NAZARETH – When he was elected mayor here a year-and-a-half ago, Ali Salam became the first Muslim in two decades to rule Israel’s largest Arab city. In recent days, he has come to hold another distinction: darling of the Jews. That, at least, is how many of his detractors around town refer to him behind his back.
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It was an angry outburst caught by chance on video camera that earned the mayor this dubious title. In the clip, Salam is seen launching a tirade against the head of the Joint Arab List in the Knesset, Ayman Oudeh, for stirring up trouble in Nazareth and scaring away Jewish Israeli shoppers and visitors. The footage, which has since gone viral, was taken a day after Hadash, the Communist party that is a key partner in the List, organized a demonstration in the city that drew several hundred protestors.
The clip opens with Oudeh standing on a street corner in Nazareth, microphone in hand, waiting to be interviewed for the Channel 2 nightly news broadcast. Suddenly the mayor passes by in his car and proceeds to lash out at the Knesset member. “Ayman, you’ve ruined our city. Get out of here. Go back to Haifa,” he shouts at him, growing increasingly agitated. “Not even one Jew was here today. Not even one.” Caught off guard and embarrassed, Oudeh hardly responds.
Barely 30-seconds long, the clip not only exposes the unusual antipathy felt by the mayor of Israel’s so-called “Arab capital” toward the leader of the largest Arab party in the country. It also reveals the deep divisions among Arab citizens of Israel on how to respond to the latest wave of violence engulfing the country – as evidenced this week in conversations with residents of this mixed Muslim-Christian city.
“In a way, the mayor does represent what I think, but he didn’t express himself properly,” says Bassam Hakim, whose family recently opened a charming 10-room guesthouse in the Old City of Nazareth, built on the site of his grandfather’s carpentry. “It wasn’t politically correct, the way he went about it, but it’s about time that our Arab leaders understood that if the same tools they’ve been using for the past 60 years haven’t resolved the problems, then it’s time to start thinking about new tools.”
Al Hakim, which is the latest in a list of about a dozen guesthouses to open in the Old City in recent years, relies primarily on Jewish Israelis for its clientele. “About 60 percent of our guests, since we opened in May, are Jewish Israelis, and the rest are foreigners,” says Hakim. In wake of the recent spate of stabbing attacks in the country, which have put further strain on already tense Jewish-Arab relations, he reports that several cancellations have been made.
Because of an all-day nationwide strike declared by Arab Israeli leaders, almost all the businesses in town were closed Tuesday, and the usually bustling streets were empty save for a few Christian pilgrimage groups.
“Those stores and restaurants you see open, you can be sure those are all friends of the mayor,” says a high-level municipal employee, who disagrees with the mayor and asked that his name not be published.
In October 2000, Israeli Arabs took to the streets in mass demonstrations. Following those demonstrations, in which 13 protestors were shot dead by Israeli police, fearful Jewish Israelis kept away from Arab towns for several years. Salam’s emotional outburst the other day was clearly prompted by fears of a repeat of those times.
The mayor of Nazareth has claimed that on average 20,000 Jewish Israelis converge on the city every Saturday – the one day off in the Israeli workweek. Locals here say those figures are exaggerated, though clearly Nazareth has become a destination on the map of many Jewish Israelis in recent years. Many say that its lively marketplace, historic churches, sweet and spice shops, Christmas market and booming restaurant scene provide them with a whiff of overseas travel without the need to board a plane.
All this may explain why those who benefit here from Jewish tourism tend to be more supportive of the mayor. At Diana, one of Nazareth’s most popular eateries and one the few local establishments open on the strike day, about 70 percent of the customers at Diana are Jews.
Business has definitely been suffering because of the latest flare-up of violence in the country, says Wasim Safadi, whose family owns the place.
“Since Saturday, not one Jew has walked into our restaurant,” he reports. The mayor, he adds, “said in general what I think, but not exactly.” Asked to elaborate, Safadi, who refers to Nazareth as “a city as Israeli as Tel Aviv and Haifa,” responds: “I’m not against the government and the state of Israel, but I’m against what they do.”
Tareq Shihada, director of the Nazareth Cultural and Toursim Association, notes that during ordinary times, occupancy rates in Nazareth’s 1,700 hotel and guesthouse rooms are higher than anywhere else in the country. To date, he says, there have been no cancellations of trips planned for Christmas, a holiday that draws many Christian tourists from abroad, but there have been phone calls. “People want to know whether it’s dangerous to come,” he says.
For Arab businessmen interested in meeting for coffee or lunch on the strike day, the only real options were the Jewish-run chains at the nearby mall in Upper Nazareth. Among those taking in the stunning view from a veranda at one of these establishments was a senior banking executive, who asked that his name not be published.
The executive says he is completely behind the mayor and lauds him for coming out against Arab politicians whom he believes are egging the masses on. “Ninety nine percent of Arabs and Jews in this country want to live together peacefully,” he says. “What prevents that is the one percent on each side. And for whatever reason, nobody talks about all the big successes of Israeli Arabs in recent years, how they’ve become prominent in high-tech, medicine and other sectors. That we never hear about.”
Among those striking Tuesday was a young mother, who owns a restaurant in the main touristy area downtown. The 34-year-old, who is studying culinary arts in Tel Aviv, asked that her name not be published.
“I very much believe in coexistence and believe that the situation is dangerous for all sides concerned,” she says, as she takes a break from cleaning her house. “In fact, I didn’t go to my classes in Tel Aviv this week because I was afraid I would be attacked.”
Referring to the videoed confrontation between the mayor and the Arab Knesset member, she says she doesn’t support either, but it’s clear in which direction she leans. “The whole thing was very embarrassing,” she says “especially the way the mayor spoke. And I definitely have nothing against demonstrations, especially demonstrations against a right-wing government. It’s only natural that people would want to demonstrate. I know that it might hurt my business, but that’s the price you have to pay.”
Of greater concern to her on Tuesday were threats from a new Jewish-Israeli Facebook group to boycott any Arab business that adhered to the nationwide strike. “If they want to boycott me,” she says. “Let them be my guests. I don’t need their business.”
Shareef Zoabi, a member of the opposition Communist party on the Nazareth city council, puts it more bluntly. “People are being killed and al-Aqsa is under attack,” he says referring to unsubstantiated rumors that Israel plans to harm the Muslim holy site on the Temple Mount, “and all the mayor cares about is money.”
Sally Assam, a local social activist, says she didn’t vote for Salam in the local election, and as a matter of principle, she never votes in Israeli national elections. “Neither Ali Salam or Aymen Oudeh represent me,” she says, “but we definitely have the right to protest the occupation and government policy. If Nazareth empties out of Jews as a result, that may be a catastrophe for the mayor, but not for me, because the coexistence that he’s talking about doesn’t serve me. It’s a coexistence between occupier and occupied – and yes, I also consider Nazareth occupied – not between equals.”
Referring to the well-known Jewish favorites on Arab restaurant menus in town, she adds: “I don’t want a coexistence that begins with hummus and ends with knafe.”