The Israeli Shikun Story
By Matan Flum, on 23 June 2022
Upon Israel’s establishment in 1948, a public and national housing block(s) programme, referred to in Hebrew as shikun or shikunim (plural), was established to provide dwellings to Jewish refugees and immigrants. The shikunim, the most common dwelling form in Israel, became increasingly controversial, leading to political strife, as well as turning into a symbol of the nation’s birth and of the Israeli government’s discriminating treatment of Mizrahi Jews, most of who became the shikunim residents.
In this housing story, I choose to make a genealogical research and write about the life journey of Ilana Nouriely, my grandmother, and its socio-political meaning, during three time periods between 1928-2021. In order to do so, I made interviews with my close family – mother, and four aunts and uncles. I searched for news articles and governmental and organisational reports regarding the Israeli housing blocks’ conditions as well. I aim to echo the feminist statement that the personal is the geopolitical, as well as to illustrate the fascinating interlinks between geopolitics and various housing and land policies in Israel.
My story will begin with presenting shortly Ilana’s undocumented life story in Tehran, Iran. I will move on to focus on her first years in the Israeli shikun, and then to depict the time period in her second shikun apartment, after the loss of her husband. Finally, I will conclude the story by describing her last few years in her third shikun apartment, where she had to move because of an urban renewal project.
Our story begins in 1928 at the city of Kashan, the Imperial State of Iran. Iran Nour-Mahmoodi, named after the country, was born in an undocumented address and date. We have no details about her childhood, not even some kind of a family story. Iran was married or forced to be married with Eliyahu at the age of 14. In an unknown date they moved to the Imperial State’s capital, Tehran – but we do not know exactly where to. By 1965 the couple extended the family and had 9 children. In 1968, a year after the Israeli-Arab Six-Day War, and after one of their children had immigrated before to Israel, the Persian-Jewish couple decided to follow him and continue their life in a new environment.
The Shikun as a Frontier
As they arrived to Israel’s airport, they encountered for the first time with one of the government’s main policies – the population dispersal policy. The officials in the airport told Iran that the family must move to Israel’s capital, Jerusalem. However, and unlike many other new immigrants, Iran already had a brother who lived in Qiryat Ono, a small town and a suburb of Tel-Aviv city, in the centre of country. The brother who immigrated to Israel in the 1950s and knew how the government treats the Mizrahi immigrants, told Iran to refuse to move to Jerusalem, thus she and her family could live next to him. After putting some pressure, Iran agreed to go alone to Jerusalem and see where the officials wanted to settle them. In Jerusalem, the authorities wanted the family to settle in the shikunim of the frontier neighborhood of Katamonim. When Iran got back to the airport the decision was clear – the family refused to evacuate. In a very unique behaviour, the family waited until 12am, when the officials blinked first and agreed to settle them in two shikun apartments – door to door – in the 4th floor of building in Qiryat Ono, Avraham Yair Stern Street 2. The family went up the stairs at night in the dark, because the electricity was not connected, and got some used beds from the Jewish Agency. Each apartment had two bedrooms, and the older and younger children splitted into each.
Israel’s population dispersal policy, by settling Mizrahi immigrants in shikunim, aimed to fulfill at least three formal Zionist ideological wishes (Kipnis, 1988). First, securing control over the new national land and its essential resources, thus strengthening the national security. Second, securing Jewish demographic majority in each of the areas of the national territory. Third, securing that the territorial space will be used only for the Jewish nationality. Nevertheless, it appears that this policy had three other concealed objectives (Yiftachel and Meir, 1998). First, using Jewish settlement to constitute an Ashkenazi narrative of nation-building by implementing collective values of “desert conquest” and “land redemption”. Second, the policy assists the dominant Ashkenazi population in taking control of the lands where Palestinians had settled before. Third, the policy’s implementation distanced the Mizrahi Jews from the power and capital centres by turning them into a settler force. However, simultaneously, they allegedly become partners to the nation building project. Thereby, they were included within the new Israeli-Jewish nation, but in an inferior standpoint that reveals us the racialised power relations.
Dispersing Mizrahi Jews in neighborhoods such as the Katamonim is just one example of the constitution of the Israeli frontier and of Israel’s frontier settler society, especially since the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel occupied many new territories such as Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Kemp (1999, p. 82) defines frontier as “the spread of settlers into new areas, mostly in stateless societies but during state expansion as well”. She suggests that the frontier cultural discourse in Israel after 1967 War became a border-blurring mechanism that prevented, at the same time, the annexation of and the withdrawal from the Palestinian occupied territories. Following Yiftachel (1996), since 1967 War, neighborhoods such as the Katamonim can be seen as an “internal frontier”, which is “zones (physical or mental) within the spatial boundaries of existing states or cultures, into which the expansion of the core society is sought” (p. 494). Yiftachel (1996) argues that the hegemonic group uses the ethos of frontier development and the power of the state to take control of marginalised group’s territories. In the Israeli case, this mechanism was not operated only to limit the Palestinian minority’s living space, but also justified the population dispersal policy, the poor socio-economic conditions of Mizrahi Jews in Israel’s periphery and the state’s political, cultural and economic control over them.
The Shikun During the Neo-Liberal Shift
While settling in, Iran’s name was changed by the government officials to Ilana Nouriely, in order it to be “Israeli”. Eliyahu started to work in one of the most known government’s factories (“Ossem”) and Ilana started to baby-sit other families’ children, in order them to pay the monthly rent to the governmental company owning the apartments, “Amidar”. In 1977, the right-wing “Herut” party won for the first time the elections and started slowly to promote a new housing policy – the privatisation of the public housing stock. A significant discount was made and the couple was able to buy the two shikun apartments for 18,000 Israeli Liras (pounds) each, while taking loans from family relatives and friends. However, many other shikun residents in the neighbourhood did not have this privilege or decided they prefer to continue and pay the low rent.
From that point on, things started to deteriorate. In 1985, Eliyahu passed away from a brutal cancer disease and Ilana was left suddenly alone, only with her youngest child living in the apartment. She decided to sell one of the apartments, rent the other, and to buy her second shikun apartment in the first floor of the same building. But one way or the other, the “outside” began to reflect her feelings “inside”. The shikun itself has been neglected as the Israeli neo-liberal capitalist regime has become more and more dominant. The staircase started to crack, the common yard has become empty of playful children and its grass went dry, the building entrance’s pavement started to have some bumps, and more and more abandoned and sick cats were seen around. It was if the time stopped. Nobody – from the municipal or governmental authorities nor any dwellers committee – took responsibility over the deteriorated conditions, and wealthier population moved away while the poor entered the shikunim (the residualisation process). It appeared the communities and the sense of community disappeared.
At first sight the privatisation policy appears completely different from the quasi-socialist public housing policy. However, reexamining the two policies shows us they are both subjected to the same spatial racialised logic. Unlike the recent critical literature, Yacobi and Tzfadia (2019) argue the neo-liberal policy of selective privatisation of space should be understood through Israel’s neo-setter-colonial politics that allow us expose new mechanism of colonial control. In fact, this new process in that time was only an adaption of Israel’s ethno-national model to the “free market” logic. I.e., the “free” market, which usually is presented as colour blind and neutral, just deepened the marginalisation of Palestinians and Mizrahi Jews (Tzfadia, 2010). As for Mizrahi Jews, it could be explained that after 1977 elections when an imagined “threat” has been created that their socio-economic class will be elevated, the privatisation was used as an answer to oppress them and transfer material capital to the hands of the Ashkenazi hegemony’s hands. As for Palestinians, the privatisation enabled to use new Western economic and militaristic tools, forces and industries to deepen the control over the Palestinian occupied territories and demonstrate its profitability.
The Shikun Demolition: “Evacuation-Construction” Project
In 1998, the Israeli Urban Renewal Project, “Evacuation-Construction” (“Pinuy-Binuy” as referred to in Hebrew), was declared as an official policy by the Housing and Labour Ministry. The new national project takes place by several steps. First, the Construction and Housing Ministry declares an urban plot as an “Evacuation-Construction” site. Second, the majority of the dwellers in the site must agree to sign a contract with the project promoters, that promises the dwellers’ right to new apartments in the same size in the new building after the renewal. The dwellers also get funding for them to rent other houses until the project will be finished. Third, the project itself starts with an often-celebrated demolition of the shikunim, and eventually the dwellers get their new apartments and the promoter sales the remain apartments.
The awaited advantages of the Renewal Project are as follow (Hasson, 2014): First, condensing the cities without harming open spaces, upgrading the public space, and restraining suburbanisation; Second, strengthening from economic and security aspects the inhabitants of poor neighbourhoods by returning them more expensive new apartments with residential secure spaces against rockets and earthquakes (“Mamad” as referred in Hebrew); And third, the enlargement of the housing stock in order to increase the housing supply.
During 2010-2020 an estimated 5% of the housing construction starts were an “Evacuation-Construction” projects, almost all of them in the Israel’s centre or Jerusalem (State Comptroller of Israel, 2016). As a result of the establishment of the Urban Renewal Authority as a branch in the Housing Ministry, this number is expected to continue to grow. The first plan was launched in 2001 in Qiryat Ono, right next to where Ilana lived her entire life. It was clearly chosen because of the high housing prices in what that became a prestigious suburb in the country’s centre. In 2014 the plan was declared as successful by the companies and authorities. 11 first new high buildings were built and 517 apartments were occupied by the residents – 270 of them by former residents Jerusalem (State Comptroller of Israel, 2016). In 2017 the second plan in the city was completed.
At the same year, the third plan was set to start. This time the target was Ilana’s and her neighbours’ shikunim. Ilana had to rent a new shikun apartment and to move unwillingly in the age of 89. Until her apartment was ready, she already passed away.
The Renewal Project policy continues to operate within Israel’s spatial and racialised logic, but unlike the “usual” privatisation processes, it adds to the equation the demolition of the shikunim and their symbolic cargo. Cohen and Yacobi (2020) argue that the entrepreneurial projects are focused on maximising entrepreneurs’ private profits, and are expressing the idea that the shikunim are a “defective product” that is not reparable and must be destroyed. This is despite the fact that the shikunim are almost the last location, especially in Israel’s centre, that provides affordable housing for immigrants, migrant workers, seniors and the poor.
In light of the above, many of the disadvantages of these projects are quite clear (Bimkom, 2016; Zandberg, 2016). First, the construction of dense towers exceeds the carrying capacity of the public infrastructure. Second, the maintenance of the towers is highly expensive, an issue that will contribute eventually to the displacement of the former residents from the old city centres and to the destruction of the communities. Furthermore, renters in these city areas will not be able to afford the new high rent prices and will have to leave. Third, the high towers are detached from the surroundings, a problem that could result in the negligence of public space and a rise in violence levels.
Instead of forcing the shikunim residents to bear the burden of the housing crisis in Israel, Cohen and Yacobi (2020) suggest to repair the existing shikunim, and even to add a much lower number of new apartments, so the state will provide the budgets and take the planning responsibility in order to save the urban fabric of the cities and protect marginalised groups.
As Cohen and Yacobi (2020) maintain, the shikun’s cultural representations link it to the Mizrahi culture and it became part of the Mizrahi identity, thus it is seen nowadays as a Mizrahi location. Following that, I argue that the demolition process should be understood as part of Israel’s continuous settler-colonial mechanisms. The demolition is not used only for economic profit. It falls as well into Israel’s spatial and racialised logic, that is held by Israel’s hegemonic forces who wish to erase Israel’s Mizrahi identity, and thus reinforce Israel’s self-perception as “Western” state (Shohat, 1988). Moreover, the usage of demolition as a very drastic planning tool, may indicate that the privatisation policy is not sufficient anymore in order to shift material capital to upper racial-classes who managed to enjoy the neo-liberal regime.
While closing this personal-geopolitical housing story of Iran-Ilana, I am thinking about storytelling in our family, about family inter-generational trauma and my grandmother’s undocumented history. It saddens me how little her life and many other shikunim residents were told, and at the same time, surprises me how much power she had to lead her big family into better future. In my mind, I remember her sitting alone in her shikun home almost all day long, listening obsessively to Iranian and Israeli news channels and radio, while the photo of my late grandfather placed on the white wall in front of her, and his eyes stare at her and vice versa. I wonder what she told him and what she felt.
 Jewish immigrants from Muslim states.
 Jewish immigrants from Europe and North America.
“Bimkom” – Planners for Planning Rights (2016). Appendix to Bimkom’s response to the chapter of the State Comptroller of Israel – “Government’s actions to promote Urban Renewal as a national requirement”.
Cohen, S. & Yacobi, H. (2020). Repair, do not demolish! In Y. Israel (Ed.), South West Jerusalem Newspaper (pp. 72-75). Black Box.
Hasson, N. (22.12.2014). The building program in south Jerusalem: Lifeline or urban disaster. Ha’aretz. Retrieved from https://www.haaretz.co.il/news/local/.premium-1.2517944
Kemp, A. (1999). The frontier idiom on borders and territorial politics in post-1967 Israel. Geography Research Forum, 19, 78–97.
Kipnis, B. (1988). Geopolitical ideologies and regional strategies in Israel. Horizons in Geography, 23/24, 35-54 [Hebrew].
Shohat, E. (1988). Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Victims. Social Text, 19/20, 1-35.
State Comptroller of Israel (2016). Government’s actions to promote Urban Renewal as a national requirement. In State Comptroller of Israel report 66(3), pp. 1243-1304.
Tzfadia, E. (2010). Militarism and space in Israel. Israeli Sociology, 11 (2), 337-361 [Hebrew].
Yacobi, H., & Tzfadia, E. (2018). Neo‐settler colonialism and the re‐formation of territory: Privatization and nationalization in Israel. Mediterranean Politics, 24(1), 1-19. doi.org/10.1080/13629395.2017.1371900
Yiftachel, O. (1996). The internal frontier: Territorial control and ethnic relations in Israel. Regional Studies, 30(5), 493-508.
Yiftachel, O. & Meir, A. (1998). Frontiers, peripheries, and ethnic relations in Israel: An introduction. In O. Yiftachel & A. Meir (Eds.). Ethnic frontiers and peripheries: Landscapes of development and inequality in Israel (pp. 1-11). Westview Press.
Zandberg, E. (1.6.2016). The State Comptroller ignores the dramatic social consequences of the “Evacuation-Construction” method. Ha’aretz. Retrieved from https://www.haaretz.co.il/gallery/architecture/.premium-1.2963093
This housing story is part of a mini-series revealing the complex ways in which personal and political aspects of shelter provision interweave over time, and impact on multiple aspects of people’s lives. Space for strategic choice is nearly always available to some degree, but the parameters of that choice can be dramatically restricted or enhanced by context. The wide range of experience presented in this collection shines a light on the wealth of knowledge and insights about housing that our students regularly bring to the DPU’s learning processes.