Israeli Life: Elijah’s Legacy
Despite falling Katyushas, war fears and ethnic tension, Haifa remains a haven for its mixed Arab and Jewish population.
The Arab waiter in the hummus restaurant was explaining to me why Israel was the aggressor in Lebanon when the air-raid siren went off.
We were in Wadi Nisnas, Haifa’s Arab quarter near the city’s port, where several Katyushas had fallen and whose old stone buildings aren’t equipped with shelters. The waiter led the half-dozen Jewish and Arab patrons into the small kitchen. “The walls are thick,” he explained. We were pressed so closely we almost touched.
“Coexistence,” said a Jewish woman wryly. When a few minutes passed without a boom, we returned to our tables, and I resumed my argument with the waiter.
With the cease-fire in lebanon, Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens emerge from a traumatic month more wary toward one another than at any time before. Though Jews and Arabs shared a common fate—a third of the 40 Israeli civilians killed by Katyushas were Arabs—their perceptions about who is responsible for the war are diametrically opposite. While almost all Jews supported the war and many saw it as an existential test of Israeli deterrence, almost all Arabs opposed the war and many blamed Israel for provoking Hezbollah.
And yet, what’s remarkable about Haifa, which was hit by over 150 Katyushas, is that this Arab-Jewish city has managed to preserve a sense of neighborly decency. Unlike Israel’s other mixed cities, such as Tel Aviv-Jaffa or Haifa’s impoverished neighbor, Akko, here Jews and Arabs are at ease in one another’s company.
“I lived in Tel Aviv for a year and encountered lots of racism, but never in Haifa,” a university student named Tauwfik told me. Arabs and Jews share the same apartment buildings, where notices are posted in Hebrew and Arabic; they work together and eat in the same restaurants. Every December, the city celebrates the “Festival of Festivals,” honoring Hanukka, Christmas and Ramadan, and hundreds of thousands from around the country come to hear Arab and Jewish street musicians and stroll along the Coexistence Walk through Haifa’s old neighborhoods. “[Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan] Nasrallah hates Haifa’s coexistence,” says Hani Elfar, associate director of the Beit Hagefen interfaith center. “Maybe that’s why he targeted us. We represent the opposite of everything he stands for.”
Elsewhere, Jewish Israel tends to fear the Arab minority as a potential fifth column, part of the region’s hostile majority. But Haifa celebrates its Arabs, who make up 13 percent of the city’s population of 270,000. Affixed to walls along the Coexistence Walk are municipality-sponsored posters featuring the city’s Arab as well as Jewish authors; streets are routinely named for prominent Arabs.
“Where else in cities with a Jewish majority do you see such things?” asks Elias Mtanes, an Arab city council member with the left-wing Zionist Meretz Party. “The message is that we are rooted here, that our presence is respected.”
Nor are the gestures merely symbolic. About 20 percent of the nearly 13,000 students of the University of Haifa are Arab—the largest ratio in any of Israel’s seven major universities. The university provides private tutoring for Arab students, many of whom struggle with the transition from Arabic-language high schools in Galilee villages to a Hebrew-speaking university in the big city.
“We are a laboratory for working out majority-minority relations,” says Haifa University President Aaron Ben Zeev, who, for the last month, has been watching Katyushas fall in the city below his 27th-floor office in the campus tower atop Mount Carmel. “It’s not a coincidence that we’ve had fewer political tensions [between Arab and Jewish students] than other campuses. It’s the result of much holistic work. It’s not all kissing and hugging here, but it isn’t that way in a marriage, either.”
What makes Haifa work isn’t only the overtures of its Jews but also the responsiveness of its Arabs, who tend to adopt Israeli norms more readily than Arab Israelis elsewhere. Though Wadi Nisnas is almost entirely Arab, Hebrew newspapers are sold in kiosks here and shopkeepers play Hebrew music. When they’re among Jews, many young Arabs Hebraize their first names. Even as they criticize government policy, they speak of Israel as “our state.” And, crucially, they tend to be sensitive to Jewish fears. Though expressions of support for Hezbollah are common among Arab Israelis—one Arab Knesset member endorsed Hezbollah’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers—Haifa’s Arabs are careful not to provoke their Jewish neighbors.
One reason for this sensitivity is that a majority of the city’s Arabs are Christian. “We don’t like to talk about it because it only alienates Muslims,” says a Christian interfaith activist, “but the Christian majority helps diffuse tensions. We know how to get along with everyone.”
Haifa’s interfaith sensitivities are further bolstered by the presence of the universal-minded Baha’i, whose world center is in Haifa and who revere it as a holy city. While the Baha’i are persecuted as heretics in much of the Muslim world, Haifa’s Muslim leaders, along with clergy of other faiths, routinely participate in Baha’i events. The city’s skyline is dominated by the Baha’i’s gold-domed shrine, which has become Haifa’s unofficial symbol.
I asked Haifa’s mayor, Yona Yahav, why coexistence works better in his city than in other mixed Arab-Jewish areas. “I think it’s because Haifa was spared a visit by Moses, Jesus or Muhammad,” he says. “There are no holy places to fight over. The only prophet among the three religions who visited here was Elijah, but he is accepted by all the faiths.”
On a narrow, hilly street in Wadi Nisnas, Christian and Muslim neighbors gathered before a two-story house hit by a Katyusha. Though the attack, which killed two residents, had happened days before, the neighbors stared in silence, unable to accept that their city had become a war zone. Debris from what had been the building’s stone façade was piled in the yard; a porch hung crooked, seemingly about to collapse. The exposed walls were pockmarked with holes caused by ball bearings placed in Katyushas to maximize the devastation—a tactic borrowed from suicide bombers. Yet a glass-enclosed poster affixed to a stone wall remained intact: It was for one of the exhibits along the Coexistence Walk, and it featured Emile Habibi, the late Haifa writer and Palestinian nationalist.
Family members emerged from the ruins carrying boxes filled with mementos like framed photographs. I asked one of them, a young man named Johnnie, whether Hezbollah is to blame for the murder of his relatives. “The suffering on both sides pains me,” he says. “Everyone here has family in Lebanon. War isn’t a soccer game. There are no winners, only losers.”
A Muslim neighbor remarks that he had sent his family out of Haifa after Nasrallah had urged Haifa’s Arabs to flee the city to allow him to attack without harming his fellow Arabs. “Nasrallah said he didn’t want to shed the blood of his own,” he explains.
“And we’re not the same blood?” demands a Jewish security guard dispatched to watch over the site. “Only you and Nasrallah? We all share the blood of our father, Abraham. Like it or not, we’re stuck with each other.”
Reprinted by permission of THE NEW REPUBLIC,
© 2006, The New Republic, LLC.
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