Changing Dynamics and Shared Government in Israel's Mixed Ci...

Changing Dynamics and Shared Government in Israel's Mixed Cities

January 9, 2020

News imageWhile Arabs and Jews largely live in separate towns and cities in Israel, the few but growing number of so-called "mixed cities" have long attracted interest as the only places where Arab and Jewish citizens live in the same locality, sometimes in the same neighborhood and as neighbors in the same buildings. While such proximity often means shared local interests and more daily interactions between Jewish and Arab citizens than in more homogenous Israeli communities, mixed cities have their own set of complex Jewish-Arab relations, barriers to cooperation and challenges resulting from the diversity of their demographics.

Following the last municipal elections of October 2018, Arab city council members and Arab parties are now part of the governing coalitions in all seven mixed cities for the first time. Representatives of Arab-led parties also hold significant positions, including first-time Arab Deputy Mayors in Acco, Ma’alot Tarshiha, and Nof Hagalil. This phenomenon is even more noteworthy in light of the fact that five of these mixed cities are led by members of the right-wing parties of Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu.

Although previously there were Arab council members in some mixed cities, there is now a new level of  power-sharing in these municipal governments, a contrast to the divisive discourse in national politics. Analysts and activist say this shows that Arab and Jewish party representatives are finding common ground in local governments, with some viewing this phenomenon as a possible lesson for national politics as well (Hebrew). For example, in Lod, the Arab list ran as a first-time union of all local Arab parties and won six out of 19 council seats, while in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Arab and joint Jewish-Arab lists won a total of five out of 31 seats  - in both cities these parties then joined the municipal coalition, a first time precedent in Lod.

After the 2018 municipal elections, the Abraham Initiatives spearheaded research to track the developments and potential of such diversity in mixed city local governments. This December, the organization convened a conference titled “From Mixed Cities to Shared Cities:  Attitudes, Challenges and Solutions," bringing together local government officials, civil society leaders and activists to share and discuss findings and related insights. The conference examined power dynamics and inter-group relations in Israel’s mixed cities, as well as current processes and challenges to creating shared and equal society within them.

Mixed Cities: Background and Current Developments

Mixed-cities-chart

Five of Israel’s mixed cities are historically mixed: Acco, Haifa, Lod, Ramle and Tel Aviv-Jaffa. In recent decades, as a result of mergers between communities and of movement of middle-class Arab families to predominantly Jewish cities and neighborhoods, the cities of Ma’alot-Tarshiha and Nof Hagalil (formerly Nazareth Illit) have also become mixed. These seven cities were the focus of the survey and conference. However, additional historically Jewish municipalities are also becoming increasingly diverse, such as Carmiel, Be’er Sheva, and Nahariya, leaving open the possibility of examining changing dynamics in those communities at a future date.

Conference in Acco

The conference focused on both the challenges and potential of promoting deeper levels of political, public and communal cooperation in mixed cities. It included findings from the Abraham Initiatives’ recent survey of Jewish and Arab residents of mixed cities about their relationships with each other and perceptions of the other group. Both panel discussions and survey findings indicate mixed attitudes about Jewish-Arab relations and readiness for deeper cooperation in these cities.

Many conference speakers agreed that while common interests on the local level enable Jewish and Arab residents to work together, there is a difference between this level of cooperation and neighborly relations and a city’s institutional approach to equality in services and joint management of a city.

Issues covered by the conference include:

  • Results of a recent survey of mixed city residents: Towards this conference the Abraham Initiatives conducted two separate phone surveys of 300 residents of each of the seven mixed cities, 150 Jews and 150 Arabs, totaling 2,100 participants. The survey was conducted in Hebrew and Arabic by the Afkar Research Institute, led by Dr. Hisham Joubran. Some of the findings include:
    • 55% of Jews and 86% of Arabs in mixed cities are ready to send their children to a bilingual school.
    • 81% of Jewish respondents and 89% of Arabs described the relationship between Jews and Arabs in their cities as positive.
    • 41% of Jews and 32% of Arabs in all seven cities agreed (somewhat or very much) with the saying: "Arabs and Jews should be separated and everyone will live in a separate, non-national neighborhood."
    • 31% of the Jews strongly agreed with the saying: "I allow my children to play with Arab children," and 26% disagreed or strongly disagreed. Among Arabs, 41% strongly agreed with the opposite ("I allow my children to play with Jewish children"), and only 5% opposed this statement.
    • 18% of Jewish residents of mixed cities fear moving around Arab neighborhoods. 14% of Arabs in these cities report that they often encounter discrimination.

Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu and Dr. Thabet Abu Rass, Co-Directors of the Abraham Initiatives, said: “The survey exposes an optimistic picture, better than most might think the relations in the mixed cities would be, which enables new cooperation opportunities between Jewish & Arab communities in the mixed cities. There is a clear expectation from the municipalities to promote cooperation, to integrate more Arabs into the municipalities and to provide services in both languages."

  • The difference between the mixed cities and implications for Jewish-Arab relations was discussed. For example, Tel-Aviv-Jaffa and Maalot-Tarshiha are the result of Jewish cities joining with historically Arab towns; Haifa, Acco, Ramle and Lod are historically Arab cities that became mixed after the founding of the state; and Nof Hagalil is a Jewish city established after Israel’s foundation that has gradually become mixed in recent years. This distinction leads to differences in municipal structures and services (e.g. the existence of the Arabic language school system), geographic distribution of the various communities within each city, and the relative weaknesses and strengths of each community.

 

  • The challenges of providing equitable services in communities with wide demographic gaps: Many local officials presenting at the conference agreed that resources and municipal services should be provided according to the needs of each community and neighborhood, so that weaker communities in the city, both Arab and Jewish, receive more investment in order for the city to provide equal opportunities to all its residents. While many of the speakers discussed harmonious relations and shared management, tensions erupted over differing perceptions as to whether Arab parties are regarded as equal partners by majority-Jewish local governments. This led to a heated discussion about the level of involvement of the Arab parties and Arab residents in managing mixed cities and recognition of them as legitimate and central component of the cities’ identities, and the perspective that Arab residents are viewed as a marginal, even contested, element in the cities’ communities and identities.

 

  • Integrated or separate public schooling: Overall, the survey showed that a significant portion of both Jewish and Arab residents of the mixed cities oppose sending their children to mixed schools. Some of the panel speakers, both Jewish and Arab, said that they favor allowing each community to maintain its educational autonomy as a way of strengthening distinct identity, language, tradition and culture, while creating opportunities for children and adults to mingle and meet in after-school community events.

The conference tone was set by Acco Mayor Shimon Lankri, whose opening speech focused on the 2008 violent events in Acco. These “made us realize we can’t go any lower and that we have to begin investing significant energies in Jewish-Arab relations in the city.” Since then, he said the city has been promoting Jewish-Arab municipal coalitions; fostering greater investment in the weaker Arab communities, neighborhoods and schools in the city; providing culturally sensitive services; and that municipal leadership “openly and proudly acknowledges the fact that we are a Jewish-Arab city.” Mayor Lankri also said he believes that realities on the ground are better than depicted by the Abraham Initiatives’ survey.

Shahira Shalabi, Deputy Mayor of Haifa, also spoke about municipal leadership’s role in ensuring that a mixed city is shared and managed by all its residents. She said that, in parallel to ensuring equal and appropriate services, there is also a need to “recognize institutional power structures in the city and the different narratives that represent and drive the Jewish and the Arab communities,” thus confronting deeper issues and controversies that accompany everyday positive interactions and neighborly relations.

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