Over coffee and bilingual poetry readings, the patrons at Café Yafa, in the mixed Palestinian-Jewish city of Jaffa, eek out a peaceful coexistence.
The historic Arab port city, with its picturesque crumbling Ottoman facades and glittering seaside promenade, is home to a sizable Muslim and Christian Palestinian population that remained after 1948.
In recent years, a cheap real estate market has attracted an influx of Jewish residents. They have invested in chic apartment towers that now line the beachfront and bought up old houses in the long-neglected Ajami neighborhood, now the subject of an eponymous Oscar-nominated film.
Michel al-Raheb, a Christian Palestinian from Ramle, had a small part in the film, “Ajami.” He was also one part of the Jewish-Palestinian team that opened Café Yafa in 2004 as a cross-cultural meeting point for Jews and Palestinians. After winning the New Israel Fund’s Yisraela Goldblum award for joint living, Dina Lee, his Jewish partner, left Yafa in 2008 to open her own café nearby to expand the mission of promoting coexistence.
Café Yafa is home to a collection of books in Arabic, Hebrew and English and hosts cultural events and book readings that bring the two communities together.
“This is the first Arabic bookstore in Jaffa since 1948,” said al-Raheb, who wanted to revitalize the Arabic literary and cultural scene that had since disappeared from the area.
The café imports Arabic books from around the region and also has one of the largest collections of Arabic books translated into Hebrew.
Uri Grosman and his friends Danny and Shimon have a standing Saturday meeting at the café, where they sit over traditional Arab coffee pots and newspapers to discuss politics and philosophy.
“This is a really unique place,” said Grosman. “This is the only place you can find an environment where you have encounters between all different peoples. It’s a place for intellectual discussions.”
Café Yafa in the Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa is a meeting point for Jews and Palestinians. It was opened by a Palestinian man and a Jewish woman in 2004. (Photo by Meghan McCarty)
But as is always the case in this conflict, things are more complicated than they appear. The influx of Jewish investment has driven up real estate and priced out many of the indigenous Palestinian residents. While the expensive apartment towers offering security gates and underground parking aren’t expressly exclusive, few Palestinians can afford them and there is now an affordable housing shortage in the community.
“It’s a really significant problem,” said Rula Deeb, director of Kayan, a feminist organization advocating the rights of Palestinians living within Israel. “It is effectively pushing out the people in the poorest, most neglected neighborhoods with the least power.”
Deeb said she hopes to see more investment from neighboring Arab countries to prevent this type of de facto transfer of Palestinians from mixed cities within Israel.
Even the Peres Peace Center, a new addition to the neighborhood and the ultimate symbol of peaceful coexistence, is controversial. It was built by President Shimon Peres’ Peace foundation on a beachfront property adjacent to a new beach promenade. But despite outreach activities aimed at the surrounding Palestinian community, the flashy center still represents to many the co-opting of the Jaffa seashore through Jewish gentrification.
“It’s a monstrosity,” said Tami Sarfatti, a history professor and advocacy director with Doctors for Human Rights.
The three-story structure was built in front of a Palestinian neighborhood. “It’s blocking all those houses from the beach. They would never have built it there if it was a Jewish neighborhood,” said Sarfatti.
Recently an even more contentious development has come to light.
In February the courts authorized the building of a housing complex for the national-religious settlers organization, Bemuna. Shortly after, residents organized a protest and spray painted graffiti messages on the construction walls surrounding the site. The slogans read, “settlers be gone,” “Jaffa for Jaffa residents,” and “Jaffa is not Hebron,” in reference to the West Bank city where Jewish settlements have shut out Palestinians from their own city center.
Even Uri Grosman, who seeks out the unique pluralistic atmosphere at Café Yafa, said he believes in coexistence only up to a point.
“I don’t believe in one state. It has to be a two state solution,” said Grosman, explaining that he and his companions all lost family in the holocaust. “It’s good that we can talk and understand each other here but we need to preserve the Jewish state and give the Palestinians their own state.”
A USC Annenberg graduate reporting class journeyed to Jerusalem, Ramallah and Tel Aviv over spring break to study the confluence of religion and politics in Israel-Palestine. The group met with activists, journalists, politicians, religious leaders and ordinary people to gain a first-hand understanding of the conflict in the region and scoop stories that aren't always told in the rush to break news or explain diplomatic machinations.