Fear and loathing in Tel Aviv

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Published Oct 23, 2015
“Dear Ziyad, we’ve read that some off your neighbors in central Tel Aviv would prefer to check you out simply because you’re Palestinian. We just wanted to let you know that we live [nearby] and would love to be your neighbors.”

The letter was posted on Ziyad Abul Hawa’s door on October 13. Several days before, he had come back to his midtown flat near Dizengoff Center to find a notice pasted in the lobby.

“In light of the security situation, we want to check out this Arab neighbor of ours,” it said, naming Abul Hawa and his apartment number, and asking him to appear at a meeting.

Some might be offended, outraged, floored or dumbstruck by this kind of Orwellian investigation that seems more fitting to Stalin’s Russia or a Potemkin village than the “open city” known as Tel Aviv. But Abul Hawa is an upbeat man. He posted the picture of the “we want to get to know you” note on his Facebook page, above a photo of himself making a kind of whimsical Inspector Gadget face. He wrote on the post: “Great! I’ll bring muffins!” In the end, there would be no meeting. But had the damage been done? When Abul Hawa spoke to Metro, he was in the middle of watching Downton Abbey, the British television series that chronicles the life of a manor house and all its attendants in the early 20th century.

“I have a problem letting go of TV shows, but it’s the sixth and final season,” he says.

What happens to the cast in the 1930s? “It’s only the 1920s now,” he explains, so we’ll never know if butler Carson joins the British Union of Fascists.

Zizo, as his friends call him, has suffered from racism in the past – as an Arab who grew up in Spain, but also as part of a family from the E-Tur neighborhood of Jerusalem.

For two years, he’s been living in the same Tel Aviv apartment with his boyfriend.

Cities tend to cater to anonymous living, and neighbors don’t always chat in an apartment building.

“I knew like three or four of them,” he says about his fellow tenants. But since he didn’t encounter racism when he went to rent the apartment and then move in, the recent message came as a surprise.

“I came back from work and saw a note in the lobby,” he relates. “Someone was looking at it, and he was angry and I was just laughing.”

He showed it to his boyfriend, who became much angrier than he did.

“He wanted to knock on all the doors,” he said of his boyfriend. “He called the va’ad [building committee] and asked if they knew about it.”

Although the note had been signed in the name of the building’s residents, everyone they queried denied having posted it.

“She didn’t show up on Thursday at the meeting; she won’t come forward,” Abul Hawa says, explaining that the person who posted the note seems to be female because of the way it was written.

An outpouring of support quickly came his way.

“No one was saying [the author of the note’s] suspicions were legitimate,” he maintains. “People came to show support and love, and apologize in her name.”

The only place he found support for the racism was on websites and other such outlets.

“It doesn’t get to me,” he insists.

Some people saw the letter as a sign of growing racism, and organized a protest. The police issued a permit for Dizengoff Square, and around 200 people came. Abul Hawa was pushed forward to give a short speech.

“They wanted to emphasize coexistence and peace, and not let racism and fear get us down,” he explains.

He says that people are very nervous in the coastal city.

“They don’t take buses sometimes,” he says. “I was in a mall last Friday and it was not full of people like usual. People are not going out as much…. People are feeling the tension.”

He asserts that the terrorists have had a real affect in instilling this fear, and compares it to the war last summer with Hamas, saying that even though Hamas rockets were intercepted, they left Tel Avivians crying and stressed.

“My relatives also fear that extremist Jews could attack me,” he says. “They ask me not to speak Arabic on the phone.”

Recently, Abul Hawa and his boyfriend were wed in an informal local ceremony that involved an unofficial marriage contract, since gay marriage is not recognized in Israel. But he fears taking his husband to Jerusalem, not just due to the terrorism, but because the husband is Israeli and it would be problematic to go to the east Jerusalem neighborhood where Abul Hawa’s family is from.

The issue doesn’t really seem to have affected him greatly. He has felt for a while that he would prefer to live abroad.

“I think there is racism everywhere, and also in Tel Aviv,” he says, “but if you compare it to the rest of the cities in the country, it is the best, next to Haifa.”

Nevertheless, he says that this is like being the “smartest kid in the dumb class,” that in short, the city could do a lot better.

“I hope people stop killing each other,” he says. “I wish each side would look at the other one. They don’t try to look at the other side; they only see their suffering. Neither thinks the other is human.”

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