A carefully woven history of the city once called “the Bride of Palestine.”
The Israeli-Arab conflict is often chronicled as a clash of monoliths with no personal dimension, though recent works such as Sandy Tolan’s The Lemon Tree (2006) and Gershom Gorenberg’s The Accidental Empire (2006) mark a humanizing trend. This book joins them: Drawing on the memories of Jewish, Muslim and Christian families with roots in the ancient Arab city, journalist Le Bor does much to give a sense of the “intricacy of a century-old struggle.” That struggle begins with the arrival of Zionist immigrants who saw the old port city of Jaffa as a typically chaotic, dirty Mediterranean place; rejecting it, they built modern communities all around, and in time Jaffa became but a decaying suburb of the new metropolis of Tel Aviv. The city saw much strife in 1921, when anti-immigrant riots spread across Palestine, resulting in the deaths of 47 Jews and 48 Arabs, an event that would be long remembered by both sides. The city was nearly emptied during the war of 1948; the Jewish mayor of Jaffa pleaded with Arab residents to remain, but tens of thousands fled, and in time many residents of Jaffa came to live “as though the Palestinians had never existed.” Many others did not, though, and Le Bor highlights the peacemakers among the city’s ethnic factions, such as an Arab baker whose shop became a nondenominational sanctuary from the troubles outside. As Le Bor observes, Jaffa, still without many of its Arab/Palestinian residents, has lately become gentrified and cleaned up, if sanitized and perhaps soulless in the bargain; against this trend, he writes, community activists are trying “not just to rebuild things but to try to connect them together again. Because Jaffa has to be the place where Jews, Muslims and Christians can connect, like they used to.”
A provocative, ultimately hopeful view of a tormented place.