“Housing first since everything starts at home. Good education start at home, good [civic] culture starts at home, well-being starts at home, children’s emotional well-being starts at home, and therefore our just and joined struggle, Jews and Arabs, in Jaffa, in Tikva, in Kfar Shalem, in the south, in the northern periphery, starts at home. First of all—housing. Housing is at the top of our list of priorities.” Sami Abu Shehada speaking at a demonstration on August 28, 2011
Surprising Alliances for Dwelling and Citizenship: Palestinian-Israeli Participation in the Mass Housing Protests of Summer 2011
by Yael Allweil
in International Journal of Islamic Architecture, Volume 2, Issue 1
In early June, 2011, a single tent on the boulevard of an affluent Tel Aviv neighbourhood ignited a nation-wide protest that would come to include 66 tent camps across Israel and five more solidarity camps in London, Berlin, and the United States. Twenty-five-year-old film editor Daphne Leef had erected that first tent as a symbol of protest when rent in her area was raised so high she was forced out. Professor Yael Allweil looks at how this movement became a catalyst for potentially unprecedented instances of Arab-Jewish cooperation within Israel.
In terms of Arab-Jewish intersections, Allweil situates Israel’s Social Justice Protests both temporally and ideologically within the context of Arab spring uprisings throughout the Middle East:
The movement explicitly associated itself with other Arab spring public movements through its critique of Israel as an oligarchy of the rich, and it affiliated itself with Arab spring demands for popular sovereignty within the nation state. Echoing the Egyptian protests, participants identified Israel as a quasi-democracy, just like all the other countries in the Middle East.
She also emphasises that the anti-state protest in Israel was unique—historically unique, even. In contrast to the conditions under which neo-liberal states have engendered large-scale protest elsewhere in world, Israel’s economy at the time was actually very strong. Protesters were in fact faulting the state for prioritising powerful market forces over social services to such an extent that peoples’ ability to put a roof over their heads was severely impacted. Rent and property prices were skyrocketing and public housing, on which a large portion of the population was dependent, was rapidly being destroyed to make way for private investment opportunities. The nature of this protest, according to Allweil, refigured the very notion of citizenship as one based first and foremost on housing. Within such a framework, housing is posited as fundamental right rather than as a commodity.
Allweil contends that initial political structure of this movement, launched and supported by Jewish communities of all social strata, and in large part by Mizrahim (immigrant Jews from Arab and Muslim countries), was still inherently Zionist insofar as the protesters “focused on demands to be included in the national hegemony rather than to change its frame of reference.” Further to this, she cites a historical basis for a Zionist frame of reference:
The establishment of sovereignty in 1948 represented the consolidation of Zionist nation building as a state housing regime, wherein access to housing was used to manage the relationship between the nation state and its citizens. It is therefore not accidental that protestors in Israel evoked this history and used housing to demand the renewal of the state–citizen contract.
As a position from which to articulate contemporary housing concerns within Israel, though, this approach created what Allweil describes as a sense of “uncanniness” for Palestinian-Israelis, for whom access to housing has been a critical issue exactly since the 1948 conflict. As such, many Palestinian-Israelis expressed ambivalence about participation in the protests.
Ultimately, in many instances the fundamental need for housing proved to surmount a vast array of cultural and individuated social concerns. And as a symbol of civic revolution, the tent was an historically potent and therefore seemingly connective focal point throughout Israeli society. Israeli pioneers established their first settlements in the 1920s as tent camps. In the 1950s, absorption camps (Ma’abarot) were the only accommodation available for the sudden influx of Mizrahi Jewish immigrants. Refugee camps are fact of modern Palestinian life. As Allweil describes: “A milieu of tents was therefore capable of embodying the housing histories of different and alienated social groups and expressing their competing narratives, while simultaneously serving as a common shared space for political action.”
For her article, she focusses on two prominent Palestinian-Israeli protest camps—one in Jaffa and one in Qalansuwa—that arose in response to and in conjunction with the larger movement, and looks at the degrees to which they became sites of solidarity between Palestinian and Jewish Israelis.
Two weeks after the movement broke out in Tel Aviv, a camp in Jaffa was organised to give shelter and a voice to dozens of Palestinian families recently evicted from public housing. Roughly 800 more Arab families in Jaffa were under eviction orders. Without these homes Arab Jaffa would effectively cease to exist. Also functioning as a site for discussion and debate, the camp incorporated a multitude of perspectives from the outset:
Its formation during the month of Ramadan was not easy, and required cooperation between many interest groups and political movements. This manifested itself in the very formation of the camp: its first two tents were a large mourners’ tent provided by the Islamic movement and a Jewish sukkah (a temporary hut constructed for use during the week-long Jewish festival of Sukkot) provided by the homeless Steinling family and used by the Jaffa Popular Committee for Land and Housing, which moved its office to the park.
From this initial, symbolic conjunction, relations developed to the point that the Jaffa camp became explicitly aligned with the nearby Jewish Tikva camp. This was particularly significant as Tikva is a traditional right-wing Jewish base—but one that is also reliant on public housing. There were multiple mutual visits, and eventually a united march was undertaken with the chant, “Jaffa, Tikva, same revolution!”
A camp in Qalansuwa was formed as a means of addressing a civic planning notice which, if implemented, would critically stifle any possibility for the development of affordable housing in the city—a situation that was already dire. As a camp organiser stated, “There are many young people who want to get married but cannot buy a house.” The presence of the camp was met with sympathy and support, not only from nearby Jewish communities, but local police. People from disparate backgrounds also demonstrated together in Qalansuwa, and Allweil points out one sign in particular that read: “The people demand’ [in Arabic] ‘social justice’ [in Hebrew], held by an elderly Qalansuwa resident in a demonstration at the town’s main square.
Speaking at a demonstration in Jaffa on August 28, 2011, protestor Sami Abu Shehada passionately summarised:
“Housing first since everything starts at home. Good education start at home, good [civic] culture starts at home, well-being starts at home, children’s emotional well-being starts at home, and therefore our just and joined struggle, Jews and Arabs, in Jaffa, in Tikva, in Kfar Shalem, in the south, in the northern periphery, starts at home. First of all—housing. Housing is at the top of our list of priorities.”
As promising and inspiring as these examples are, Allweil is careful not to oversimplify the issues at stake. Quoting Sami Abu Shehada further:
“It is not trivial for Mizrahim to march with Ashkenazim, and for Arabs to march with Jews. Any attempt to project equality among the non-equal in effect maintains power relations rather than collapses them.”
Rather than positioning such conflicts as hopeless and debilitating, though, Allweil refers to a theory of agonism developed by Chantal Mouffe, which “suggests a productive role for conflict in assembling a society, based on the object upon which the irresolvable conflict is waged. This object thereby forms a polity out of conflicted social actors by ‘bringing them together because it divides them.” In Israeli-Palestian context, housing represents the object of agonism. Crucially, “This object, for Mouffe, is not an obstacle to harmony but the very thing enabling a pluralistic political society.”
With this in mind, Allweil poses a final question in her epilogue:
Housing is at the centre of this social struggle for equality, as expressed through the movement’s symbol of a national flag whose central emblem is a house. Identifying housing as the most basic of rights, this movement has thus identified a society based on dwelling and citizenship. Can the joint struggle for housing form and reshape the terms of an Israeli polity?
— IQ Editor
Yael Allweil is the 2012–13 Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harry S. Truman Institute, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and faculty member at the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. She completed her Ph.D. in the Department of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2011.