Before rage breaks out, push to make Israel’s mixed towns more Jewish
LOD, Israel – Years before the mixed Arab-Jewish town of Lod erupted in mob violence, a demographic shift had started to take hold: Hundreds of young Jews who support a religious and nationalist movement began to take root. settle in a predominantly Arab neighborhood with the express objective of strengthening the Jewish identity of the Israeli city.
A similar shift was occurring in other mixed Arab-Jewish towns in Israel, such as Ramla and Acre in the north, as part of an loosely organized national project known as Torah Nucleus. They say their intention is to lift up poor and neglected areas on the fringes of society, especially in mixed towns, and enrich Jewish life there. Its supporters have settled in dozens of Israeli towns and villages.
“Maybe ours is a complex message,” said Avi Rokach, 43, president of the Torah Nucleus association in Lod. “Lod is a Jewish town. It is our agenda and our religious duty to watch over all who live here, whether they are Jews, Muslims or Hindus.
But in reality, the presence of newcomers sometimes created tensions, which accumulated over the years and then erupted. in the midst of the latest outbreak of war between Israelis and Palestinians. Arab and Jewish mobs attacked each other in the worst violence in Israeli cities in decades, raising fears of civil war. For many, the intensity of the animosity came as a shock.
For decades, die-hard Israeli nationalists have sought to change the demographics of the occupied West Bank by building Jewish settlements, undermining the prospect of a two-state solution to the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
With much less attention and fanfare, the Torah Nucleus movement embarked on an ideological mission to shift the balance of Israeli cities and promote its brand of Judaism within the country.
The first families who moved to Acre and Lod 25 years ago came from West Bank settlements, and they aimed to make mixed or predominantly Arab communities more Jewish.
With the settlement of the West Bank firmly entrenched – some 450,000 Jews now live among more than 2.6 million Palestinians – supporters of Torah Nucleus see Israeli cities as a new horizon.
Most countries around the world view Jewish settlements in the occupied territories as a violation of international law, but this was an attempt to create change within Israel’s recognized borders. And many call it a new Zionism.
“Religious Zionism has not abandoned the ancient mission of Judea and Samaria,” said Reut Gets, who runs the Torah Nucleus association in Acre, referring to the West Bank by its biblical names.
But the focus was now on “the new challenge” within Israel itself, she said.
Lod, a town of about 80,000 people in central Israel, is about 70% Jewish and 30% Arab. The friction had long been kept at the boil.
But on May 10, Palestinian protests and an Israeli police raid on the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem – one of Islam’s holiest sites – turned into a military conflict between Israel and Hamas, the group. Palestinian activist who controls the Gaza Strip.
This quickly sparked violence between crowds of Arabs and Jews in cities of Israel, starting in Lod and spreading rapidly across the country as internal fault lines were abruptly exposed.
In Lod, hundreds of the city’s Arab citizens took to the streets, throwing stones, burning cars and torching properties, expressing their rage against a main target: Orthodox Jewish families, mostly young, who arrived in recent times. years, claiming they wanted. to uplift the working-class city and make it more Jewish.
The worst was the number of families who had moved over the past decade to a difficult and crime-ridden neighborhood, populated mostly by Arabs. They rented or bought apartments in the dilapidated blocks lining a maze of streets near the city’s old quarter, sharing stairwells with longtime Arab residents.
Newcomers called it coexistence. But many Palestinian citizens of Lod saw them as invaders and called them “settlers”.
The violence quickly turned deadly. Four Jews are believed to have shot and killed an Arab resident, Musa Hassouna, and injured three others in a riot in a nearby neighborhood. A Jewish man, Yigal Yehoshua, died after Arabs threw a heavy stone at him.
Over the past week, the clashes died down and on Friday morning a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas took hold. But the unrest in Lod nonetheless drew attention to the role of the Torah Nucleus movement.
Its representatives vehemently deny that they have bad intentions towards the Arab population, insisting that the opposite is true. Mr. Rokach, the local leader of the movement in Lod, insisted that the program’s volunteer projects, such as distributing food to the needy, benefited Jews and Arabs.
“Coexistence is not standing in the road with a sign,” he said, mocking liberal peace activists. “It’s getting up and saying hello to your Arab neighbor and lending yourself some milk if necessary. We live it. “
Rami Salama, a 24-year-old Arab resident of Lod and a building contractor whose apartment complex is now made up of about half of Arab families and half of Torah Nucleus, said it was not not his experience. He said it pained him that his new Jewish neighbors never respond when he said hello or happy holidays to them.
“They want to rule here,” he said. “I blame the Arabs who sold them the apartments,” which, he added, had since doubled in value. “The violence wouldn’t have happened without the settlers,” he said.
Lod’s neighborhood at the heart of the violence, Ramat Eshkol, was abandoned by many of its Jewish residents decades ago and there the city’s Judeo-Arab relationship is reversed. About 70 percent of Ramat Eshkol is Arab.
Across Israel, there are approximately 70 active Torah Nucleus centers, supported by an umbrella organization, the Community Renewal Foundation, which receives government funding.
Izhak Lax, the president of the foundation, said the idea was for young militants, many of whom were professionals and graduates of military combat units, to settle in the country’s low geographic and socioeconomic margins. and help to improve them.
Their presence extends from the predominantly Jewish desert towns of Yeruham and Dimona in the south to Kiryat Shemona on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. Out of some 10,000 families involved nationally, about 1,200 are in Lod.
But Mr Lax refuted claims that they had come “to conquer” Lod and displace the Arabs. “Where else can we settle but in a city in the middle of Israel?” he said.
In Acre, up to 200 Torah Nucleus families have made their home. Among those injured in the unrest was a member of the community, a teacher in his 30s who was beaten unconscious by Arabs. The Arabs also set fire to tourist sites owned by Jews.
Jewish vigilantes from across the country quickly organized on social media and searched for Arab victims in Lod and other towns, beating an Arab near death in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam.
Lod, which traces its history to the time of Canaan and is known as Lydda in Arabic, has a particularly busy history centered around the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Most of the original Palestinian residents from the city were expelled and were never allowed. return.
The Bedouins – the Seminomad Arabs of Israel’s Negev Desert – arrived in the following decades, as did the families of Palestinians from the West Bank who had collaborated with Israel to seek refuge.
Now the Arab rage here is steeped in a sharp sense of inequality born out of decades of government neglect and discrimination.
The city’s mayor, Yair Revivo, has lobbied in the past to tone down the volume of the Muslim call to prayer from the city’s minarets and his right-hand man is one of the founders of Torah Nucleus de Lod.
Arab resentment is compounded by a lingering fear of displacement, house by house.
About eight years ago, Torah Nucleus built a pre-army academy and a religious boys primary school next to the long-established school for Arab students on Exodus Street in the heart of Ramat Eshkol.
These Jewish institutions were the first to be burnt down on May 10. The unrest began after the evening prayers, witnesses said. Young Arabs hoisted a Palestinian flag in the square and demonstrated in solidarity with the Palestinians in Jerusalem and Gaza. The police dispersed them with tear gas and stun grenades.
Angry Arab crowds then went on a rampage, torching synagogues, Jewish apartments and cars in Ramat Eshkol. A group approached another neighborhood in Torah Nucleus, where a Jewish crowd had gathered.
There, the four Jewish shooting suspects claimed, they fired into the air in self-defense as Arab rioters began to rush at them, throwing stones and firebombs, according to court documents.
The funeral of the victim, Mr. Hassouna, the next day turned into further clashes as mourners, including building contractor Mr. Salama, insisted on crossing Exodus Street with the body in defiance of instructions from the police.
That night, gangs of Jewish extremists, some of them armed, came from out of town to attack Arabs and their property, witnesses said. Mr. Salama said he was hit by a stone while sitting in his garden. Shots were heard from both sides.
A Jewish apartment in Ramat Eshkol was reduced to ashes after Arab intruders drilled a hole in the wall. The family had already left. A neighbor, Nadav Klinger, said the charred apartment will be kept as a museum.
Elsewhere in Lod, some veteran Jewish and Arab neighbors said their good relations had remained intact and agreed that the influx of religious Jewish professionals had uplifted the city.
Ayelet-Chen Wadler, 44, a physicist who grew up in a West Bank settlement, came to Lod with her family 15 years ago to join the Torah Nucleus community.
“I was brought up to try to make an impact,” she said. “Just by living here, you make a difference.”
A week after the violence peaked, around 30 of the 40 Jewish families who had evacuated their homes in the Ramat Eshkol neighborhood had returned.
“I think we can get back to where we were before, but it might take some time,” said Mr. Rokach, the chairman of the Torah core in Lod, condemning the revenge attacks on Jews from outside.
“No one is leaving. Rather the opposite. As we speak, I just got a WhatsApp message from a family looking for a home here. The Arabs are not leaving either.
Myra Noveck contributed to the Jerusalem report.