Festival of Hatred

Acre Mayor Shimon Lankri can cry out that "this is no time for celebrations," but the daytrippers and culture functionaries claim to know better.

Meron Benvenisti
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Meron Benvenisti

The fragments of glass have not yet been swept away and the demolished cars have not yet been towed off, but the main damage of the riots in Acre has already been identified: "The Fringe Theater Festival."

What a disgrace: Several thousand discerning consumers of culture have been deprived of their pleasure. The pressured Mayor Shimon Lankri can cry out that "this is no time for celebrations," but the daytrippers and culture functionaries know better: "The cancellation will only widen the rift and it is a prize for violence. The performances are excellent and the hummus is as good as ever."

What do they care what is happening in this wretched city?

The mayor knows the souls of his voters very well: They are hostile toward the Ashkenazis from north Tel Aviv and their ilk, who come for one day and enrich the merchants of the Old City. Canceling the festival will ruin the Arabs' earnings, and in any case Jewish voters are calling for a boycott of them. The elections are a month away and Lankri's decision will bring him votes, which proves that this has never been Acre's festival but rather an event planted artificially in a hardscrabble, conflicted town that is used for one week and then discarded.

But not only the mayor is engaging in politics. Everyone is exploiting the events for their own needs: The Islamic Movement people are inciting in the mosques, Knesset members from the right are inciting in the Knesset, Jewish and Arab thugs are competing in vandalism, and all of them are attacking the usual suspects - the police.

The Acre festival of violence and hatred is underway. This festival began with a classic inter-community incident: the incursion by someone from one of the communities into a homogenous space of the other community, an act that led to a violent reaction because in a mixed city the homogenous neighborhood answers a basic need to mingle with members of one's own community and for protection against a threat to one's way of life and culture. The more traditional the community, the greater this need is and the sharper the reaction to the incursion of outsiders. This, of course, creates a counter-reaction, and the inter-communal conflict ignites when its immediate manifestation is the intimidation of the "others" who dared to move into "our" neighborhood and their expulsion, usually by burning their homes.

The strength of spatial segregation of ethnic communities is a reliable measure of the acuteness of inter-communal tension, and by this measure, in fact, Acre does not suffer from extreme tension. In the western "Mandatory" quarter, Jews and Arabs live in more-or-less equal numbers as neighbors, and there is no violent threat to this coexistence.

If the problem was confined to inter-communal relations at the municipal level, it would be possible to relate to the events in Acre as a local matter of unavoidable friction, which prevails in a mixed city. However Acre, like other cities where large communities of Jews and Arabs live, is not simply a mixed town; it is a town that is split. In urban concentrations everywhere in the world, tensions prevail between ethnic and cultural groups, but in split towns, in addition to the local-municipal level there is also a macro-national level that goes beyond municipal boundaries. In Israel this is a derivative of the overarching Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The macro-national conflict infiltrates the urban fabric, and paints municipal services and physical infrastructures in nationalistic colors. The physical space is perceived as a battleground that must be won for "our side" and defended from invasion by "the other side." The government system represents the interests of the ruling national community and discriminates against the minority. Nationalist considerations are used to justify budgetary discrimination, and a sectoral system of incentives oppresses minority communities, which develop feelings of anger that are also fed by the historical memory of national catastrophes and expressed in religious radicalism. External elements, from both sides, enlist to fan the macro-national conflict.

Consideration of the events in Acre must include the influence of this external stratum on the local-municipal tension, which makes it explosive. The friction between a Jewish population, in which many are new immigrants from distressed classes, and a population of Palestinian refugees, most of whom were forced to leave their homes in nearby villages, creates an easily realized potential for violence.

Until not very long ago the Arab community was helpless, but over the years it has changed from a marginal group into a crystallized minority that realizes its own value and is able to act independently. This community is successfully defending itself in face of the challenge posed to it by the Jews, and the latter perceive this as rebellion, which necessitates a "suitable response."

It is impossible to understand the Acre riots without understanding the complexity and volatility of a split city, or to hide behind slogans of "coexistence" and place the blame only on rabble- rousers. And it is definitely impossible to transform theatrical performances and "peace tabernacles" into a sweet coating of a bitter reality.