The popular Israeli television series, Arab Labor, follows the lives of the fictional journalist Amjad and his family, all of whom are Palestinian citizens of Israel. Season one of the series, which first aired on Israeli public television in 2007, introduces Amjad and his endearingly unquenchable faith in humanity. Tired of living in his natal village, Amjad moves his family to a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem, replete with strong water pressure in the shower, manicured parks and gardens, and what he thinks is the freedom to live out his dream of integration into Israeli society. This dream — for which Amjad’s wife and father, as well as his Jewish neighbors, ridicule him — leads to numerous hilarious situations, always with Amjad as the lovable buffoon who brings out both the best and the worst in Palestinian Arab and Jewish societies in Israel.

By season three of the series (airing in 2012), however, life for Amjad has gotten much darker. In the background looms the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead, in which Israeli forces killed almost 1,500 Palestinians in Gaza, most of them civilians. Tensions erupt in the bomb shelter of Amjad’s apartment building when Amjad and his family are isolated and meant to feel responsible for the Hamas rocket attacks that sent the building’s residents scurrying for cover. The following year, in season four, the increasing racism and violence within Israeli society come to the foreground when a menacing stranger threatens Amjad with harm if he does not move his family out of the neighborhood. Happily, in the season finale, Amjad’s faith in coexistence is restored when his neighbors band together to stand up to the Jewish bully and protect the Arab family in their midst.

State and Rabbi

In mid-July 2014, only one year after this optimistic TV ending, Arab Labor’s creator, Sayed Kashua (a Palestinian citizen of Israel on whom Amjad’s character and experiences are loosely based) announced that he was leaving Israel permanently with his wife and three children. [1] A well-known Palestinian intellectual, Kashua is the author of three Hebrew-language novels as well as a weekly column in the prestigious newspaper Haaretz. Kashua listed some reasons why he had come to the conclusion that his/Amjad’s dream of Arab-Jewish coexistence within Israel was dead: the kidnapping and violent murder of a Palestinian teenager from his East Jerusalem neighborhood earlier in the month; the bloodbath in Gaza (with civilians accounting for almost 80 percent of Palestinian casualties, according to the UN); and the resultant verbal and physical violence within Israel against Arab citizens.

No doubt, there will be many who celebrate the Kashua family’s departure from Jewish Jerusalem. In the last decade, dozens of Israeli state-financed rabbinical officials have issued or signed on to religious (halakhic) rulings that declare that it is against Jewish law to sell or rent apartments to Arabs and other foreigners, a clear backlash against the growing phenomenon of Palestinian citizens of Israel moving into formerly all-Jewish towns and cities. A decisive push came in 2008, when Dov Lior, the prominent and highly influential chief rabbi of the settlement of Kiryat Arba and chair of the Yesha (“Judea, Samaria and Gaza”) Rabbinical Council, issued his own opinion to this effect. [2] Within two years these winds were blowing inside the Green Line, with simultaneous rulings issued by rabbis in Tel Aviv and the chief rabbi of Safed. The last ruling, issued from Safed, garnered the support of dozens more rabbis, including the municipal chief rabbis of Rishon le-Zion and Ashdod, Israel’s fourth and fifth largest cities, respectively. (Lior was a signatory as well.) [3]

Citing Biblical and Talmudic passages, as well as rulings from major medieval scholars and early modern religious tracts, the Safed ruling argued that selling land or renting property to non-Jews leads to a number of sins, from desecration of God’s name to intermarriage. (“Desecration of God’s name,” or hilul ha-shem, occurs when Jewish law is violated, whether it be kashrut, Shabbat or other laws that would not be observed by non-Jews.) The ruling also asserted that such land sales or rentals do economic and psychological harm to one’s neighbor and to the Jewish community because of the non-Jews’ “different way of life.” Finally, the Safed chief rabbi prescribed some measures to be taken against Jewish landlords who violated the ruling, increasing in severity from counseling to excommunication. This ruling bore immediate fruit: Over the following months, Arab students in the town were physically assaulted, including one who was shot, and several cars belonging to Arab students were torched; in addition, a Jewish landlord in Safed was harassed and told he would regret it if he did not evict three Arab student renters. [4]

While the Israeli prime minister, president, various parliamentarians, NGOs and other rabbis sharply criticized the Safed ruling, an opinion poll taken in December 2010 found that almost half (44 percent) of the Israeli Jewish public supported it. [5] Furthermore, the spirit behind it was given legal grounding in the summer of 2011, when the Israeli Knesset passed legislation that allows the possibility of legal discrimination against Arabs in housing admissions to smaller communities. The 2011 law essentially reversed the verdict in a 2000 case in which the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of a Palestinian family who sought to purchase property in the Jewish village of Katzir. [6] Since then, the shaky second-class legal and social status of Palestinians in Israel has grown wobblier still, and sites of proactive coexistence, like Jerusalem’s Yad be-Yad (Hand in Hand) Jewish-Arab school, which Kashua’s children attended, have come under attack. (The school was vandalized earlier in the summer.) Given this trajectory, Kashua’s decision to emigrate comes as no surprise.

An Invented Tradition

It is important to remember, however, how very recent this segregating trend is in the history of Palestine-Israel. At the turn of the twentieth century, when the first comprehensive Ottoman census was conducted in Jerusalem, most of the Jerusalemite population (almost 80 percent) lived in mixed neighborhoods and quarters. Indeed, it is clear from memoirs, newspaper reports and other accounts that in late Ottoman Jerusalem, Muslims, Christians and Jews not only lived as neighbors, but also went into business and shopped together, shared folk customs, learned love songs in each other’s languages, celebrated each other’s holidays and prayed together for rain, good health and fertility. Jerusalemites of all religions also served together in the Jerusalem municipal council, invested jointly in the city’s infrastructure and development through the Chamber of Commerce and other ventures, and demonstrated together as Ottoman citizens during the brief years of revolutionary reform after 1908.

This urban social mixing had already begun to wane in the final decades of the Ottoman empire, as new neighborhoods were built outside of the city walls that tended to separate Jerusalemites into sponsoring ethno-religious communities, and as political and communal rivalries took root. This process accelerated rapidly in the aftermath of the Balfour Declaration and World War I, when, under the British occupation and its pro-Zionist policy, a contest over public space in Jerusalem transformed the former sites of Ottoman brotherhood into battlegrounds for competing Jewish, Arab and Palestinian nationalisms. The 1920 Nabi Musa riot, the first urban riot in Palestine’s history, led to a growing linkage of space and identity. As the newspaper Mir’at al-Sharq (Mirror of the East) noted grimly the following year, “We often wonder, and rightly so, why is it that no such riots between Arabs and Jews ever took place here in Palestine before [whited out by the British military censor].” [7]

The 1920s also saw a rapid rise in Jewish immigration and the construction of new, generally segregated neighborhoods (although some of these modern neighborhoods, especially Talbieh, were mixed). At the same time, a growing Jewish dissatisfaction with and criticism of the Jerusalem municipality led to calls for establishing a separate “Hebrew municipality” in heavily Jewish areas of the city. Other former sites of mixing became segregated — Masonic lodges, the Chamber of Commerce, leisure sites and bus lines. In the aftermath of the August 1929 riots, in which dozens of Arabs and Jews lost their lives in Jerusalem (not to mention hundreds more countrywide), the separation logic took on a new dimension, where the security and defense ethos gave a new push to the ideologies of communal separation and economic nationalism.

Pull Toward Segregation

In early 1930, the Jewish Community Council launched “Operation Concentration of the Jews in Jerusalem,” in which Jews living in “Arab houses” and mixed neighborhoods were urged to move to Jewish-owned houses in a contiguous Hebrew bloc. Over the next several years and through fieldworker surveys, newspaper editorials and pointed letters to renters, a subcommittee worked steadily to promote complete residential and commercial segregation in extramuros Jerusalem, reminding Jews that it was their “national duty” to support Hebrew labor, a Hebrew economy and a Hebrew Jerusalem. At the same time, in an attempt to undo the precipitous decline in the number and percentage of Jews residing in the intramuros city, other ad hoc and semi-official Jewish organizations worked to maintain and expand the Jewish presence there, for historical, religious, nationalist and economic reasons. From 1930 to 1931, these committees subsidized Jewish families in the Old City rent-free, and tried to pressure the chief rabbis of Palestine to issue a religious ruling forbidding Jews from leaving the Old City.

These various campaigns were only one factor pulling Palestine toward segregation. Others included Arab economic boycott (in 1920, for example, the Nablus Muslim-Christian Association encouraged Nabulsis to resist renting apartments or stores to Jews), the mufti’s 1935 fatwa against land sales to Jews, and British policy, which encouraged sectarianism at various levels. By the late 1930s, most Jerusalemites had already voted with their feet, choosing to live in segregated neighborhoods and to shop in segregated markets. Fewer than 5,000 of Jerusalem’s 70,000 Jews were identified as still living in mixed neighborhoods, a fact which made the city’s eventual, final unmixing in the 1948 war that much simpler.

After the 1967 war and the subsequent “unification” of Jerusalem by force of Israeli arms, new Jewish neighborhoods were constructed over the Green Line and municipal boundaries were gerrymandered according to the principle of “maximum territory, minimum Arabs.” Furthermore, state and private efforts to reclaim parts of Jerusalem once inhabited or owned by Jews gave impetus to an urban settlement movement in the Old City, Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan. These campaigns are decidedly not integrationist, however, as they buy out or otherwise push out Palestinian residents in favor of establishing Jewish enclaves, which are then fiercely defended by legal and extra-legal means.

Identity Trap

Arriving in Jerusalem in the early 1990s as a boarding school and then university student, Kashua encountered this highly segregated Jerusalem. Kashua’s goal with Arab Labor, he has said, was to create an Arab “Cosby Show” on Israeli television that would normalize Palestinian citizens for their Jewish neighbors, much like Bill Cosby’s sitcom had done for African-Americans with white viewers of American television in the 1980s. Much like Cliff Huxtable, the prosperous, soft-spoken, preppy doctor portrayed by Cosby, Kashua’s protagonist Amjad seemed poised to fit in with his neighbors — he was fluent in Hebrew, well-educated, middle-class and “modern” in appearance, sensibility and family structure, with a professional wife, two children and a Jewish best friend (who ends up marrying his wife’s friend, a Palestinian human rights lawyer, a subplot that seemingly lent credence to rabbinical fears of residential mixing and intermarriage going hand in hand).

But Jerusalem is not Brooklyn, and the structural experience of Palestinian citizens in Israel is not identical to that of African-Americans in the United States. From the beginning, Amjad’s presence in Jewish Jerusalem was fragile and destabilizing: He was able to purchase his apartment only because the Jewish seller wanted to exact revenge on his neighbors for not allowing him to enclose his porch; he felt compelled to conceal his Arabic name and accent from policemen, shopkeepers, hospital workers and even his cleaning lady; and as a contestant on the popular “Big Brother” series he initially “passed” as a Middle Eastern Jew until he was outed by his own father. After that, Amjad became a token Arab-for-hire, a role that he fulfilled grudgingly and ineptly due to his lifetime of cultural and political distance from the Palestinian experience. In one typical Amjad mix-up, the reality star is filmed relieving himself on the side of the highway — unbeknownst to him, however, his urine splatters all over an Israeli roadside memorial, an act that makes him an accidental hero in Palestinian circles and a pariah in Israeli Jewish society.

In the end, it is Amjad’s daughter Maya who emerges as the hero of the identity trap of the series. When Maya earns a spot on the Israeli national judo team, she debates whether or not she should compete. On the one hand, some of her Jewish teammates are vocally racist, and she would have to perform under the alienating symbol of the Israeli flag after standing at attention during the Israeli national anthem; on the other hand, the Palestinian worker at the gym expresses pride in her achievements in “their” sport. Maya’s ultimate solution recalls the raised fists of the two African-American medalists at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, whose “human rights salutes” (as Smith later insisted they be called) were a silent but highly visible protest against racial discrimination and other ills. After winning the gold medal and standing on the platform during the singing of ha-Tikva, Maya turns up her wrist to reveal a bracelet embroidered with the Palestinian flag.

Even before he decided to leave Jewish Jerusalem, Kashua’s television series and other writings showed a gradual progression from the mentality of an assimilation-aspiring Arab Bill Cosby to that of an Arab Spike Lee, politically much less compromising and painfully aware that his intellectual role is to point at the gulf between Jewish and Arab societies in Israel, perhaps especially when the gulf seems increasingly unbridgeable.


[1] Guardian, July 19, 2014.
[2] Previously Lior, a state employee, had praised Baruch Goldstein, the Hebron settler who massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer in 1994. He had also ruled that the late prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was a rodef (pursuer) and moser (informer), categories that permitted his killing according to Jewish religious law. Lior personally met with Rabin’s killer before the 1995 assassination. Haaretz, March 19, 2008. In 2012 Lior was interrogated by Israeli police in connection to the religious tract Torat ha-Melech (Torah of the King) that legitimized the killing of non-Jews. Most recently, Lior issued a ruling that permitted the total destruction of Gaza and its inhabitants, civilians as well as combatants.
[3] Haaretz, October 21, 28 and 29, 2010 and December 7, 2010.
[4] “Gilui da’at,” Hanukkah 2010. The full text of the letter can be found here. Haaretz, November 3, 2010 and March 17, 2011.
[5] Haaretz, December 7, 8 and 28, 2010.
[6] The analysis and response to this legislation by Adalah, a Palestinian legal rights organization, is here.
[7] Mir’at al-Sharq, May 20, 1921.

Image: The cast of Arab Labor. Amjad, played by Norman Issa, is at top left in the blue shirt.

How to cite this article:

Michelle Campos "Jerusalem Mixed and Unmixed," Middle East Report Online, August 08, 2014.

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