After nearly six months living and volunteering in Lod, moving between Jewish and Arab spaces in the city has become a normal part of my daily life. I’ll start a day working in a religious Jewish school and end it working with at-risk Arab youth. I’ll use Hebrew to buy burekas from the bakery in the city center in the morning and then speak Arabic while grabbing a snack in the Old City in the afternoon. As I’ve felt increasingly comfortable in this city over the past few months, I sometimes forget that as an outside volunteer, I move through the city in ways that most residents don’t.
Last week, The Abraham Initiatives hosted a visiting group of Klal Yisrael Fellows from the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) at the Chicago Community Center in Lod. The URJ’s Klal Yisrael Fellowship brings together a cohort of Jewish leaders from reform communities across the world for week-long trips in Israel, Europe, and the U.S. to focus on issues of social justice, cultural, and educational in progressive Jewish life. Their stop in Lod was specifically aimed at learning about mixed cities and understanding how Arab communities fit into the wider sociopolitical landscape of Israel. For me, the URJ group’s vision provided a chance for me to step back and see the city through fresh eyes again. The day reminded me of the invisible barriers that still divide Israeli society, even as my outsider status allows me to move across them.
We started the day with a conversation about the relationship between Jewish and Arab societies in Israel and the degrees of separation that define it. Most of the non-Israelis in the URJ cohort knew little about Arab citizens of Israel, but the Israeli fellows were willing to share their own experiences. One of them explained that she’d never visited an Arab village or city. Another was raised in Jerusalem but had remained in almost exclusively Jewish areas despite the fact that her parents had grown up speaking Arabic and mingling with the Arab residents of the city. A third Israeli fellow described her unique experience attending one of the six Hand-in-Hand schools in Israel, where Jewish and Arab students learn in classrooms together. After she had graduated, though, a classroom was burned down by extremists who opposed the shared learning model. Their stories were an important reminder that my life here this year hardly reflects a common Israeli experience. Even beyond working in both Arab and Jewish communities in Lod, I find leisure time in parks or go grocery shopping in places that both populations frequent. On my days off, I visit cities like Jaffa, Haifa, or Jerusalem, where I’ll also hear both Hebrew and Arabic. It’s often easy for me to forget that most Israelis live in either all-Jewish or all-Arab localities. Separation remains far more common for most Israelis than you would realize from my experience here.
For the next session, Faten Alzinaty joined us to discuss her experience running the Chicago Community Center and some of the major issues facing the Arab community in Lod. She discussed how most development projects in Lod had disproportionately befitted Jewish residents. Faten highlighted the hope that the community center brings to her neighborhood but also shared the threats that crime and violence present in her community. Lod has a reputation as a hub of crime and violence, but when one of the URJ fellows asked me if I feel safe living in the city, though, I realized that even crime and violence occur in separate spheres of the city. Personally, I feel as safe in Lod as I do in any other city I’ve lived in, and the city has come a long way from the history that earned it its bad reputation. However, two of the Arab-majority neighborhoods in Lod are considered to be among the most dangerous neighborhoods in Israel, but most development projects have been focused elsewhere in the city. Gender-based violence impacts Arab women at a disproportionate rate and has been a major problem in the city.
As the conversation continued, other URJ fellows brought up similar stories they’d heard from African American and immigrant populations during their trip to Atlanta, Georgia. As in any city in the world, certain neighborhoods are safer than others, formerly dangerous areas are gentrifying, and marginalized populations always face the harshest consequences. How these processes manifest themselves on a local level, however, depends on historical context. In Israel, the historical and often ongoing neglect of Arab society has exacerbated pre-existing issues, such as intra-community or gender-based violence, and created even deeper divides between Arab and Jewish experiences.
The day ended with a deeper focus on understanding historical context in Lod. We went on a tour of Lod’s Old City area, which is an Arab-majority area but also houses the central bus station and one of the city’s biggest weekly markets. The tour ended in the main square of the Old City, where we learned to story of the massacre that took place in the Dahamshe Mosque that sits on one side of the square. During the 1948 war, when Lod was a major battle site, women and children took refuge in the mosque. However, Israeli forces attacked the mosque, killing around 200 civilians. The massacre isn’t acknowledged by the state, and today the square is named Palmach after the very same brigade that carried out the act of violence. The story is a heavy reminder that separation isn’t just spatial. Separation also exists in the narratives and historical experiences of those living in the city. Walking past the Dahamshe Mosque will never put the same weight on me as it will for someone who’s family was in Lod in 1948. For Jewish and Arab residents, the Palmach Square sign will continue to carry vastly different meanings, creating a further separation between societies.
The heavy ending to the day was a powerful reminder of how deep the divides between Arab and Jewish society can run. Seeing the city alongside the URJ fellows reminded me how my insider-outsider experience as a foreign volunteer may provide me with valuable insights into different sections of Israeli society but can also sometimes blind me to the reality that most Israelis live in. However, the story isn’t all negative. In the Mixed Cities Survey that The Abraham Initiatives ran in 2019, 84% of respondents from Lod reported good or very good relations between Jewish and Arab residents of the city. Even more promising, the majority of Jewish and Arab participants responded positively to the prospect of bilingual schools and shared learning initiatives. So, while separation remains the norm in most people’s lives today, attitudes lean in favor of working towards bridging those divides. For me, seeing Lod through fresh eyes was an important reminder of both how deep and damaging separation can be, as well as the potential for mixed cities to become models of shared living for all of Israeli society.