Colonizing the Cities and Gentrifying the Desert

by Gabi Kirk

Last week marked turning points in three important cases which, at first glance, seem to be wholly unrelated. On June 2, after eight hours of public comment, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors rejected a temporary moratorium on luxury housing in the Mission District. The Mission has been in the news consistently over the past few years, as working class residents, many Latino, have been pushed out by increasing rents, speculative developers, and new wealth brought in by young professionals working in the new tech boom.

On the same night across the water, a diverse community coalition had been organizing for months to halt the development of a luxury apartment tower in Oakland’s Eastlake neighborhood. After activists shut down a council meeting to prevent a vote, police closed the chambers Tuesday to many who had signed up to give public comment. The vote was delayed yet again, as Councilmember Abel Guillen realized that he would not have the required votes as multiple council members questioned the legality of the project.

The third case happened thousands of miles away. In Israel, the Bedouin village of Umm el­Heiran, in the Negev, has been fighting in court for years to prove that they hold legal titles to their lands. Nearby, Jewish settlers have moved into mobile homes, biding their time as they have faith (in both G­d and the courts) that the Bedouins will lose their case and the village will be renamed Hiran, open only to Jewish residents. Last week the village filed their last legal recourse, asking for a re­trial, to claim legal title over the lands they have always lived on.

Umm al­Heiran’s story is sadly not unique. While many are obviously familiar with Jewish settlers encroaching Palestinian lands in the West Bank, fewer know that throughout the Negev Palestinian Bedouin are being pushed out of more rural villages in favor of “development towns.” Access to desert lands is important for these tribes, who still consider themselves nomadic and rely mostly on pastoral grazing animals for livelihood. Umm al­Heiran’s case isn’t looking good, as the Israeli High Court recently denied another Bedouin village’s land rights, claiming that oral history of living there is not enough, therefore redefining not only who has claim to the land but how they claim it.

What do these three cases have to do with each other? All three show communities who fight legal battles and use direct action to save their homes. For some, it is direct colonization, as Bedouin in the Negev directly confront bulldozers. For others, like Black people in Oakland, they see the writing on the wall of gentrification pushing them out of their homes due to evictions and rising rents, and sometimes they do directly confront landlords who would take over their apartments.

The Bay Area and Israel are also directly connected through the tech industry. Tens of thousands of Israelis live in the Bay Area, many splitting time between Tel Aviv and San Francisco suburbs, as Israeli startups get their start in the Bay Area and vice versa. While tech money is nothing new to Silicon Valley, the newest wave of people moving in to find jobs here, bringing with them higher salaries, and developers and landlords jumping at the opportunity to raise their prices, is occurring much more rapidly than during the first dot com boom of the 1990s. This is not to imply that Israelis are responsible for all Bay Area gentrification, but that some of those who contribute to the colonization of Palestinian lands also contribute to gentrification in San Francisco and Oakland. One new tech housing project, which owns three buildings in the newly gentrified South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood, boasts educational tech talks and community dinners. The project’s owners are also being sued by former residents of one of the buildings, who claims they were not allowed to move back into their apartments following renovation after a fire. (This violates San Francisco’s strict rent control law.) The name of this “co­living” housing? With unintentional irony, it is called The Negev.

But more than just similarity of tactics or coincidences in who perpetrates colonization, these three battles are about indigeneity: who is “from” a place, and who gets to live there? How do historic communities have precedence over those who would push them out of their homes? As a community activist said ten years ago, “Living in this gentrification environment is much more difficult for residents…Actually, what they’re doing is killing the indigenous culture.”

So, as a young white American Jew in California just trying to find a place to live that’s safe, clean, and hopefully close to some fun activities, where do I fit in here?

In Homegrown: Engaged Cultural Criticism, bell hooks explains how well-­meaning white people (usually artists, students, and queer people) are used as front line gentrifiers:

This is colonization, post-­colonial­-style. After all, the people who are “sent back” to recover the territory are always those who don’t mind associating with the colored people! And it’s a double bind, because some of these people could be allies… But in the end, they take spaces, redo them, sell them for a certain amount of money, while the people who have been there are displaced. And in some cases, the people of color who are there are perceived as enemies by white newcomers.

As this blog begins, I have thought a lot about Jewish Diasporic resistance to the occupation. This requires me to aIso consider my role in colonization not just in Israel­Palestine. I have called the San Francisco Bay Area home my entire life, and plan to indefinitely. I have shared culture with other Bay Area locals ­­ whether it’s rooting for local sports teams (Go Warriors!), dancing to hyphy music downtown, or eating local food, I am a California girl through and through.

Yet I am not “from” here. My apartment building is built on an Ohlone shellmound, and there are Ohlone people who have kept an unbroken connection to this land even as their ancestors’ graves have been paved over. I am not “from” Oakland. In fact, as a Jew in Diaspora, I’m not sure if I am really “from” anywhere, and I’ve come to be okay with that. I am a settler, even without ever having stepped foot in a West bank settlement. Jewish colonization of Palestinian lands is as vicious as gentrification’s colonization of America’s cities. I am complicit in violence against communities rooted in their lands both in California and in Israel­Palestine ­­ and to struggle against my complicity I need to throw my lot in with those who fight to stay where they are from, from Oakland to Palestine.

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