Golan: Where Druze, Settlers And Tourists Cross Paths

Occupied by Israel for fifty years, the area on the Syrian border is a favorite destination for Israeli tourists. But most of the Druze who have lived there for generations do not feel Israeli.

Druze residents watch fighting on the Syrian side of the border from vantage point in Golan Heights
Druze residents watch fighting on the Syrian side of the border from vantage point in Golan Heights
Serge Dumont

TEL AVIV — Hana and Shimon Davidovitch had been waiting for this for a long time. For their silver wedding anniversary, the couple's two children sent them on a weekend to the lush, green Golan Heights.

The couple, retired civil servants, arrived with a chartered bus full of other sexagenarians, all visibly happy to be there.

"Breathe this pure air, it's not like Tel Aviv, eh? We are in the most beautiful area of Israel," Hana Davidovitch exclaims.

Occupied territory

According to international law, the Golan Heights, a 1154 km² plateau captured during the 1967 Six Day War and annexed in 1981 by the Likud government of Menachem Begin, is considered occupied territory like the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem. The 33 kibbutzim and villages that have existed there for 50 years are considered settlements. But the retirees do not care because they feel "at home."

Before the Six Day War, about 130,000 Syrians — civilians and soldiers — lived in the Golan. At the end of the fighting, only 6,000 or 7,000 remained and 340 villages and farms were destroyed. Since then, 33,000 Israelis have settled there in villages such as Merom Golan, an important tourism center, Kidmat Ziv, and others. The so-called capital of the Golan is Katzrin, a small town surrounded by a few industries, generously subsidized by the government in Jerusalem.

This plateau is an integral part of Israel and no one will take it back from us.

Unlike the Palestinians in the West Bank, the Druze of the Golan have never attracted international interest. But the plateau's settlement has been much more sustained than that of the other occupied territories and its fertile lands and abundance of water have caught the attention of the powerful Israeli agricultural lobby.

A favorite destination for Israelis

Driving along the pristine roads of the Golan, one crosses vineyards, plantations and organic farms. "When this was Syrian, nothing worked here. The Druze lived in the Middle Ages. But over 50 years we modernized everything and now the Golan is a favorite destination for Israelis: more than 1.5 million visit every year," says Eytan Wirtz, the guide accompanying the retirees.

Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, the Golan has become a lot less calm. There have been incidents of stray gunfire and mortar shells coming from the exchange of fire between Syrian army forces and rebels. Every day, dozens of Israeli tourists go to observe the fighting from a ridge at the foot of Mount Bental, at the summit of which lies a military intelligence base directly overlooking the Syrian city of Kuneitra.

"We were right to annex this territory, because the Syrians are barbarians. Whether they're rebels or Bashar al-Assad's army, they kill each other like savages!" said Aaron Benizer, a Tel Aviv resident who came to observe Kuneitra through binoculars. "Give back the Golan? To whom, now that Syria no longer exists? Don't fool yourself, this plateau is an integral part of Israel and no one will take it back from us."

The majority of Druze feel Syrian

Since the annexation of the plateau, 80% to 90% of the remaining Druze have refused to take Israeli citizenship offered to them. They are content with a permanent residence permit granting them social, not political, rights — a laissez-passer of sorts.

Until recently, many of them supported the Assad regime. Not because they are attached to the dictatorship, but because they regard Syria as their true country. Before the Syrian civil war, an agreement between Damascus and Jerusalem negotiated through the UN and its Golan-based peacekeeping force, allowed Druze farmers in the zone annexed by Israel to export their apples to Syria. Also, 400 Druze students were allowed to go to Damascus to study for free at local universities.

I'm a stranger in my own land.

"All this is in the past but it doesn't mean that I want to become Israeli," sighs Fidaa, an 18-year-old Haifa University student whose father is a Druze from Majd el-Shams, the main Druze village in the Golan, and mother is a Syrian from Damascus.

The young woman, who considers herself "Syrian at heart," has never set foot on the other side of the border. But she often thinks of it. "My friends, my relatives and I all have a very strong connection with Syria. I also dream of going to Damascus to see my grandparents, my uncles and my cousins," she said. "It is true that in Israel the Druze have many social and economic benefits unthinkable in Syria and, for me, I find that the level of education is high in Haifa. But how can I say it? I don't feel at home in Israel. I don't share the language, culture, or religion of the majority in this country: I'm a stranger in my own land."

Fidaa works as a waitress to pay for her studies. It does not take much to get her to express her rancor. "For 50 years, the Israelis have had no contact with us," she says. "In their eyes, we are just a picturesque part of the landscape. The only time they talk to us is when they sit in our restaurants and order local specialties. They give us orders and they like it."

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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