Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘legal discrimination

An approach to Urban Refugees?

Note: Re-edit of “Towards a City-zenship Approach to Urban Refugees. March 12, 2018″

A neighborhood upgrading approach would begin with a participatory assessment of living conditions in areas of high density that bring together.
In addition to representative members of multiple vulnerable groups, municipal authorities, public service and planning agencies, local associations, international donors and relief agencies.
And other actors involved in supporting directly or indirectly the dwellers of a neighborhood to form local neighborhood committees and establish an inclusive planning process under which agencies have some leeway to engage in “developmental activities” as a form of “crisis response”.
Mona Fawaz, professor in Urban Studies and Planning at the American University of Beirut, member of Beirut Madinati, and LCPS research fellow
There is growing evidence that the distinction between individuals tagged with the “refugee” label and other vulnerable groups is often slim, particularly in urban contexts.
Most urban refugees live in dilapidated and precarious urban neighborhoods that they share with impoverished nationals, migrant workers, and other vulnerable population groups.[1]
As conflicts extend, many of these refugees do not benefit from substantive assistance.[2] Instead, they share the “stigma” of the “outsider” with other international migrants who reside in the same neighborhoods.
Worse, both are frequently competing over the same employment opportunities while suffering from similar legal discrimination that stigmatizes their presence and/or work as “illegal” and consequently exposes them to higher risks.
The dismantlement of the welfare state and consequent withdrawal of public services that could privilege nationals also reduces differences between those who benefit from a legal citizenship status and those who are treated as “outsiders”, eventually lumping all these vulnerable population groups into the category of “residents of dilapidated urban areas.” 
These observations raise important questions for those interested in contemporary refugee responses.
Is it time to reconsider the dominant nationalist fiction that has guided targeted humanitarian refugee responses on the basis of citizenship?
Can we instead adopt the premise that large-scale forced population movements such as those witnessed recently in Syria and neighboring countries are generating a challenge that is better answered through the language of urban city-zenship that disregards national belonging and instead favors responses targeting particular urban quarters?

Should refugee responses, at least partially, be focused on the revision of urban policy making and support for a targeted “neighborhood-based” approach that seeks to upgrade dilapidated neighborhoods instead of targeting vulnerable individuals?[3]

I argue that in Lebanon, particularly in the 5 large-scale urban centers where the majority of Syrian refugees—and, more generally, the majority of vulnerable urban populations—dwell, a neighborhood-based approach that pulls together scattered, piecemeal interventions into a holistic, multi-sectoral neighborhood upgrading strategy, has the potential to bring about positive economic, social, and political outcomes for multiple vulnerable population groups and the cities where they dwell.

Such an approach would integrate the efforts of the assemblage of local and international actors who currently conduct refugee response projects as part of coordinated interventions that shift ongoing support from individuals or buildings to dilapidated neighborhoods through participatory strategies that prioritize local livability and employment generation.
Building on earlier informal settlement upgrading strategies, these projects could help patch up the main fractures between refugees and local populations.

Why is a neighborhood-based approach that responds to the “refugee crisis” by upgrading degraded neighborhood an adequate response?

Consider the following:

First, Lebanon’s patterns of refugee settlement resemble in every aspect the global trend of refugees settling in urban areas rather than in camps.

In fact, five years into the crisis, funding has considerably dwindled and most refugees are forced to rely on their labor to survive, precipitating their movement to cities where they rent rooms, makeshift spaces, or apartments in so-called “urban slums” they share with other vulnerable social groups (e.g. Palestinian refugees, foreign migrant workers, and low-income Lebanese).[4]

Hence, it is possible to target refugees in well-identified, precarious neighborhoods.
Second, a neighborhood-upgrading approach empirically recognizes the absence of sound national housing policies and compensates by investing in better livelihoods for vulnerable social groups, including refugees.

Given that the Lebanese economy is heavily invested in real estate speculation, provides only marginal safety nets for vulnerable families, and depends heavily on cheap, unprotected labor, it is likely that precarious settlements will continue to form the only affordable housing option for most vulnerable groups.

These neighborhoods have, however, suffered disproportionately negative consequences in the ongoing refugee crisis.

In the absence of mechanisms of land acquisition that could horizontally increase the supply of housing, accommodations are being provided by vertical building densification: Dividing existing apartments, adding floors, sharing spaces in higher levels of crowding.

Predictably, the consequences are individual hardship for households in these neighborhoods as building services crumble.

Also, there is a downward spiraling trend for entire neighborhoods where failing infrastructure has constituted a challenge, even prior to the refugee crisis.

In Lebanon, where neighborhood upgrading interventions in the forms articulated in most other countries of the Global South have never been introduced, the effects of the densification are even more severe than described elsewhere.

In this context, a neighborhood upgrading approach that improves collective infrastructure and invests in shared facilities has a good chance of significantly improving the health and living conditions of all neighborhood dwellers.

Third, a neighborhood-upgrading approach is expected to bring positive economic benefits to vulnerable communities.

Physical upgrading entails investments in individual apartments, buildings, and neighborhood projects, all of which create work opportunities within the sectors where Syrian refugees (and other vulnerable social groups) have traditionally worked.[5]

There is again evidence that in addition to Syrian refugees, Palestinian refugees and the poorest Lebanese groups have suffered disproportionately from the refugee crisis, particularly in the loss of employment on which they survive.
A well formulated, neighborhood-upgrading approach may also provide incentives for the formation of local small-scale rehabilitation enterprises by neighborhood dwellers who would undertake upgrading projects.
Within this framework, it will be important to introduce regulations to encourage the recirculation of wage money in a specific area by incentivizing local businesses and preventing further transformations of the housing stock into assets owned by outsiders.
Ultimately, if neighborhood upgrading approaches integrate with these physical interventions and other social programs (e.g. training, schooling, healthcare), they are likely to set in motion positive economic cycles with positive, long-term benefits for refugees.

Finally, a neighborhood upgrading approach has the potential to reduce heightened tensions between vulnerable social groups exposed to severe hardship and competing over mere survival.

In the past two years, targeted interventions from international organizations have left those without such support (e.g. migrant workers, unsupported refugees, poor Lebanese) bitter at perceived discrimination against themselves, namely that refugees are receiving support they are denied.

Targeted interventions further fostered an environment of competition and abuse under which landlords have demanded higher rents (exposing everyone to higher vulnerability) and ultimately fostered negative tensions among groups.

Investments that instead address neighborhoods holistically and create work opportunities in recognition of a shared hardship have the potential to use spatial planning as an opportunity to create a shared sense of a common good among dwellers, more relation/attachment to place, and other proved positive factors.

What would a neighborhood upgrading approach entail?

A neighborhood upgrading approach would begin with a participatory assessment of living conditions in areas of high density that bring together, in addition to representative members of multiple vulnerable groups, municipal authorities, public service and planning agencies, local associations, international donors and relief agencies, and other actors involved in supporting directly or indirectly the dwellers of a neighborhood to form local neighborhood committees and establish an inclusive planning process under which agencies have some leeway to engage in “developmental activities” as a form of “crisis response”.

A neighborhood upgrading approach should aim for the improvement of shared/common spaces and the reorganization of regulatory frameworks through which access to basic needs (e.g. access to housing, work, school) is occurring.

In this context, it is imperative to favor direct investments in shared infrastructure (e.g. water, electricity, sewer, public spaces) through projects that generate employment opportunities for workers while upgrading living conditions.

In addition, a neighborhood upgrading approach will require the establishment of a local legal official and representation of public agencies (e.g. municipalities) to enforce a locally-designed regulatory framework that organizes contractual agreements (e.g. rental agreements, work agreements) to reduce abuses and injustices.

Finally, recent research has shown that an area-based approach can only be successful if linked to wider city or regional plans and policies, by expanding the role of municipalities and regional authorities in conceptualizing linkages and relations between precarious neighborhoods and other areas of cities.

In closing, an area-based approach may turn the ongoing challenge of refugee housing and ensuing crises into an opportunity to address long-term, endemic challenges in Lebanese cities by embracing the urban planning framework direly missing in our country.

This is not a given, particularly as considerations of national citizenship assumed in the introduction of this approach are far from accepted in Lebanon but it nonetheless offers an opportunity for a more informed, hopeful urban refugee and urban politics.

[1] Fawaz, M. 2017. “Planning and the refugee crisis: Informality as a framework of analysis and reflection.” Planning Theory 16(1): 99-115.
[2] UNHCR estimates that about half refugees live in protracted conditions
[3] This approach has emerged recently among UNHCR and other agencies under the label of an “Area-based approach”. I chose to retain “urban upgrading” to explicitly link the proposal to the long tradition in planning practice of intervening in so-called informal settlements to improve livability and sometimes clarify and regularize tenure.
[4] UNHCR and UN-Habitat. 2014.
[5] Dahdah, A. 2015. “Habiter la Ville Sans Droits: Les Travailleurs Migrants dans les Marges de Beyrouth.” PhD dissertation at Aix-Marseille Université.

Another kind of Romance: Birthright Israel for young Americans?

Jewish young adults are extended all-expenses paid trips to Israel.  Are the US funders and Israeli politicians planning to create the next generations of American Zionists?

Kiera Feldman, a Brooklyn-based journalist, published in The nation this August 4, 2013: The Romance of Birthright Israel

A baptized child of intermarriage, I traveled on an Israel Experts Birthright trip in February 2010 that promised “serious programs for serious people who want to have fun!”

It felt more like a Zionist summer camp for young professionals.

We sang campfire songs, used nicknames that ended in “Dawg” and made lunchtime dares to eat unsavory concoctions.

Lawyers, corporate strategists, a personal trainer—my Birthright tour mates were twentysomethings with grown-up jobs and responsibilities everyone seemed glad to leave behind. For 10 days, we basked in a second adolescence.

  • Israel
How Birthright Israel Works its Magic

As if according to some divine script, my crush was soon requited, and when the lights went down in the fake Bedouin tent, I got my mifgash on. “I love it,”

Harold Grinspoon, a member of the Birthright Israel board, told me upon hearing of my romance. “You have a nice interaction with a Jewish person—that’s great.” An octogenarian philanthropist who made his money in real estate, Grinspoon rattled off high intermarriage numbers and low Jewish birthrates. “We’re really in trouble as Jews,” he said sadly.

Birthright’s boosters seem strangely unaware of the tribe’s more visible woes, the 44-year- illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and the racism and legal discrimination that underpins Israel’s ethnocracy. If the former was kept nearly invisible on my Birthright trip, the latter was laid uncommonly bare.

Our guide was Shachar Peleg-Efroni, a second-generation secular kibbutznik. Several times a day he said things like, “Arabs are those who originated from Saudi Arabia.”

Everything we saw out the tour bus window was “in the Bible,” reinforcing Zionist claims to the land. He used “Palestinian” interchangeably with “terrorist.” Driving through northern Israel, Shachar gave a lesson in “Judaization,” the government’s term for settlement policy.

Passing through an Israeli-Arab town, he called our attention to a litter-strewn road (perhaps the result of inequities in municipal funding, which escaped mention) and then pointed to a neat ring of state-subsidized Jewish towns. “Judaization,” he explained, was necessary “to keep them from spreading.” My American crush and I exchanged a knowing look.

From my notes on Day 8:

“Israel just went in and cleaned Gaza,” Shachar said of Operation Cast Lead, which had taken place a year earlier, as we drove south to an organic farm along the border. There, the Israeli proprietor explained that his low-hanging trellises were Thai worker–sized and invited us to nibble the dangling strawberries. “Thank you, Thai worker!” he instructed us to say when a laborer walked by.

En route to the next stop on the itinerary, Shachar pointed to tin shacks—Bedouin villages—and jovially detailed the government’s Bedouin home-demolition campaign, saying the IDF needed to “kick them away.” We arrived at our far more picturesque “Bedouin Dessert [sic] Village Experience” and rode camels into the sunset. A man named Mohammed served coffee and played a familiar tune on the oud: “Hava Nagila.”

To varying degrees, Birthrighters from an array of other trips have recounted similar experiences. “Don’t go to the Arab Quarter, because they will throw acid on your face,”Max Geller recalls his Birthright guide saying in 2006.

Geller’s trip also featured’s Neil Lazarus, a pro-Israel advocacy trainer who says he’s delivered presentations since Birthright’s inception. (“When the Palestinians kill Israeli men, women and children,” Lazarus says in one online video, “they celebrate, and they give out sweets in the streets.”) Lazarus’s take-home was, according to Geller, “Arabs want to kill you.”

Jared Malsin went on a 2007 Birthright trip where IDF soldiers role-played a checkpoint. “The message was every single Palestinian is a threat until proven otherwise,” he recalls.

Ella Rose Chary recalls a Birthright activity in 2009 in which soldiers described sending neighbors to knock on the doors of suspected militants, an illegal use of civilians as human shields. “I might die if I go up there,” one soldier said to his new friends. “What should we do?”

* * *

A new era is dawning for Birthright. What began as an identity booster has become an ideology machine, pumping out not only Jewish baby-makers but defenders of Israel. Or that’s the hope.

With the relentless siege of Gaza, the interminable occupation, the ever-expanding settlements, the onslaught of anti-Arab Knesset legislation, Israel has earned its new status as an international pariah.

Meanwhile, the rise of J Street, the liberal pro-Israel lobby group, suggests that the American Jewish center is inching leftward along generational lines, and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement is gaining traction among young activists.

In the wake of Operation Cast Lead, Republican pollster Frank Luntz found that Jewish college students are “not standing up for Israel”; he calls the results “horrifying.” Enter Birthright.

In the words of CEO Gidi Mark, Birthright trains participants to “go back to anti-Zionists on their campuses and say to them, ‘Don’t tell me what you saw on CNN—I was there.’”

In May 2010, Hillel president Wayne Firestone denounced campus divestment campaigns for seeking to “delegitimize and demonize Israel,” declaring Birthright alumni to be “the only way to combat these efforts.”

In November, at an assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, Bronfman shared the cheerful news that half of all pro-Israel activists on college campuses had been on Birthright. “Many of our Birthright alumni come back and are ready and eager to be advocates for Israel,” Susie Gelman, a Birthright board member and funder, told me. “In the current atmosphere, it takes on even more of a significant role than could’ve been anticipated when Birthright began.”

At a recent Birthright open bar night dubbed “Zionism Is Humanitarianism,” I approached Steinhardt and mentioned that I’d had a Birthright boyfriend throughout last spring. “Is he the man of your dreams?” Steinhardt asked. “Is he here in New York?” No and no, I answered. “Well, a few months of pleasure is wonderful!” he exclaimed. Later, from the stage, Steinhardt promised a free honeymoon to anyone who met that night and tied the knot within a year.

Alumni often assure me that Birthright is just a fun heritage trip. Funders and officials, too, reiterate Birthright’s “apolitical” nature.

In January, J Street announced it would sponsor a Birthright trip. Shortly thereafter, Birthright said a miscommunication had occurred—as a “political” organization, J Street was ineligible. Yet a Birthright trip run by AIPAC, the far more conservative Israel lobby group, has been renewed for years.

Very few trip providers offer sessions with Palestinian citizens of Israel.

My trip, advertised as “pluralist,” met an Israeli-Arab computer programmer who spoke briefly about legal discrimination against minorities, followed by an Israeli-Arab teenager who called herself “pro-Israel.”  When I asked her thoughts on the Palestinian right of return, she giggled, consulted with a Birthright activity leader, and said, “I don’t think it’s the right time for them to come back.” My requests for a full list of Israeli-Arab groups on Birthright itineraries were declined.

Since its inception, Birthright has been funded by an illustrious and varied lot; most of them just happen to share hawkish Israel politics.

In 1998, during his first term as prime minister, Netanyahu gave the initial guarantee of Israeli government funding.

By 2000, when the first Birthright trips were under way, at least 8 funders were trustees of AIPAC’s think-tank spinoff, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy—including Steinhardt and Bronfman. And Casino magnate Adelson.

Adelson is Birthright’s largest donor, staunchly opposes a two-state solution. He once famously broke with AIPAC—for not being conservative enough. Other notables: oil billionaire Lynn Schusterman, a Birthright founding funder, 35-year AIPAC veteran and the purse for many “pro-Israel” youth initiatives such as the Israel on Campus Coalition, which combats “the worrisome rise in anti-Israel activities”.

Diamond baron and settlement construction impresario Lev Leviev.

Slim-Fast billionaire 
S. Daniel Abraham, a member of the AIPAC board; and neoconservative philanthropist Roger Hertog, emeritus chair of the Manhattan Institute.

Then there’s donor Marc Rich, a founding Birthright board member, the billionaire oil trader controversially pardoned by President Clinton; throughout his business dealings, Rich gathered intelligence for the Mossad.

Several Birthright donors, including family foundations operated by the Gottesmans, Grinspoons, Steinhardts and Schustermans, have also financially supported illegal Jewish settlements.

In 2008, for example, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation gave $25,000 to Ein Prat, a school in the settlement of Kfar Adumim.

In a phone interview, Robert Aronson, president of the Birthright foundation, maintained that he simply wants the trip to be “the opening of a door” to Jewish communal life. But should that doorway lead to political engagement, Aronson hopes it will be through right-wing Zionist groups such as AIPAC and Stand With Us, whose members have been known to target Jewish anti-occupation activists with Nazi slurs and pepper spray.

What about “Students for Justice in Palestine? “No, that one I probably wouldn’t list,” Aronson laughed. Soon, his humor evaporated. He ended the interview when I asked why the organization encouraged Birthrighters to patronize settlement businesses, as was done on my trip. “Not my issue,” Aronson said. “I never answer to political questions.”

Birthright tour providers are allowed to take tourists anywhere between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean.

Mark, the CEO, explained that “as an apolitical organization,” Birthright does not concern itself with the Green Line, the internationally recognized border separating Israel proper from the illegally occupied West Bank. “If security allows it, we allow for our participants to see the beginnings of where the nation started.”

Theoretically, a visit to a Palestinian town in the West Bank would be within the boundaries of acceptability—but Chazan said no trip provider has done it. Birthright funders and officials see Palestinians as best avoided, for “security” reasons. On my trip, we were given maps of Israel that referred to the West Bank as “Judea and Samaria”—biblical terminology typically favored by settlers and their sympathizers.

“I trust that they’re doing the right thing,” Jewish Federations president Jerry Silverman told me, when asked about Birthright’s support of settlements. Such was the predominant sentiment of the funders on this matter, and on the overt racism expressed on some trips: Birthright, like Israel itself, can do no wrong.

Exchange: Birthright Israel’s Jewish Journey




February 2023

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