A baby step or two forward, a thousand steps back. That’s what was going through my head as I sat in the (relative) safety of my Lod apartment, contemplating advances in a shared society. I was glued to what was effectively a live feed on a local WhatsApp group of what was happening approximately two neighborhoods away, the eye of a storm in its ongoing fomentation. By the next morning, I was seeing pictures of burned cars, streets and lots that physically looked different than they had a day earlier, and most painfully, synagogues trashed and burned, Torah scrolls strewn and desecrated.
By the next evening and the following morning, during which a state of emergency was declared in Lod (al-Lydd in Arabic), the vicarious became visceral. By the late afternoon, as the funeral of Musa Hassouneh commenced, we were already told to stay indoors — as we walked home, smoke could be seen hanging over the city as I simultaneously received videos of the flames whence that smoke arose. We were heading into a night of wariness and exhaustion, as rockets from Gaza were launched towards the central region where Lod is situated, sending us into shelters as we simultaneously heard stun grenades and other such sounds not all too far from our window.
Israeli acquaintances, in their state of shock, also expressed surprise. I heard and still hear both from decades-long Lod residents and from people around the country expressions such as, “what happened to them?” (“them” usually referring to Arab citizens, and only occasionally to Jewish violent elements), or “we had such a good relationship with them, there was coexistence, what happened?” The questions I am left with after such conversations are: what kind of coexistence was there? On whose terms and to whose benefit? Is a mixed society really a shared society? At what point was Lod’s version of coexistence bound to fail?
My simple answer to these questions is that we can permit ourselves to be shocked, but we must withhold our surprise. Why mustn’t we be surprised?
First, stepping away from Lod for but a moment, the kernel underpinning the violence is al-Aqsa and Sheikh Jarrah. Concerning al-Aqsa, it seems that Jewish Israelis, who lack cultural and religious competency and sensibility surrounding Islam generally and the holy month of Ramadan specifically — foremost the police and security officials — simply do not understand how sensitive al-Aqsa is as a symbol and place of true sanctity for Muslims, including your average Lod teenager. “Al-Aqsa is a red line,” an oft-repeated slogan by Muslim Palestinian leaders and street activists alike, is not simply a religious excuse for a political demonstration against Israeli occupation or for a violent antisemitic rampage targetting synagogues, even if these phenomena are deeply joined one to the other.
Even if we were to adopt the cynical approach, that symbols like al-Aqsa are stand-ins for political violence and extremism, such a reaction should come to us as no surprise in the Israeli context: when there is creeping fascism, as the philosopher Walter Benjamin taught us, the aestheticization of politics becomes increasingly apparent. Just look at the Jerusalem Day Flag March through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, where Palestinian shops are forced to close as Religious Zionist youth from around the country taunt and harass passersby with hateful, violent slogans, egged on by leaders who are now prominent in national politics. Still, it should be no surprise that an assault on al-Aqsa worshippers during Ramadan and nearby violence on Laylat al-Qadr, the holiest night of the Muslim calendar, would touch and inflame the hearts of Muslims.
Let us return to Lod.
If deeply felt pain in connection to al-Aqsa wasn’t enough to stoke Arab outrage in Lod, we should open our eyes to the profound overlaps between Lod and Jerusalem vis-à-vis religio-political sensitivities in the Muslim experience. Years of incitement and violence around al-Aqsa culminating in this year’s unrest, experienced as arrogant manifestation of burgeoning Jewish supremacy, has found expression in Lod’s municipal insensitivity towards Muslim traditions, sensibilities, and holy sites, as recently as the beginning of Ramadan this year. As the city saw an uptick in violent crimes, with gunshots and fireworks heard throughout the night, Lod’s mayor Yair Revivo, in his typically brash, maverick manner, gave the government an ultimatum: if they do not bring in border police and reserves (Lod’s state of emergency a few weeks later took care of that for him) to embark on what he termed “Operation Defensive Shield 2” — a reference to the West Bank operation during the Second Intifada) — he would initiate a municipal strike and close roads.
In calling on the government to stop neglecting crime and violence in Arab society — on its own a just, well-overdue cause — Revivo lambasted the elevated volume of the “muezzin” (mosque’s call to prayer) during Ramadan, lumping together and effectively equating the sounds of fireworks, the spread of illegal weaponry, and gang violence with the Muslim tradition. Unsurprisingly, the Arab members of the municipal coalition collectively resigned in a letter citing the “muezzin” as a “red flag,” the same term used by Palestinians regarding assaults on al-Aqsa. This is only a few years after Revivo vowed to drown out the “annoying” Muslim call to prayer with Jewish prayer, and a year later stormed the city’s mosque in the early AM in the midst of a holiday prayer and yelled at the Imam to lower the volume. If one wishes to question public outrage in Lod about al-Aqsa, one must remember that Muslim residents of Lod are no strangers to the pain one feels when their sacred space is treated with contempt. And indeed, during Lod’s state of emergency, much of the violent commotion surrounded protecting the city’s mosque from attacks by ultra-nationalists and settlers who entered Lod provocatively after a few nights of unrest.
So what about home evictions in Sheikh Jarrah? Just another abstract Palestinian symbol for Lod Arabs supporting the cause?
This issue, too, is not far from their experience under the Revivo administration. The heartbreaking 2016 Palestinian hip-hop film Junction 48 (commonly seen as Israel’s and more specifically Lod’s 8 Mile) points out that not only has the municipality handed demolition orders to illegal Lod homes built recently for lack of permits; homes that have belonged to a family for generations, perhaps since the Nakba, are also targeted by the Absentees’ Property Law because a family member who fled or was expelled never returned — an experience not unique to Lod.
So what about today?
On Dec. 23, six cars and three trucks were set on fire, likely in response to at least three home demolitions in the previous three months. The arson came in the wake of three weeks of protest against the demolitions. Mayor Revivo immediately claimed that the attack was “nationalist” in nature (a common euphemism for Palestinian terror attacks) before there was any investigation.
What is ironic regardless is that he called it “nationalist” while simultaneously, in his post’s comment section, clarifying that the attack “happened because this morning, the municipality enforced the law and demolished illegal structures. In the evening, there was a ‘price-tag’ [attack] against innocent residents.” The irony in this juxtaposition is that the mayor has effectively insinuated that home demolitions and the struggle against them is not merely a Lod-specific municipal, legal issue of “enforcing” the law, but a Palestinian issue within the context of a national conflict — by extension, admitting that this method of “law enforcement,” at the expense of Arab citizen housing and dignity, is of “national” importance to the Jewish-Israeli side of the conflict. Politicizing the (already-political) demolition policy coheres with the notion that discriminatory housing trends are part of active “Judaizing” efforts of groups such as the National Religious Gar’in Torani group, reflected by Revivo’s discriminatory housing policies that prevent Arabs from buying homes for which they have “key money” rights. Such policies, past and present, are to the benefit of a massive-scale, 8.5 billion NIS municipal gentrification plan which could cause a housing crisis for some Arab residents whose neighborhoods will be rebuilt and may eventually be unable to keep up with the rising costs.
It is important to note that such gentrification is not simply a matter of the “free market” or “developing” a city in need of rehabilitation and “strengthening,” but is a policy that penetrates into the space of national conflict as well. Some years ago, when regarding the Arab citizenry of his own city as a security threat (as he in his sweeping generalizations of Arabs is wont to do), Revivo credits the expansion of the settler-esque Gar’in community for averting a hypothetical national security crisis, to boot. A mayor who sees 30% of his city’s population as a demographic threat and plans to do something about it — extending demographic fearmongering to security claims befitting the kinds of arguments that concern an enemy population—does not actually care deeply about the legal status of a home. His mindset is colonial, his preoccupation is ethnic conflict, and his tool to win it is the demolition of homes and the manipulation of the housing authorities and market.
So I ask: other than the human need to live quietly and go about one’s home and work life in peace, were the Arab residents of Lod — many living in the dire conditions of unrecognized neighborhoods and myriad other forms of marginalization and under-resourcing — ever to benefit materially from an often cold, de facto state of coexistence? Lod is a city where sharing society is simply a matter of the simultaneous, parallel survival of communities. With all its potential as a vibrant mixed city, it has sadly not been a model of thriving shared society to the mutual benefit of Jews and Arabs; instead, coexistence becomes a default mode, or at best an ideal reserved for Jews—particularly those with the economic means and municipal support of the Garin Torani — whose wish to live alongside Arabs is conditioned upon those neighbors not expressing national aspirations or even struggling for their right to better living conditions.
And for Arab citizens of Israel living in a place like Lod, Palestinian national consciousness surrounding Jerusalem and institutional deprivation within the Green Line are two aspects of the Palestinian experience that, in 2021, cannot be disentangled. For me, there is no room left for surprise.