Shimon Lankri
Shimon Lankri. “There will always be extremists of all kinds, but the fact is there are populations that live in mixed towns that choose to go on living there.” Photo by Hagai Frid
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Shimon Lankri has been mayor of Acre since 2003. Yesterday Lankri participated in the Ramle Conference - Between Israel and the Nations, which was organized by the Torah core group in Ramle and the Komemiyut movement, whose leaders include Rabbi Dov Lior, the rabbi of Kiryat Arba. Lior was one of the supporters of the book, "Torat Hamelech" (The King's Torah ) which sanctions the killing of gentiles under certain conditions. During the conference, a panel of mayors of mixed Jewish-Arab towns - including Acre, Lod and Ramle - dealt with the question whether a "Jewish majority" was necessary in mixed towns.

Is there a desire to "Judaize" the mixed towns in this country?

Look, I don't want to go into this matter of who wants to Judaize, for the simple reason that it is not a correct process to mix [the population] forcibly and not a natural process for a town. What is correct is to bring about social and communal change inside the town and that can be done in two ways. The first is to enhance the good and strong population by offering good education systems, good infrastructure and other things that are attractive to the residents. And the second is actually a result of that - when there are populations that see what is going on and say: Come on, let's join in. That is the way to turn the table, to turn a town that is atrophying into a town that is attractive. True, not one that can compete with north Tel Aviv, but a town that is on the periphery and is attractive to live in.

For the things we are trying to produce, the help of one nucleus of this or that kind to bring about a revolution is not enough. The state is not doing the right thing, in my opinion, by creating social gaps inside the cities and the villages, between Jews and Arabs, and between secular and religious. Wherever you look, there is social extremism. There are tremendous gaps that are growing worse between all the populations. In actual fact, the State of Israel which has a strong economy, does not contribute to a strong society. One doesn't see the influence on the mixed towns, in the Galilee and the Negev, or on the periphery, and there are big gaps between one town and another.

Some of the heads of mixed local authorities feel that one step in the direction of change in the towns is maintaining a Jewish majority in the town. Do you agree with that?

You are forcing me to go into the question of Jews and Arabs but I see the issue differently. My concept is humanistic and I see people of all kinds as being equal. The processes that happen at the end of the day are what count, and not a declaration of one sort or another, or participation in a panel of one kind or another, but rather continuous social action inside the town.

At this conference, it sounded like it was a tremendous disadvantage to live in a mixed town.

I can point to a series of advantages to Jews living alongside Arabs - people grow up in a tolerant reality. When do people object to others? When they don't know the others' culture. Then all kinds of undesirable things happen. Even in Acre, which had one of its worst hours during the disturbances three years ago, [during Yom Kippur of 2008 when there were clashes between the Jews and Arabs in the town] we ended up by being strengthened - both the Jews and the Arabs. We understood that it was worthwhile for all to live alongside one another through cooperation. We have a joint life here and we must be tolerant and respect one another.

Even if I don't like you or your views, respect me as a person. That is the message that goes out from mixed towns. There will always be extremists of all kinds, but the fact is that there are populations that live in mixed towns that choose to go on living there.

The question is whether this is precisely an ideological decision or not?

It's not important. A mayor has to give a lot of reasons to the residents of the mixed town so that they will continue to live there. That is something that does not exist in other Israeli towns and that is what will give the people the desire to perhaps overlook that there is someone who lives next to them who is not to their liking or taste. But on the other hand, we don't try to make the problems seem insignificant. There are tensions and tension is built into Israeli society. But you can get quite a lot out of the tensions.

Are you afraid there will be additional disturbances in Acre like those of 2008?

Just like we didn't think it would happen then, it could happen today in any place. But the chances are slim. That's because we learned the lessons and because we are paying attention, and we understood that it isn't worth our while. Events of that kind don't take us anywhere. Can I say with 100 percent certainty that it won't repeat itself? I can't commit myself.

After the disturbances, you said to the residents: "Acre is ours forever; no one will raise a hand against us."

We have been through that already and it is not worth stirring it up again and going back to it. That was an extraordinary situation and it happened simply because of difficult circumstances. I don't wish for anyone in the State of Israel to undergo a Yom Kippur like that. And at a point like that to come and judge this or that statement is not responsible. It is a fact that the elections were held just two weeks later and that I was unambiguously re-elected, also by the Arab sector.

Nevertheless, at the conference yesterday people at the exit were distributing fliers calling for a boycott of you, claiming that the conference encouraged racism.

Just as I participated in the Jaffa conference, I participate in and speak at all the conferences that I can attend. I don't care at what conference I express my views. Even if these are different from the views of those attending and if it isn't pleasant for them to hear [my views]. The approach of boycotting things because others have different views that are considered extreme is, in my opinion, not a correct approach.

One must always go and speak to people and bring them closer through dialogue. I didn't believe people would object to this conference but here, you see, sometimes it's because of the names of the speakers, or the kind of audience, that people fear but there is nothing to be afraid of. My approach, at the end of the day, is that we must live together while maintaining equal rights between Jews and Arabs.

Were you bothered, during the conference, when they brought data showing negative "Jewish" migration from the town?

There has been positive migration to Acre since 2007. That was the year when there was a change and we became a town with positive migration and that is continuing now. So the figures that were shown about Acre are not exact. We are opening kindergartens in the Jewish sector after years of not doing so and that demonstrates that the subject of migration is no longer an issue. In the past five years, the numbers have been stable and remained the same. They have remained 28 percent and we, the Jews, 72 percent. After all, when someone wants to show figures at a conference, they are in the eyes of the beholder.