of property, injuries, and scenes of shocking brutality.

Torched cars and vandalized stores in Jaffa-Tel Aviv, following a night of rioting by Arab residents in the city, on May 15, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

War has now been raging for nine months, but despite — or perhaps thanks to — fears that October 2023 would end up like May 2021, there has been no fresh outbreak of violence between Jews and Arabs in Jaffa or any of Israel’s other mixed cities.

Jaffa’s Jews and Arabs tend to agree that shock, pragmatism and heavy policing, both by law enforcement and as part of grass-roots monitoring within communities, have been primary factors in avoiding a repeat of May 2021.

According to a source within the police, Israeli security services made 2,000 arrests in Jaffa alone on October 7 as they sought to crack down on social media messages that could be construed as support for the Hamas-led massacre.

“It was a deterrent,” admitted Majed, a popular local Islamic figure, about the arrests. Overall, he said, “people feared returning to those days, because we all paid a heavy price.”

(Like others quoted here for whom only a first name is given, Majed asked that his real name not be used due to the sensitivity of the subject matter.)

Kaley Halperin at her home in Jaffa on April 21, 2024. (Dor Pazuelo/Flash90)

For Hadir Guti, a religious Muslim teacher raised in Jaffa, “October 7 was first and foremost a slap to Palestinians’ face, because it does not represent us. It crossed my red line as a human being.”

But in the moment, fears were rampant in Jaffa that the city could once again turn into a tinderbox.

On the morning of October 8, as fighting still raged inside Israeli territory in the south and no one was certain how deeply terrorists had infiltrated, a group of Jewish youth were seen proceeding down a main Jaffa boulevard waving flags and singing patriotic songs.

Hundreds of young Jews dance with Israeli flags as they march through the mixed Israeli town of Jaffa, in celebration of Jerusalem Day, May 29, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The group was associated with Jaffa’s garin torani, a community of religiously observant and often ideologically nationalist Jews who have settled as a group in the city. There are approximately 135 such groups around the country, many of them in the heart of cities like Jaffa.

Although ostensibly designed to help integrate Israel’s national religious and secular Jewish populations through community service, education, and shared living, the garin movement has drawn fire in recent years for exacerbating socioeconomic discrepancies between locals and transplants, who largely hail from
educated, middle-class families, and who are ideologically rooted in the religious Zionist settlement movement.

According to Nitzan, the community manager for the umbrella organization of Jaffa’s garin, the Jewish youths belonged to a pre-army academy run through the organization.

They “work out every day, running on the beach, ” she said, but on October 8 they held their morning procession on Jerusalem Boulevard, Jaffa’s main north-south artery, “with Israeli flags and singing Am Yisrael chai [The people of Israel lives].”

Nitzan described the procession as an attempt to bolster morale following the devastating Hamas attack.

In many cities, tensions between resident Arabs and garinim, which have been accused of attempting to “Judaize” local spaces and of practicing exclusionist policies, have festered for years. When the riots broke out in May 2021, many regarded the frictions around the garinim as a major factor at the heart of the unrest.

An Israeli Arab woman gestures as she faces an Israeli riot police officer during a march of right wing activists in the streets of Jaffa, a mixed Jewish and Arab neighborhood in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, March 2, 2011. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

“I don’t think they intended to incite, but it was impossible not to hear them,” said Daniella Bronstein, a long-time Jewish resident who watched the march unfold. (Bronstein, a journalist and community activist, helped connect The Times of Israel with several sources quoted in this piece).

For the city’s Arabs, many of whom were anxiously watching the group’s procession, the only thing bolstered was their sense of disquiet.

Witnesses said the group lingered in front of mosques while singing and dancing —“nothing illegal, but you could understand their purpose, or at least that it was not appropriate right now,” said police spokesperson Maj. Mark Angert.

The imam of the third mosque said he received “dozens of calls from Arab youth who were already organizing themselves to attack the group.” History appeared to be repeating itself.

But something had changed.

“Don’t do anything,” the imam told callers. “Let us handle this quietly.” If it became necessary he would call on them, he said.

Arab citizens of Israel overlook the Mediterranean sea, in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, Israel, September 23, 2019. (Oded Balilty/AP)

He posted a similar message on social media, which he also sent to some 1,200 youth connected with the mosque.

The imam then did something that would have been unthinkable in 2021 and still defies the common wisdom shared by Jaffa’s Jews and Arabs.

He called the police.

‘Mother of the Stranger’

Jaffa has served as a port and meeting point of civilizations continuously for the past 4,000 years, earning it one of its Arabic monikers, Umm al-Gharib, or “Mother of the Stranger,” or foreigner.

In the 19th century, during a long period under Ottoman rule, the city attracted Muslim and Arab immigrants from throughout the region, alongside Jews from North Africa who arrived in 1820 and Jews from Europe who arrived in 1840.

A view of Jaffa taken between 1898 and 1914. (Library of Congress/Matson Collection)

According to archival figures, between 1866 and 1917, when the British took control, the population grew from 5,000 to 50,000, but the share of the city that was Muslim had begun to shrink, declining from 77 percent to 60%.

At the same time, the Jewish population rose from 3% to 20%. By 1944, the population had doubled again, with Jews now comprising 30% of Jaffa’s population, and Muslims declining to 54%.

The view of Jews as “colonial infiltrators” was cemented during this period. With European support, Jews bought land outside Jaffa that became the city of Tel Aviv. By 1948, Jews comprised 75% of the area’s population. The inversions of these cities’ numbers and the accompanying shift in power was a microcosm of national dynamics.

Following the passage of the UN Partition Plan in 1947, Jaffa became a war zone. By the time Israel declared independence in May 1948, 95% of its 70,000 residents had fled, and by 1949 all 26 of its surrounding villages had been depopulated.

A picture shows the destruction in the captured Manshiah quarter in Jaffa on May 8, 1948. (AP/Malmed)

In the aftermath of the war, the remaining residents of several Arab villages were forcibly relocated to southern Jaffa, which was reincorporated as an annex to Tel Aviv.

There, they became neighbors with Jewish Holocaust survivors and other immigrants from Bulgaria, Morocco, Romania, and Turkey. Homes built in the 19th century and abandoned during the war were carved up into apartments housing both Jews and Arabs.

For Jewish refugees, life in the mixed city of Jaffa was a fresh start on old soil.

Sefi Smadja-Wasserman. (courtesy)

“My grandmother shared a kitchen with an Arab family in Jabaliyya,” a neighborhood in Jaffa also called Givat Ha’aliyah, recalled Sefi Smadja-Wasserman, whose Moroccan and Polish immigrants parents met in Jaffa in the 1950s.

“I had an ‘Uncle’ Ahmad. It was normal. We grew up together.”

For a couple of decades, Jewish life and institutions sprouted in Jaffa.

For Palestinians, it was the ghost of a former life. Guti said her family lived in Ajami, a Jaffa neighborhood where many of the city’s Arabs were forcibly concentrated. For a time, it was ringed by barbed wire, and many took to calling it “the Ajami ghetto.”

Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood is seen in a picture taken Feb. 7, 2010. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

“I grew up in a family in which my mother and father didn’t speak,” she said. “They didn’t talk – not about politics or Palestine.”

The Jaffa they knew had died and in 1950 the state appropriated what was left under the Absentee Properties Law.

Over the decades, many Jews left Jaffa’s poorer inner core for new neighborhoods in other parts of the city, leaving behind the homes and synagogues they had founded alongside a nucleus of poorer Arab families who had been displaced in 1948, many of whom did not own their homes.

Eventually, Tel Aviv began a process of “rehabilitating” Jaffa by privatizing state-owned properties (largely acquired through the absentee law, which transferred ownership of former Arab homes). The policy touched off waves of gentrification as these poorer neighborhoods were redeveloped.

The light rail on Jerusalem Street in Jaffa on May 17, 2023. (Omer Fichman/Flash90)

Opposition from Jaffa’s Arab community starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s failed to curb the remaking of the city. Luxury estates in gated communities were followed by liberal middle-class families buying more modest homes; artists, urban hippies, students and others seeking to escape Tel Aviv’s sky-high rents moved in as well, transforming Jaffa’s urban fabric.

Jews and Arabs tend to read this process through the lens of 1948. For Arabs, it reenacts the transformations of population, power, and place they equate with the Nakba — the “catastrophe” — that led to what they see as Jaffa’s death. For Jews, it retraces the steps of their forebears who founded new life on ancient soil through Israel’s independence. These strange neighbors’ inverted relationships with their shared home were the kindling for the 2021 riots.

‘A war movie’

In 2007, Rabbi Eliyahu Mali arrived in the city with a group of seven families, a nationalist religious contingent whose members have since acquired a diversity of properties throughout Jaffa to serve as homes, schools, and dorms for Jaffa’s garin torani.

Today, the garin community includes a hesder yeshiva — in which soldiers alternate between Torah study and mandatory military duty — headed by Mali, several student villages, two pre-military academies and a national service program for young women.

“People often claim ‘these settlers came to Judaize Jaffa,’” said Nitzan about how the religious Zionist community is viewed. “This is not the story.”

While Mali hailed from a West Bank settlement many involved with the garin come from inside Israel.

“I came to ‘occupy’ from Tel Aviv,” Nitzan laughed.

Jewish students study Torah at the Shirat Moshe Yeshiva in Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv, on April 30, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli / AFP)

A representative of the yeshiva noted that there has been a modern Jewish community in Jaffa since 1825.

“Mali has never stated a desire to ‘Judaize’ Jaffa, does not buy Arab properties, and works hard to maintain positive relationships with neighbors,” he said.

Nitzan claimed that many of the group’s critics are “leftists who arrived after us, bought Arab homes — and now demonstrate in front of the yeshiva saying that religious Jews are the problem.”

According to the yeshiva representative, the yeshiva only bought its first three apartments in 2023 to use as dorms, and its subsidiaries and nearly all of their 500 students live in rented properties.

On April 18, 2021, Mali was scouting a property for sale to serve the expanding garin when he was beaten by two Arab men. The assailants mistakenly thought Mali was attempting to buy a property acquired by the state under the Absentee Properties Law; critics have alleged that such properties are being increasingly designated by the state for use by garinim at the expense of affordable housing and public spaces for economically disadvantaged locals.

Mali’s assailants were arrested but, according to Nitzan, community members felt they could not let it go without a response.

Two residents of Jaffa filmed beating Rabbi Eliyahu Mali on April 18, 2021. (Courtesy)

They organized a rally of 150 people, which in turn was confronted by “a mob of dozens of Arab youth,” Nitzan said. According to Bronstein, students from a sister yeshiva in Bat Yam joined. “Then the riots started.”

Although police intervened immediately, “in the blink of an eye it turned into a war movie,” said Nitzan.

Counter-demonstrations continued the next day, leading to a march on the yeshiva, also reported to have been an absentee property where a synagogue was established in the 1950s.

Broken windows of storefronts on Jerusalem Blvd. in north Jaffa, May 17, 2021. (Elie Bleier)

Two weeks later, amid rising tensions over the pending eviction of Arab families from homes in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and scenes of police violence in the Old City and on the Temple Mount during Ramadan, Hamas terrorists in Gaza fired a volley of rockets at Jerusalem, triggering a major Israeli military campaign against the group.

As airstrikes pounded Gaza and rockets flew out of the enclave, some of the worst sectarian violence since the state’s founding erupted inside Israel. Four people were killed, scores more were hurt, and hundreds of homes, businesses and even houses of worship were torched amid days of firebombings, shootings and brawls between Jewish and Arab gangs in cities with mixed populations.

The riots were exacerbated by Muslim religious leaders’ calls for protest and by well-documented cases of police brutality.

Israeli police seen on the streets of the central Israeli city of Lod, where cars were torched as well as shops damaged, as clashes erupted between Arab and Jewish residents on May 12, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Although ill-prepared, the police eventually quelled the unrest. Some 2,000 people were rounded up afterward nationwide – 90% of them Arab. Some are still in jail awaiting verdicts, while those convicted often received double the prison time of Jews with similar offenses, due to “nationalist motives” being added to the charges against them.

“The government and the police treated Arabs as enemies,” said Sameh Zakout, a Palestinian citizen of Israel born in Ramle who now lives in Jaffa.

“The feeling was that police were taking an active part,” said Guti, the religious Muslim teacher. “As Arabs, if the police were in front of me, they were coming for me right now.”

According to her, the Arab youths who took part in the riots “thought they had nothing to lose: no education, no livelihood, no house in their future. Most of them lived off a mix of illegal activities, dealing drugs, stealing, or other side hustles. None went to school.”

Police officers clash with Arab Israeli demonstrators during a protest over tension in Jerusalem, in Ramle in central Israel, on May 10, 2021.(Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Similar conditions prevailed in Israel’s other mixed cities that saw rioting, including chronic disinvestment in the Arab population that caused continual friction with Jewish neighbors.

“They were at-risk youth,” said Majed, the popular local figure. He said that criminal actors and Hamas successfully encouraged them to violence because for both groups, chaos served their purposes.

Keeping the peace

The same combustible mix of historical tensions and modern friction was present in October 2023, but something had changed in the intervening years.

The imam’s phone call to the Jaffa police the morning of October 8 was made possible by local and national relationships formed in reaction to the traumas of 2021.

At the height of that unrest, a representative of the Jaffa branch of the Tel Aviv municipality asked a local imam for a meeting. What developed were unprecedented ties between local religious leaders, the municipality, and local police that held the social fabric together three years later.

A man travels on a bike with his daughter in Jaffa (photo by Nicky Kelvin/Flash90)
A man travels on a bike with his daughter in Jaffa on May 2, 2011. (Nicky Kelvin/Flash90)

“It’s clear from October 7 that the community work done before then built the infrastructure,” said Angert, the police major. “You can’t do something in an emergency that you haven’t built in the day-to-day, because there is no trust between people.”

He pointed to Jaffa’s high number of community police officers, one for each neighborhood, because “every neighborhood needs something slightly different.”

When an imam unexpectedly chanted a Hamas slogan after prayers one night, he received a call from another cleric, who told him ‘This is incitement. God forbid a boy praying by you takes a knife and commits a terror attack.’ The imam apologized

On a national level, leaders of the southern branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement — affiliated with the pragmatic Islamist Ra’am political party — began calling imams they knew across factional lines around the country starting on October 7, particularly in places that had experienced riots in 2021.

The message was, “This is the time for restraint, not the time to get dragged into an intifada spurred by voices of extremists who are largely outside the country,” said Sheikh Iyad, one of the group’s national leaders.

The imams pledged to renounce anyone who did otherwise. The strategy worked.

Palestinians enjoy the day during the Eid al-Fitr holiday in the port of the mixed Arab-Jewish neighborhood of Jaffa, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, April 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

When the Jewish youths held their march on October 8, the imam of the Jaffa mosque had already spoken with someone from the Islamic Movement and had conferred with officials from the city’s other mosques.

“Most held back,” said Majed. “Some prayed for the people killed in Gaza. Two or three smaller mosques held on to hate, but their influence is limited.”

Sameh Zakout. (Gili Levinson)

The local leadership’s efforts to keep the peace continued to bear fruit months into the war. When the imam of a Jaffa mosque chanted a Hamas slogan after prayers one night, he received a call from another imam, saying, “This is incitement. God forbid a boy praying by you takes a knife and commits a terror attack.” The imam apologized and retracted.

Meanwhile, the city had been working with young Jaffans to avoid a repeat of 2021 since just after the riots, when a youth center launched a project with the local municipality and police. Now in its third cycle, the program has expunged the records of teens whose convictions included security offenses in 2021, and has provided them a framework for rehabilitation.

Youth programs — coordinated between mosques, the Jaffa branch of the Tel Aviv municipality and local community centers — have also kept many off the streets and away from organized crime. Over the month of Ramadan, for example, they organized a twice-weekly soccer tournament called Tournament of Tolerance, attended by 180 boys.

People protest against the flag parade as hundreds of young Jews dance with Israeli flags as they march through the mixed Israeli town of Jaffa, in celebration of Jerusalem Day, May 29, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

This network was also activated on October 7 to curb those known to incite disadvantaged youth. In the early hours of Saturday, Smadja-Wasserman called the head of Jaffa’s municipality branch: “Do something now,” she pleaded.

He was ahead of her.

“They had already spoken with the Arab community leaders to keep the kids inside and keep everything calm,” she said.

Representatives from the municipality declined to comment.

Police stand guard on Olei Tzion Blvd. in north Jaffa, May 18, 2021. (Elie Bleier)

The police were also on alert. “There was a lot of tension,” said Angert. Since no one knew how deeply Hamas operatives had penetrated the country, “people were calling us constantly about any person walking too fast or too slow.”

Meanwhile, “Arabs were very afraid to go out,” he said. In addition to walking the streets to prevent any flare-ups between youth “with a lot of testosterone and not a lot of brains,” who might romanticize violence or not consider the political implications of their actions, “we told parents to keep them inside.”

The police prevented Jewish provocateurs from reaching Jaffa from the outside, used the municipality and other partners to disseminate official information and tamp down social media rumors liable to sow chaos, and called leaders across Jaffa’s divided communities telling them to make themselves available should any issue arise, and telling them to trust the police rather than try to resolve the problem themselves.

Arab Israelis attend a prayer as they mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, in Jaffa, on July 9, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Although the imam was only one of several people who alerted the police to the boys’ presence, it was his call that was transferred to a senior officer for direct coordination. Police officers were onsite within minutes.

“We had them close up and set them off to the side to prevent anyone from provoking anyone else,” said Angert.

The police also spoke with the boys’ rabbi and the head of the pre-army academy to remind them that they were responsible for the youngsters and must not permit them to make consequential decisions independently.

Meanwhile, Jews and Arabs spontaneously formed joint groups to prevent a fresh round of violence in Jaffa.

Volunteers for the Jewish-Arab Guard in Jaffa pack food and clothing for Jewish and Bedouin evacuees of border communities on November 24, 2024. (courtesy Kulanu Ha’Ir)

One previously reported Jewish-Arab group was started by Amir Badran, a Jaffa native who has been a city council member for the past eight years. A conference call hastily organized by Badran to bring together community organizers drew hundreds of Jewish and Arab participants looking for ways to keep the city intact, and a WhatsApp group he established soon had 4,000 members.

The group set up a hotline in Hebrew and Arabic, collected funds, and distributed food, clothes, and blankets to Jewish and Bedouin evacuees from border communities, along with support for local Jaffans. His goal was to send the message “We are protecting each other, doing it together, different from how everyone else is describing it,” he told Times of Israel.

Islamic leaders feared a reprise of 2021, but according to Majed, they were worried not about the heavy hand of the state, but rather what it could trigger: “This would drag in not just Jaffa, but the whole Green Line, from the Negev to the Galilee. For what?”

Israeli residents of the coastal city of Jaffa near Tel Aviv raise placards as they take part in a rally on May 15, 2021. (Photo by Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

The first Friday after October 7, the imam of Majed’s mosque told the congregation “about the need to demonstrate responsibility.”

Islamic leaders learned from 2021 the potential for local events to snowball. “We understand the implications and because of this, we made a switch,” he said.

“Today we are in respectful contact with the police, which was not the case before,” said Majed. “We do not see them as an enemy, but people who want to keep the law. We also want to live under law, not a jungle.”

Right-wing protesters march through Jaffa on March 2, 2011 (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/FLASh90)
Right-wing protesters march through Jaffa on March 2, 2011 (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/FLASh90)

The police responded to this shift in orientation: “They began working with the community as a community,” he said.

Many credit the heavy hand of Israeli law enforcement for discouraging outbreaks of violence. But Abdullah, a social worker who heads a local youth center, credits their more nuanced approach. “There’s a difference between brutal police behavior [in 2021] and keeping people detained for years versus restricting free speech [in 2023], arresting people for incitement, and releasing them” a few hours later in an “emergency situation,” he said.

People seen at the beach in Jaffa on sunset, on November 21, 2023. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

Improved ties between Arabs and police or the municipality have done little, however, to increase trust between many of the city’s Jewish and Arab denizens.

Some Jews in Jaffa believe Arabs secretly celebrated October 7 but refrained from rioting for fear of repercussions. Nitzan’s view is informed by an unsettling encounter. As she walked home from synagogue that morning, “an Arab pulled up in his car beside me and said, ‘Run, hurry home! Hamas is on its way to finish you off. Your time has come.’”

Benzion, a local religious Zionist teacher, heard celebratory fireworks. He credited the ferocity of the war in Gaza with keeping his Arab neighbors in check.

“[They know] when the Jews are weak. They see what’s going on in Gaza and say, ‘The Jews are crazy now; not the time to mess with them,’” he said.

An Arab Israeli woman attends Friday prayers next to an 18th century Muslim burial ground ahead of a protest against the decision made by the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality to demolish the burial ground and build shelter for homeless people, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Friday, June 12, 2020. (AP/Oded Balilty)

“We are always watching Gaza,” Guti confirmed. But her fear runs deeper. “You understand the destruction there can also happen to you. From the perspective of Jews inside this system, the Arab in Gaza and I are the same Arabs,” she said.

To Guti, the rising numbers of young religious Jewish men toting rifles in the neighborhood increases “the feeling that the time will come when they get the call to take to the streets and throw us out of our homes.”

The meaning of home

The riots of 2021 were fundamentally an internal Israeli affair oriented around the country’s still highly personal inversions of population, power, and place.

Though the aftermath of October 7 avoided turning into a repeat of the bloody events of May 2021, many of the same frictions between Jewish and Arab residents of Jaffa and other mixed cities remain in place.

“The issue is not waving flags,” said Abdullah, “it’s the ‘Here we are, doing whatever we want. We do not see you.’”

“They say it explicitly,” said Majed about the garin and other Jewish developers. “‘To Judaize Jaffa.’ What is this? To destroy my mosque? Stop the muezzin? Stop me from praying, walking around, living in Jaffa? We don’t need this ideology here — neither to eliminate Jews in Jaffa, nor Arabs.”

A boy walks past graffiti on a wall in Arabic and Hebrew which reads “Jaffa is not for sale” in the historic Arab neighborhood of Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv, on April 30, 2021. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

This highly charged atmosphere can make just walking around a political act.

Halperin, who arrived in 2012 but is not connected to the garin, said the 2021 riots strengthened her identity and motivated her to “reclaim the space through fear,” walking the streets wearing a traditional headscarf with her infant.

“I wanted them to know that I’m a religious Jew. I’m a part of the community, I’m raising kids here, and I have a right to feel safe in my home.”

Israeli riot police stand by as Arab Israelis protest against the decision made by the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality to demolish an 18th century Muslim burial ground and build a shelter for homeless people, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Friday, June 12, 2020. (AP/Oded Balilty)

According to Nitzan, the garin administrator, “it is not uncommon for boys leaving the yeshiva to get hit or cursed out.” She understands that many of the perpetrators are at-risk youth and comprise a small part of the population, but “at the end of the day my son can’t walk around here in peace.”

Smadja-Wasserman, who was born in Jaffa, says what distinguishes her from “New Jews” is “I’m not scared to go out even when it’s bad, because this is my home.”

But Arabs say that settling down elsewhere is a luxury they mostly don’t have.

“I lived in Bat Yam for three years,” said Abdullah. “My wife is religious, everyone looked at her like she fell out of the sky.”

Arab Israeli women of the Jarbou family talk outside their home where 10 members of the family live in the historic Arab neighborhood of Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv, on April 26, 2021. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

“Imagine if we bought a house in Ramat Gan,” said Majed, “and turned it into a mosque, brought in twenty lads from Jaffa, Ramle, and Lod. We could call it the Garin Qurani!” He laughed. “It would never be accepted.”

Moving into other Arab towns comes with many of the same challenges, said Guti, even as gentrification prices many out of Jaffa.

She described raising her children down the street from her mother, sisters, and nieces. When as a child she moved with her own family up north, “people always gave us this look, like, ‘What did you do in Jaffa that made you flee here?’”

“We can’t just pick up and move to a new place and feel like we belong,” Guti said. “No one will welcome us in, because everyone is involved with their own families.”

Meanwhile, Arab Jaffa’s communal structure never recovered from 1948. “There used to be an elder that you go to if something happens,” Guti said. “Today, there is no singular authority.”

Fisherman cast their rods in the port of Jaffa, July 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Even mosques compete for resources. “We have active social bodies with enormous influence,” said Majed, but they are factionalized.

“There are people that don’t talk to one another,” agreed the police’s Angert. “Talking to the leader of one group does not mean it will get to another group.”

‘No one is going anywhere’

In some ways, though, the shared traumas of the last few years have strengthened Jaffa’s social fabric.

Halperin said while she didn’t “have space to feel the other narrative, I do have space to feel my friend, Saz,” referring to Zakout by his nickname.

Smoke billows following Israeli airstrikes on Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 25, 2024. (Eyad Baba / AFP)

They had become friends at a peace retreat for musicians following the 2021 riots. When they re-established contact after October 7, Zakout told her fifty-eight members of his family in Gaza had been killed.

“They were the first people evacuated,” Zakout later told The Times of Israel. “Most of them got killed while running away, not using guns, not being part of Hamas, just being Palestinians in Gaza.”

“I told him my husband had been fighting there,” recalled Halperin. “He said, ‘He shouldn’t go back.’ He didn’t want Yossi to be taking part in killing his family.” Despite the gulf separating them, neither felt they should cut ties.

Relatives of Sameh Zakout seen in Gaza in Rafah, Gaza, February 12, 2024. (courtesy)

“I don’t live under occupation, but I know violence is not the way,” said Zakout. “I cannot accept killing women and children. Period.”

He blamed the war on those in power, rather than assigning collective blame to Jewish Israelis. “You want me to hate Jews? Will that have any chance of bringing my family back? So no, I will not hate,” he said.

Jaffa’s Jews and Muslims conceive of home differently, but share a basic view about the home they share: “Millions of Arabs will not vanish,” said Zakout. “At the same time millions of Jews will not vanish, either.”

“No one is going anywhere,” agreed Benzion from the yeshiva. “We want Arabs and Jews to be able to live together in Jaffa.”

Demonstrators gather to display coexistence at the Jaffa clock tower square, May 13, 2021. (Elie Bleier)

The sentiment was echoed by nearly everyone who spoke to The Times of Israel.

“We need to learn to live together and accept one another,” echoed Abdullah.

Smadja-Wasserman agreed: “We are here for good and for bad, so let’s do it good together.”

During Ramadan 2023, local mosques collaborated with the municipality’s Jaffa branch to organize a communal iftar and invited an Orthodox rabbi to speak, arranging a kosher meal for him.

“The message we wanted to send to our youth was: before everything, we are people,” said Majed.

Israelis and Palestinians protest after two cemeteries, one Muslim and the other Christian, were vandalized by graffiti in the mixed Arab Jewish neighborhood of Jaffa, Israel, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011. (AP/Oded Balilty)

Nitzan attended the iftar to acknowledge this act of hospitality. She pointed to this event as evidence that “the majority on both sides wants to live here in peace.”

Halperin agreed: “People here a lot of the time don’t talk about identity, they just live together.”

“History never moves backward,” she said. “How do you hold space for two homelands? I don’t know. How do you build from there? I don’t have a solution. Conversation and understanding are steps.”

For Abdullah, the solution is simple: “Be a good neighbor.”

In this photo from July 28, 2018, people dance in Akbar, a bar located in the flea market in Jaffa. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

This point was made clear to Halperin on the morning of October 8. As she got into her car, the child of one of her Arab neighbors came over to warn her that there might be “mobs.” The warning was a sign to Halperin that “he’s worried about me and wants me to be safe.”

When Halperin returned a few weeks later, a Christian neighbor told her to “be in touch, and don’t tell anyone you’re home alone.” Amid broader turmoil, “at the end, the feeling of neighborhood is very strong.”

This feeling is shared by many Jaffans. Despite the chasm between their experiences, each of Jaffa’s community groups makes a point of helping the needy among the others, including the garin and the Islamic Charities’ Council.

“Whoever needs help receives it,” said Nitzan.

Jewish and Arab Israelis fly kites during an opening of a new public park in Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv, Israel, Friday, April 30, 2010. (AP/Oded Balilty)

On October 8, as Jaffa appeared to teeter on the edge of havoc, Amal Kulab, a Muslim Jaffa native who lives next to the yeshiva, started a WhatsApp group aimed at heading off unrest by preventing the spread of misinformation that could instigate actual violence.

“It is possible to live together. We just need to respect each other,” she said. “It’s our reality, but it’s also something we have to build.”

Ehud, an educator at a mixed Jewish-Arab public school in Jaffa, agreed, “It’s easy to break relationships, and very hard to hold [onto] them.”

Maintaining a safe educational space for everyone is a constant balancing act. “In a dual Arab-Jewish environment, the symbols of one can read as a threat to the other.”

In this Saturday, March 29, 2014 photo, people sit in a restaurant in the Old City of Jaffa in Tel Aviv, Israel. (AP/Dan Balilty)

Because of the vastly different vantage points, dialogue groups are not always productive. “It’s better to do it than talk about it,” he said.

Kulab maintains friendships with Muslims, Christians, and Jews across the ideological spectrum.

“Before and after every operation that was or will be, we will maintain our friendship because we are people,” she said. “She will judge me and I will judge her and every other person based on that person alone.”

This article was produced with the help of Ashley Goldstein and Daniella Bronstein.

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