Whenever I called Khamis Abulafia to say that I was in Jaffa he had a question and an instruction. The question was when would we meet, the instruction not to eat anything before. There might be lunch of grilled fish and a vast mezze of crisp salads, or breakfast of endless savoury treats from the family bakeries in Jaffa and Tel Aviv. Alongside the delicious food he shared his knowledge and insight of Jaffa, Israel and wider Middle Eastern politics.
Khamis passed away from Covid-19 recently at the age of sixty. His death is a terrible loss. For his family most of all, but also the cause of peace, co-existence and mutual understanding between Jews and Arabs that he so vocally championed.
Khamis was proud of his Palestinian heritage but was also realistic about being a minority in a Jewish state
Khamis’s wide network of friends and connections ran from the back streets of his beloved Jaffa to high-ranking Israeli and Palestinian politicians. The Abulafia bakery, on the edge of Clock Tower square, is one of Jaffa’s best-known – and most-loved – landmarks. It even closes for eight days during Passover, when it is forbidden for Jews to eat leavened bread or pastry. Khamis was proud of his Palestinian heritage and identity, but was also a realist about being a member of the Arab minority in a Jewish state. “I believe a journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step,” he once told me. “I support the Jewish people’s right to live here, but they have to understand, and to believe, that I also have that same right.”
I first met Khamis about fifteen years ago when I was in Jaffa researching my book City of Oranges, which recounts the life stories of Arab and Jewish families in the ancient port. The fifth child of his parents, Khamis took his name from the Arabic word for five. He spoke at length of Jaffa as a “special place”, where Jews and Arabs lived together, and how the city was and could be a model for co-existence. Khamis was a well-known figure in Jaffa, neighbouring Tel-Aviv and beyond and often mediated in disputes between neighbours and families. He studied Hebrew Literature at university and spoke the language fluently. He was a journalist, had his own show on radio Tel Aviv, and was a frequent commentator for Arabic television channels on Israeli affairs. Behind the scenes he was close to Ron Huldai, mayor of Tel Aviv since 1998, and lobbied hard to improve conditions in Jaffa, much of which is still run-down and deprived.
I last saw Khamis in Jaffa in 2017 when I was gathering material for an updated edition of City of Oranges. He was as lively, engaged and hospitable as ever, and invited me to breakfast. Every other customer wanted to greet him and chat. We talked about the changes in Jaffa over the past few years, how the Tel Aviv bohemians were pouring into the city, renovating the run-down Arab villas, and how this process of re-gentrification (for before 1948 Jaffa was the cultural capital of Palestine) was pushing up house prices and driving out the inhabitants – or a “soft transfer” as some locals called it.
We spoke too of the disturbing rise in gang crimes and so-called “honour crimes” among Israel’s Arab communities, although there is nothing honourable about them at all. Israel is a modern state, with a world-class education system, but some Arab men fear the new opportunities that may open up for Arab women if they attend university. “There is a new trend,” explained Khamis. “The wife of an Arab man says she wants to study but he says no, ‘You have to stay at home and serve me and my family’. If she does not obey his order this is a reason to kill her. Why? Because he is afraid that if she goes to study in university she will open her mind and her eyes and start to realise that she has a right to say no to him.” After breakfast was over, I mentioned to Khamis that I wanted to buy some Wissotzky mint tea, which is surprisingly hard to find. We went to the nearest branch of a supermarket. “Akhi, akhi, my brother, my brother,” Khamis greeted the assistant, “Where is the mint tea?” We quickly found it and I am fairly sure he insisted on paying.
Israel needs voices like Khamis’s more than ever
Nowadays a final peace between Israel and the Palestinians seems as elusive as ever, even though the basic framework of a two-state solution is broadly accepted. But a far more complicated, and subtle, issue, is the position of the 1.9 million Arab Israelis, many of whom now call themselves Palestinian citizens of Israel. What does it mean to be an Arab in a Jewish state, to navigate a path between competing national identities? I once asked Khamis about 1948, the year of the Israeli War of Independence, which Palestinians call the “Nakba”, or catastrophe. “We face two different narratives about 1948, the Arab version and the Israeli one,” he told me. “The question is, which one do we want to live with? I have Israeli nationality, but it is difficult for me to say that I adopt the Israeli story. I am part of the Palestinian people, and it is easier for me to take the Palestinian one, but whether that is really the whole truth or reality, I don’t know.”
There were certainties too: that Israel was a better place to live than any of its Arab neighbours. Israel was a democracy, with free speech, the rule of law, efficient municipal officials who did not demand a bribe. “Despite the situation with the Palestinians it has better security and a better economy than the Arab countries around us,” Khamis said. “I criticise the policies of the Israeli government, especially Benjamin Netanyahu. I don’t like him. But it does not mean I am not loyal to the Israeli state. I am a loyal citizen.”
Israel will likely hold yet another election next spring. The Netanyahu era, it seems, is drawing to a close. But as the remnants of Israel’s left implode and the hard-right strengthens further, Israel needs voices like Khamis’s more than ever. Akhi, you left us far too soon.
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