Where are the most meaningful places for you in your city? What kind of people go there? And what can be done to improve them?
A group of foreign volunteers in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Lod recently asked these questions in a city-wide survey. The volunteers, part of the Yahel Social Change Fellowship, hoped to better understand the city in order to inform their own efforts, as well as the efforts of municipal leaders and local social activists. Understanding mixed cities in general is crucial for identifying the challenges and opportunities in developing Arab-Jewish shared society.
The volunteers (of which I am one) were particularly interested in: (1) learning if there were any locations that were important for both Jews and Muslims, as these locations would provide logical launching points for efforts to develop positive shared society; and (2) providing practical suggestions to municipal and social leaders based on observed trends. Relevant findings and suggestions are included below.
The survey and resulting maps confirmed our previously held beliefs that Lod’s Muslims* and Jews live largely segregated from each other.
*Lod has a small Arab-Christian population, but there were no Arab-Christians respondents in our survey.
The survey did reveal two locations in Lod that are important for both Jews and Muslims: archeological sites, and the local mall. Respondents from both religions suggested that: (a) the archaeological sites should be preserved, rather than used for events as they are today; and (b) the mall should be upgraded and improved.
A practical takeaway from this finding is that interfaith community forums should be established to advise the management of Lod’s archeological sites and mall. This can bring a myriad of benefits to the city, including a greater sense of community ownership, and greater interaction between citizens and local government. Furthermore, Jews and Muslims would be working together in an action-oriented way on real, local issues. Academic literature suggests this is a more beneficial strategy for peacebuilding than simply talking about bigger, more abstract issues, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Koonce, 2011; Larsen, 2014; Luhmann, 1979; Schiefer, 2017).
Another practical takeaway is that community efforts, and especially those aimed at building shared society, should take place around archeological sites and the mall. One of the community centers I work at is close to the mall, but struggles to attract Muslims to its programs. Running activities at the mall, where all walks of life from Lod are found, can increase participation by diverse communities in various social activities.
Lack of Central Meeting Points
No single location in the city was listed as “meaningful” by more than 12% of respondents. If you ask people in my hometown of Bethesda, Maryland where a meaningful place in the city is, I would wager that way more than 12% of respondents would answer “Barnes and Noble.” The Barnes and Noble is in a geographically central location, has nice sitting areas and a fountain, and is surrounded by attractive shops and restaurants.
This datapoint suggests that the city is missing central meeting points where residents feel comfortable coming together. One of the key issues holding Lod back from further development is a lack of civic pride. To me, this lack of a central gathering location contributes to that absence. Attractive central meeting points can also be a place where Jews and Muslims interact and grow more comfortable with each other. The Lod municipality should develop better central meeting points in neutral geographic locations.
Parks and Green Spaces
Both Jews and Muslims in Lod reported frequenting parks and other green spaces at high rates. Both groups also requested improving parks, including through better infrastructure and greater cleanliness. The Lod municipality should invest in new parks, as well as in upgrading and maintaining existing ones.
Dispelling Lod’s Stigmas
Lod has a negative stigma in Israeli society, and is often associated with crime and drugs. But when asked how to improve meaningful places in Lod, most respondents pointed to cleanliness, rather than security, as their key concern.
This reveals a wider observation about the data gathered in this project – the findings could be the same for any city in the world. Cleanliness, infrastructure, historical preservation, and better malls are common issues in many cities. Security was a lesser concern, and… Arab-Jewish conflict wasn’t mentioned once.
Understanding mixed Arab-Jewish cities is critical for understanding how to develop positive shared society between Israel and its Arab citizens and neighbors. Locations in mixed cities that are important for both Arabs and Jews present opportunities to build trust through interaction and community ownership. Municipal governments and social organizations in mixed cities should: (1) focus efforts at building shared society on locations that are important for both Arabs and Jews; (2) encourage interfaith community ownership of shared spaces; and (3) build new shared spaces, and upgrade existing ones.