Jaffa’s residents are not afraid of stereotypes

Despite recent violence, many residents of Jaffa actively promote peace and coexistence.
Sunday 08/07/2018
A view of Tabeetha school in Yefet street in Jaffa, on July 4. (Kaja Bouman)
Championing coexistence. A view of Tabeetha school in Yefet street in Jaffa, on July 4. (Kaja Bouman)

JAFFA, Israel - Six people have been killed over the past two months in Israel’s Jaffa, just kilometres from Tel Aviv’s booming city centre. The Palestinian residents of Jaffa say the harsh conditions they live under are due to neglect, mainly by the Israeli police, who, they say, don’t care enough about the Arab community in Jaffa and have never done what is necessary to fight crime, drug use and violence in the area.

Despite recent violence, many residents of Jaffa actively promote peace and coexistence. The city has a high number of Arab-Jewish organisations, including schools, community and youth centres.

“Problems arise when the authorities get involved,” said Maria Ivanova of the Tabeetha School. “The truth is that the residents of Jaffa get along really well. It’s one of the gates to the Holy Land. A lot of people came through here and influenced the area. There was never just one religion.”

Ivanova graduated from Tabeetha in 1996 and has been working there for more than a year. The school, the first English school in the Middle East, was founded in 1863. The classes are mainly in English and all students take courses in Arabic and Hebrew. Tabeetha is a Christian school, owned by the Church of Scotland but has always welcomed people of all backgrounds and religions.

“The majority of our students are Christian and 20-30% is Muslim,” Ivanova said.

The Jewish minority is due to a law, no longer in force, that was implemented when the state of Israel was established in 1948 that made it mandatory for all Jewish children to go to state schools. “Because of that law mixed schools are very unique and I think most Jews don’t know of our existence,” Ivanova said.

She arrived in Israel from Bulgaria in 1990 and spent her first years in the country at a state school. “I would tell people I’m both Christian and Jewish and they would say: ‘No, you can’t be both.’ When I came to Tabeetha a couple years later and told them I was Christian and Jewish, they said it was fine.”

“When kids grow up they don’t focus on the differences, they focus on what they have in common,” said Ivanova. “They don’t really know what their religion entails, so they share their interests. For kids it’s about drawing, singing or dancing.”

Ivanova and the other 40 employees at the school say the values of coexistence and respecting each other will stay with the children the rest of their lives. This way they hope to positively influence the future of Jaffa. The school takes on peace-related projects each year. It’s working on setting up a Museum of Coexistence to display pictures of the school and projects the students have worked on.

Though Ivanova said she knows most residents in Jaffa get along, she doesn’t deny she’s seen a change over the years. “I don’t remember Jaffa like this,” she said in response to the recent killings. “When I used to walk home from school, I wouldn’t be afraid someone would attack me for something like looking at him the wrong way, but now I am.”

Jaffa resident Ora Balha said the situation has improved, despite the continuing crime. “Everything has improved,” she said. “We didn’t even use to have trash containers. People used to leave their trash in the middle of the streets.”

Balha is the founder of the Orchard of Abraham’s Children, a non-profit organisation a couple of blocks from Tabeetha School that has a day-care centre and is involved in several peace projects. Balha is Jewish and founded the organisation with her Muslim partner Ihab Balha. “We want to get rid of the labels and live together in peace and love,” she said.

Commander David Filo, head of the Israel police’s Yiftah District, said there has been a decrease in the number of killings in Jaffa compared to last year, which he confirmed in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Ivanova said she considers the increase in applications to Tabeetha School as a sign that Jaffa residents support coexistence. For every class of 20 children, the school receives 80 applications.

“You don’t know what this school gives you until you graduate. When you’re a student you complain about exams and how that teacher was unfair,” she said. “I speak fluent English because I went here, which meant that I could go to university anywhere in the world. I even got some of my credits covered because I didn’t have to take English and it was easier to get scholarships. I got the opportunity to work all over Europe.

“Most of all it’s easier for me to adjust to different people and connect with them. I’m not afraid of stereotypes.”