A New York Jewish Woman in an Arab Neighborhood

My love for my Arab neighbors in no way diminishes my Zionism. It completes it.
October 26, 2023
Adam Jones/Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

On the morning of Oct 7th before the full extent of the horror was understood, I walked to my local Arab-owned grocery store in Jaffa, Israel, where I live. As I walked, I saw frightened and tear-stained faces of Arabs huddled together, watching the news and talking. I didn’t see anger or protests from my Arab neighbors. I saw pain and sadness.

I am a Jew and a New Yorker by birth, and an Israeli by choice. I am politically conservative, and I moved to Israel at age 60, leaving behind my home, my friends, my language and, six months later, my husband.

I was greeted with the beginning of COVID, and following a grueling year finally settled in Jaffa. Jaffa is a mixed Jewish and Arab area, but I would say the population is about 60 or 70 percent Arab. It is a beautiful port city where the architecture still reflects the Turkish occupation and the Greek influence. I live right off the beach, and it’s truly magical.

It’s true, Jaffa has had a dark history: More than one hundred years ago in 1921 there were Arab riots against Jews, and many died. But today Jaffa stands as a living testament as to what is possible.

When there was “trouble” here two years ago, the violence was not caused by locals. In fact, the moment the entrances to the city were closed at 4 p.m. every day to nonresidents, suddenly the violence stopped. No one who lives in this neighborhood wants to burn a car that belongs to their own mother, or burn garbage on their brother’s front door. My Arab neighbors are store owners, doctors, mechanics, social workers. They are both Muslims and Christians, and no one supports Hamas.

So let me answer a question I have been asked over and over again: “How are the Arabs? Aren’t you scared to live in Jaffa surrounded by so many Arabs right now?”

Let me be clear: In the neighborhood of Jaffa, we are all scared. Here, it is not a battle of Arab against Jew, light versus darkness. Here, we all want the same things, and we all see what happened on October 7 as an impediment to all of the things we work so hard for.

This is still Israel, and we are at war. I am not naïve, and when the pro-Hamas rally happened in the early morning hours this past weekend, I was well aware that I am not in Kansas anymore. But, again, those involved in the rally were not the Arabs of this neighborhood; they came from outside of our community to stir up trouble here. They left and the mission was unsuccessful.

I walk my dog Margot, a large Doberman, with pepper spray (mostly to protect both of us from aggressive stray dogs), and on the day of the rally when two Arab men who were clearly part of the pre-dawn pro-Hamas rally looked menacingly at me on the very quiet street at 5:00 a.m. , Margot with full teeth let them know they should make wise choices. But I’m not afraid because I know that I, a Jewish woman, have many Arab friends in this neighborhood.

I walk past the mosque in front of my building every morning during the call to worship, and it’s very quiet: not many people praying. The area is not terribly religious. You might think: “You’re crazy to walk at 4:45 a.m.!” But I am not crazy: I know my neighborhood and if I yelled there would be 30 Arab neighbors that would descend on whoever dared bother me in seconds.

These are the things that surprise my friends when they ask how I’m doing right now, surrounded by so many Arabs.

There is a sad energy in Jaffa, not a violent one. In the past few years I have learned so much about the Arabs that I live with: Don’t say no to food or coffee—it’s a capital offense, and besides, it is the best food and coffee you will ever have. I am from NYC. What do I know?

On the second day of the war I packed up a car full of food and supplies to go to a base in the north, all donated by Arab stores and store owners—all of it! I got hugged and blessed by Allah.

These are stories of light that need to be told, and maybe now is not the time, but I have a child in the ground, and I know grief. I do not want to get lost in it again or I will die. Right now, as so much pain and horror is unfolding around us, I want to pay attention to what gives me hope.

Right now, as so much pain and horror is unfolding around us, I want to pay attention to what gives me hope.

Yesterday, I saw one Arab street cleaner at dawn sitting on the ground to pray. The sun was rising over him and the sight gave me incredible hope. Sure, there was great suspicion toward me when I moved in but I was quickly accepted into the community and this is an area of great energy; no one wants it destroyed.

In Jaffa, as a Jew, I am home. Israel is unequivocally the Jewish homeland, but my Arab neighbors are our cousins. Of course, not everyone is kind, but it’s the exception here rather than the rule. I will never apologize for coming home, and no, I am not scared.

My love for my Arab neighbors in no way diminishes my Zionism. It completes it.

Nancy Jacobs has been a respected commercial animation agent for over 40 years. She is known for bringing award-winning talent to agencies and brands—as well as telling you what vitamins you need to take (even if you never asked).

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