The Pauper’s Lamb: Going back to 1948 to dispossess a family in today’s Jaffa
Despite this blog’s title, this post is on something you can read about in Haaretz. I do add some analysis and access to additional materials, but the primary reason for the divergence is emotional. Not only is this a story of extraordinary injustice, it is also about the family of a friend and colleague, Mary Koussa.
You can read the entire saga of the Shaya family in this Haaretz article, but the gist is fairly simple. In the 1920’s, Salim Khoury Shaya, head of Jaffa’s once prosperous Greek Orthodox Palestinian community, built a house for his family. He had seven children. In 1948, a census was taken of the remnants of Jaffa’s Palestinian community. Empty houses were taken over by the State of Israel, according to the Absentee Property Law (more about that at the bottom of this post). The Shaya house was a unique case. Three of the siblings were absent (in Lebanon), but four were present. So the State proclaimed itself “partner” and legally took over 40% of the house.
Decades passed and, except for a number of failed attempts in the 50’s and 60’s, to sue for full property rights, the Shaya family didn’t hear much from the government. Their area of Jaffa (near Ajami) was a slum no one was really interested in. That all changed about four years ago. The Jaffa coast went through accelerated gentrification and property prices skyrocketed. Amidar, the government owned housing company that administrates most Absentee Properties, saw an opportunity for a windfall. Contrary to popular perception, most of the Palestinians living in the area are not descendants of the pre-1948 residents, but descendants of refugees displaced during the war from other parts of the country, and are now tenants of Amidar. Therefore, their eviction, on a variety of pretexts, was relatively simple. In 2007-2008 alone, Amidar issued at least 400 eviction notices in the Ajami neighborhood.
The few Palestinian owners were more of a problem. But in 2007, some bureaucrat looking through old case files discovered the Shaya family’s vulnerability and hatched a plan — slap them with an exorbitant demand for years of back rent for the 40% of the house “owned” by the government and then demand that the “partnership” be dissolved through sale of the house to a third party. The Shayas don’t want to leave their ancestral home, but their attempts to buy out the State were rebuffed, and now Amidar and the Israel Lands Administration (ILA) have taken them to court. They want them out.
Even from the perspective of Lieberman’s Jewish-Nationalist school of thought there is much that is wrong with this story. As a devil’s advocate, I would ask his disciples in the government, why persecute “good Arabs?” The Shaya’s are fully integrated in Israeli society. One of the second generation siblings worked at the Tel-Aviv municipality for his entire life. An uncle was the first Palestinian policeman recruited in Jaffa by the Israeli government in 1949. A visitor at the Sunday family gatherings hears a mix of Arabic and Hebrew. Why is Israel taking them back to the Nakba that it wants to force them to forget through legislation?
For Israelis who still believe in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and for genuinely “pro-Israel” Jews abroad, this kind of reopening of 1948, which is also happening in Jerusalem and Haifa, is no less than suicidal. It severely undermines the premise of 1967 as the starting point for a diplomatic solution, with its implications regarding the 1948 refugees.
For all Jews, or at least those that see Judaism as a culture and a moral code, rather than an ethnic filter, the story of the persecution of the Shaya family presents a grave injustice for which we, as a collective, are responsible. It often seems to me that the apparatus of our government has lost any sense of justice and morality. Indeed it took a Palestinian citizen of Israel, the family’s lawyer, Adv. Hicham Chabaita of Tel-Aviv University’s Human Rights Clinic, to point out the immorality of suit.
This is how Chabaita opens his defense (Hebrew original here):
As in the story of the ‘Pauper’s Lamb,’ the plaintiff, a government authority, is cynically requesting, with no shame whatsoever, to dispossess the defendants of the home that has been their property since it was built by their grandfather decades before the State was founded, and thus to expel them…This case is not a regular civil suit, despite attempts of the State to present it as such…We are speaking about hard, uncommon facts, an outcome of the unique context of the 1948 War.”
Right above is an excerpt from Samuel II, chapter 12, verses 1-4. Here it is, English translation alongside Hebrew original.
So the Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to David, Nathan said, “There were two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a great many flocks and herds. But the pauper had nothing except for a little lamb he had acquired. He raised it, and it grew up alongside him and his children. It used to eat his food, drink from his cup, and sleep in his arms. It was just like a daughter to him. When a traveler arrived at the rich man’s home, he did not want to use one of his own sheep or cattle to feed the traveler who had come to visit him. Instead, he took the pauper’s lamb and cooked it for the man who had come to visit him.”
Chabaita also reminds the court that the Israeli Supreme Court described the Absentee Property Law as “meant to fill a temporary role: to preserve absentee properties lest they become abandoned and open to looting.” He also dug up the protocols of the Knesset debate around the enactment of the law and quotes the Members of the First Knesset, keenly aware of the circumstances of their own people, so recently displaced and dispossessed, describing its purpose in the same way.
The Tel-Aviv Magistrate will hear the case in January.
[You can write the Shaya family at firstname.lastname@example.org]