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al-'Abbasiyya - العباسِية (اليهودية): Ha'aretz Daily: The 'Lugano Plan': Erasing Yehud's Arab past

Posted on July 4, 2006
By Meron Rapoport

The first landmine appeared within the first minute of the interview with Yehud Mayor Yossi Ben-David. Yehud was established in 1950, he began, ؟on the foundations of the moshava [Jewish farming community] here, some of whose homes were Arab houses from the period of the Turks and the English.

Moshava? There was an Arab village here, if I'm not mistaken.

"An Arab village? I don't like using that concept, Arab village. Tomorrow all the Arabs will come here, you know how it is."

I didn't insist. You don't have to go to the Bible or the history books to see that Yehud has existed at least since Joshua conquered the Land of Israel. It is mentioned in the Book of Joshua as one of the cities given to the tribe of Dan. Since then it has been settled by many different peoples, including Arabs. They lived there for about 1,000 years, until 1948. According to the 1945 census carried out by the British, Yehud had a population of 5,800, including 150 Jews. The evidence of this is visible: The mosque and its minaret (apparently built in the 13th century) are right under Ben-David's window.

Ben-David does not like it when people argue with him. It can be said, to his credit, that his impatience is not reserved only for the press. When the door of his office opened a few minutes into the interview and two men entered the room, Ben-David was beside himself with anger. And ten minutes later, he showed me the door.

"I see that you're a little antagonistic," Ben-David said. "The interview is over, write whatever you want," the mayor said after I tried to comprehend why he had decided to demolish the historic center of Yehud and to replace it with the historic center of Lugano, straight from the Swiss Alps.

The center of what remains of the Arab village, or "Old Yehud" as Ben-David called it during our short conversation, is Sa'adia Hatuka Street, now a pedestrian promenade. It was named for the town's legendary mayor from the 1980s, who put Yehud on the national map. The street used to be called Kibbutz Galuyot, and the town's old-timers remember it fondly as the place to be when Yehud was a small town.

The old center and the surrounding area began to decline after a mall was built in the new Kiryat Hasavionim neighborhood about a decade ago. Nevertheless, a pleasant small-town feeling remains, with old-fashioned stores and a "park-bench parliament" of old men speaking Judeo-Spanish. A large portion of the Jews who settled in Yehud during the 1950s came from Turkey, and according to local legend even the Ashkenazi and Yemenite Jews in the city had to learn Judeo-Spanish in order to get by.

Eye on Europe

The idea of renovating the old center is not a new one: The Interior Ministry began developing a master plan for the area 10 years ago. According to Yehud's municipal engineer, Monica Har-Zion, formerly the engineer of the district planning council, the plan aimed to reconstruct the ambience of the Arab village's casbah, while calling for the destruction of many of the existing buildings. Yehud's political leadership was unsupportive, however, so the program stalled.

The change came a few years ago. The previous mayor, Uzi Meir, visited Lugano, Switzerland, with his then-deputy Yossi Ben-David. Both men were excited by what they saw, and a new plan was born to replicate Lugano in the center of Yehud. Meir began the process; Ben-David took it over and ran with it. His offices look like an advertising agency, with select Swiss pastoral photos and blueprints of the plan to bring Lugano to Yehud.

Ben-David is drawn to all things Italian. Like a textile merchant, he travels frequently to northern Italy. True, Lugano is in Switzerland, but it is the country's Italian canton.

Why Lugano, of all places?

"There's a huge commercial center there," Ben-David said. "Like in Florence. If you've ever been to Florence, then you've seen how busy it is during the evenings and weekends. It's an alternative to a mall, with many more elements. There's a commercial center, a shopping center, a residential center, a tourism center. Here [in Yehud] there will be hotels like in Europe, small ones with 25 or 30 rooms, because the city is close to the airport. Someone with a flight can come here [the night before] and then go to the airport in the morning."

Israel Rosio, the architect who drew up the plans for the Yehud municipality, explained that Lugano was considered a suitable model because it and Yehud have several aspects in common. Both the Arab village of Yehud and Lugano have winding streets with squares. But there is nothing of the streets of an Arab village in Rosio's plan. At its heart are four- to five-story apartment buildings, with facades mimicking those in central Lugano: painted shades of lemon, peach or apricot with neo-Classical columns and windows with neo-Classical arches.

The entire area will be a pedestrian mall, with ground-level shops and public squares. Ben-David prefers to call them piazzas.

Rosio has about the same affection for Arab Yehud as Ben-David does. He wants to get rid of it all. The sole remaining signs would be the minaret (the mosque itself would be destroyed), the old municipal office building and a Mamluk-era tomb that the Muslims associated with Judah, the son of Jacob, and which has become a Jewish prayer site. The grave is also the source of Yehud's Arabic name, Yahudia.

"We didn't think there was anything to preserve in these houses," Rosio said. "The only thing left of the Arab houses is a lot of junk. There's no reason to preserve the mosque, either, it's just an ordinary Arab house. As a native of Yehud, I have no problem getting rid of it. These remains don't do anything for me. This is a new country."

But even Rosio, who describes himself as a friend of Ben-David, has reservations about the name "Lugano Plan."

"I told Yossi not to call it the 'Lugano Plan,' because that would attract criticism, people would say Switzerland is being transplanted to Yehud," Rosio said. "But Yossi has all sorts of fantasies, he thinks the houses will look like they do in Lugano. The people on the district planning council were turned on by it, and the planner said it should be the model for other cities. She suggested calling it 'The Yehud Casbah,' but no one would want to come if it were called the casbah."

"'Lugano Plan' is a bombastic name," said Meir, the former mayor. "Lugano has one million tourists a year, but Yehud has no lake, no snow and no mountains." Meir recommends a little modesty. He also thinks the plan is unlikely to be executed. The cost of the project has been estimated at up to $250 million. Meir does not believe that developers will invest that kind of money in Yehud.

Other motives?

Detractors are convinced that Ben-David's eagerness in promoting the plan has a single motivation: making Ben-David even richer than he already is. Ben-David, as he has admitted on the "Bulldog" investigative television program, owns "five or six stores" on Yehud's pedestrian mall. He leases the shops in a key-money arrangement, but if they are demolished as part of the Lugano Plan he will receive a handsome compensation package. Experts say the value of the properties would be tripled. A 100-square-meter shop on Sa'adia Hatuka Street is currently worth about $100,000; the math is easy.

One of the leaders of the fight against Ben-David is attorney Uriel Ben-Assouli. He was born on Kibbutz Degania Bet; his wife Tova was born in Yehud.

"Yehud was a little village, where everybody knew each other, and Ben-David is trying to turn it into a big city," Tova Ben-Assouli said. "We had local pride, and we weren't ashamed of the Arab past, either. Ben-David is selling [storeowners] on the pedestrian mall [the idea] that they will get a bigger shop. But people don't believe him. It doesn't suit us."

Yehud's Arab past is of interest to Michael Jacobson, an architecture student at Jerusalem's Bezalel Academy of Art and Design whose final project is on an alternative plan for Yehud. Jacobson actually agrees that the remaining Arab houses in Yehud are of no real aesthetic value.

"What I am proposing is not to restore the houses, with the exception of the public buildings, but rather to preserve the urban texture, the street layout of the Arab village," Jacobson explained.

Jacobson's project spurred Zochrot ["Remembering"], an Israeli organization that aims to preserve the memory of the Palestinian Nakba ("catastrophe" - the founding of the State of Israel), to oppose the next phase of the Lugano Plan. Zochrot recently petitioned the local planning committee over the planned destruction of the remnants of the pre-1948 Arab settlement in Yehud, as dictated by this part of the plan. Jacobson said that when he spoke to Yehud residents about the city's Arab past, they panicked. But when he coached it in terms of preserving Yehud's character, they understood immediately.

Ben-David, however, has no intention of giving up on his plan. He does not even insist on the name Lugano Plan anymore, and is willing to replace it with the Ramblas Plan, after the famous avenue that leads to the port in Barcelona.

And it doesn't bother you that you are replacing Yehud's history with that of another place?

"Some people study history and others make history," Ben-David said. "I am one of those who did not study history but who made history."

Click here, to view the article at Ha'aritz Daily.


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