In spring 2021, unprecedented intercommunal and police violence broke out in Jerusalem and other cities across Israel. Known as the “Dignity Uprising” (habbet al-karamain Arabic) or “Operation Guardian of the Walls” (mivtza shomer homotin Hebrew), the events resulted in arson attacks on houses and vehicles, multiple casualties, and the murder of Jewish and Palestinians residents.
This violence inside the Green Line, the Israeli international border that existed from the 1948 War until the 1967 Six-Day War, is regarded as a traumatic watershed in the recent history of Jewish-Arab relations. Unlike previous cycles of violence, it did not take place exclusively in the West Bank and Gaza, but encompassed widespread intercommunal conflict in cities within Israel. These sites are known as “ethnically mixed cities” (arim me’oravot in Hebrew and mudun mukhtalata in Arabic), referring to the pre-1948 Palestinian urban centers that were transformed into Jewish cities during the first years of Israeli statehood. In the cities of Jaffa, Haifa, Acre, Lydda, and Ramla, the majority of the Palestinian populations were forced to leave or escape during the 1948 War. Today, mixed cities consist of a minority of Arab inhabitants (ranging from 10 percent to 30 percent).
Some of the violence erupted in the city of Jaffa, where two young Palestinian residents attacked Rabbi Eliyahu Mali, the director of Shirat Moshe Yeshiva, a traditional Jewish educational institute for men. The rabbi had entered the vicinity to scout real estate for the yeshiva’s expansion. Shirat Moshe Yeshiva was established in Jaffa in 2007 as part of a Zionist-religious settlement movement called Garin Torani (“Torah Nucleus”), a government-supported Zionist organization of religious families who settle in Israeli mixed cities and developments. Its explicit, strategic goal is to Judaize mixed cities.
Following the attack, Palestinian residents protested that the housing crisis and their displacement from Jaffa were tightly linked to the Garin Torani’s actions. Under the slogan “Jaffa is not for sale,” the protest intensified in the following weeks, accompanied by unprecedented intercommunal clashes and police violence.
Beginning in the early 1990s, Jaffa experienced several waves of gentrification involving various social actors who have rediscovered the city: urban pioneers and artists, entrepreneurs and wealthy individuals, bobo bourgeois, hipsters, and more. In the last decade, however, new political actors arrived in the mixed city: the religious settler gentrifiers. We term this process “settler gentrification”: the convergence of globalized neoliberal economic gentrification and nationalist territorialization. While studies on gentrification are often detached from theories of nationalism, settler-colonialism, and political projects in contested territories, we point to a powerful combination of nationalism, colonialism, surveillance, and religion that can be described as “state-led ethno-gentrification.”
The arrival of settlers to the core of urban Israel marks a hybrid historical intersection of economic gentrification and ethnocentric activism with potentially explosive effects. In the late 2000s, young settlers and Jewish ethnic entrepreneurs began to search for new channels of meaning and action. The new urban settlers are discontented with the well-established bourgeois settlement but do not find their place among the radical outposts and farms of the West Bank frontier. Similar to liberal gentrifiers, the nationalist gentrifiers seek heterogeneity and cultural diversity, shunning life with those who too closely resemble them. At the same time, they consider themselves emissaries of a political movement and seek to expand and normalize the ideological settlement project at the heart of the mixed neighborhoods.
Following the prevailing tendency to blur the Green Line, the mixed city is a space of opportunity for ideological realization and the locus of a new nationalist mission. The settlers established projects with poetic names such as “Touching the Wind,” “Illuminating Jaffa,” and “A House of Love and Prayer,” which combined a discourse of cultural diversity and social engagement with a national discourse of Jewish exceptionalism, sovereignty, and religious education. This hybrid discourse thus reflects both socioeconomic processes prevailing in Jewish Israeli society and key trends of nationalist radicalization.
The sociopolitical protests against settler gentrification instantiate opposing conceptions of the right to the city. While Arab-Palestinian residents single out the settlers as external rivals intent on erasing their collective existence in Jaffa, Zionist-religious settlers draw on a discourse of redemption and return to restore Jewish sovereignty.
Erasing the Green Line
Heralding an alarming process we call “the Hebronization of urban space,” the Garin Torani has a checkered history in Israel/Palestine. Garin Torani groups gained momentum due to several historical transformations. First, in the 1970s, following the rise of Israeli public discourse criticizing the socioeconomic gap between the periphery and center, Zionist-religious families sought to integrate into and supposedly strengthen the periphery. This Zionist-religious sector’s shift from the mission of settling in the West Bank to a sociopolitical mission within the Green Line is not detached from the territorial project. The “settlement in the hearts” mission intensified after each wave of political turmoil: the withdrawal from Sinai (1982), the Oslo Accords (1993), and finally the disengagement from the Gaza Strip (2005), which was considered a major trauma to the settler movement.
All of these critical junctures alienated Zionist-religious Jews from mainstream Israeli society and conversely fed their desire to mobilize that society to support the settlement mission. One person we interviewed in 2020, Noam, is acting rabbi of the Pre-Military Torah Academy in Jaffa and lives in a settlement in the West Bank. He explained:
When my son was 16, he told me, “Dad, you built settlements, you had spirit, fire in your eyes, you ran on the hills, you made a difference. We have no mission, Daddy – define the next mission for us! We’ll turn the world upside down.”… We are an idealistic society… So now one mission is over: in the [West Bank] settlements there is no one to convince. The next mission is thus to preserve the Jewish identity… After the disengagement [from Gaza] the idea was to settle in the hearts… The State of Israel is losing its Jewish identity.
Zionist-religious activists’ perception of Israeli society as detached from Judaism led them to promote activities among both secular and traditional Jews that would reconnect them to Judaism. The relative decline in the number of Jews in mixed cities intensified the motivation to strengthen Jewish demography by establishing Torah nuclei. Today, there are over eighty such nuclei scattered across the country.
During the 1948 War, most of Jaffa’s Arab population was expelled. In the following years, the city absorbed tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants. With that shift, the city lost a significant portion of its Palestinian middle class, altering its class structure. Jaffa became a working-class city with high rates of unemployment, crime, and drug abuse. Deteriorating infrastructure and disinvestment by the city authorities between the 1950s and 1980s created a “rent gap” that provided an opportunity for gentrification and redevelopment. Gentrification accelerated in the 1990s, with an influx of middle- and upper-class Jews that effectively promoted the city’s Judaization. For the new settlers, this process is a positive development they seek to enhance. As Garin Torani member Rachel explained to us in 2020:
Before we arrived, lots of Jews had left Jaffa. And Arabs bought houses. Since we arrived Jaffa is changing its appearance. Lots of Arabs are leaving… It’s very important. If the city were to become Arab it would be difficult at the national level, as if we had given up part of the country. This is Jaffa! The heart of the country…. It’s not the settlements. The Arabs can live here, but Jaffa doesn’t belong to them.
The Pandora’s Box of settler gentrification
Nationalist settler gentrification provoked local resistance, which was not only class-based but chiefly ethnonational. This mobilization manifested itself in the bloody spring of 2021, as described earlier. In April, during the protests, the Arab organizers issued a declaration:
We […] express solidarity with the indigenous residents of Jaffa who are being pushed out by the Garin Torani with its explicit colonialist ideology of Judaization on the one hand, and the capitalist agents of privatization on the other. Both are backed by the Tel Aviv Municipality, the Ministry of Housing and the Israel Police and implement a resolute policy that pushes for maximum Judaization of the city and its transformation into a district belonging to the White and wealthy ten percent.
Was the intercommunal violence that erupted in spring 2021 in Jaffa a product of the infrastructure created by the Garin Torani, as Arab residents claim? Would the effect of a settler presence in the mixed city have been so dramatic had it not been for a history of (neo)liberal gentrification in Jaffa? While it may be difficult to ascertain, our findings clearly point to the intertwining of urban renewal with the political radicalization of a new social movement. Whereas nationalist gentrifiers describe their settlement as a legitimate act of Jewish sovereignty, urban tensions shed critical light on the settler expansion project.