About three weeks ago, my wife and I took a road trip to Nazareth, where we spent the weekend in a funky little inn, the Fauzi Azar. The visit was a delight, but also made vivid the political challenge that Israeli Jews obscure with scare phrases like “demographic problem.” Indeed, Nazareth raises the question of whether any state can implement the kind of visionary federal arrangements Israel will need not only with a Palestinian state, but with its own Arab minority to survive as a vital, global and Hebrew democracy. Might Europe’s biggest national Jewish movement of the interwar period, which was not Zionism, serve as inspiration, if not as a model?
The inn was established in the home of the Azars, a large Christian family that had been divided by the 1948 war. The stately building fell into disrepair during the 1980s, but several years ago, a young Israeli Jewish entrepreneur, Maoz Inon, approached the Azar children with a proposition: If they would lease him the building at no cost, he would renovate the entire property, creating an inn and youth hostel. Any profits would be taken by his company, but the family would be partners; one daughter, Odette Shomar, is now chairman of the board.
The inn is now an international phenomenon. Volunteers from around the world come to its hostel, earning bed and board by serving hotel guests tea, or walking them around the old city of Nazareth which, not coincidentally, is reviving. Everywhere you go in old Nazareth there’s the musty, sweet-smelling dust of cement, sounds of renovation, new places to eat, boutique-like stores. The atmosphere is not tense, like in the Old City of Jerusalem. We first defaulted to English, only to find Arab merchants frustrated. Then we’d switch to Hebrew and see the relief in their faces.
Yes, Nazareth is hemmed in by land policy and suffers from serious infrastructural and educational deficiencies inevitable in a country that spends less than half per capita on its Arab citizens than on its Jews. You hear of rivalries between Druze, Muslims and Christians, growing youth gangs, problems with drugs and thefts. Yet old Nazareth is a delicious portent of what peace might feel like in this country, with Israeli Jewish tourists bikers from Tel Aviv taking a rest stop, moshavniks from the Jezreel Valley shopping for olive oil and embroidery sharing a dreamy Sabbath sunset with the sounds of the muezzin. Staying a couple of days in Nazareth, in short, feels like taking a vacation to a foreign, if curiously familiar, country. Our drive only reinforced the feeling. We started in Sakhnin, then turned at Arabeh for Kafr Kana, and from there took a back road to Nazareth. When we left, we headed to Wadi Ara, skirting Umm al-Fahm and the other cities of the Little Triangle. That is, we drove through contiguous Arab cities containing at least as many people as were in the Jewish Yishuv and rose against the British in 1948.
I don’t mean to imply that these cities are inclined to violence against Israel. Some 80 percent of Israeli Arab youth express positive attitudes toward integration (a willingness to have a Jewish friend, and so forth), far more than the 50 percent of Jews who do though if an intifada were again to break out in Jerusalem, sympathetic disturbances in Arab cities seem likely to be renewed. My point is that the long-term challenge posed by the cultural distinction of these cities is even more daunting for Israeli Jews than the assimilation of Israeli Arabs as individuals. These are not like transitional suburbs on the outskirts of Paris. They are a 40-minute drive from the rest of the Arab world. Nor do their residents want to become part of the Palestinian state. They are too liberal and hybridized by Israeli commerce and science for that.
If anything, the situation of Israeli Arabs is more like that of the Jews of Poland during the interwar period: a growing Yiddish national minority, over 10 percent of the total population, eager to remain integrated yet apart, subjecting their rival religious tradition to enlightenment criticism; a minority with a centuries-long history and sense of place, but living in the interstices of a Polish state that, for its part, was born out of deep historical grievances and nursing a fierce, once-repressed nationalism of its own. And the strongest political parties in Yiddish urban areas were affiliated with the Jewish Labor Bund, whose demands, in retrospect, seem eerily like those of Israel’s Arab parties.
What Bundists demanded from Poland, after all, was recognition of Jews as a national minority, constitutional equality for all individuals, protection for the existing Yiddish language and educational system and, where warranted, municipal autonomy. They affirmed economic integration, albeit through proletarian lenses. Much like the rights of Arab citizens have become a crucial cause for Israeli Jewish progressives, so the rights of Jews though not always national in nature were critical for Polish liberals. In the municipal elections on the eve of World War II, the Bund won 62 percent of Jewish votes in Warsaw.
Sadly, it has become commonplace for Israelis to look back at the fate of Polish Jewry and consider the Bund hopelessly naive. But this view is itself naive and cruel. The fact is, Bundists were pressing for an experiment in cultural autonomy, federalism and democracy that the Nazis ended, not the Poles, though there was a substantial Polish right that would have been relieved to see it end without the devastation that ensued. We simply do not know how far the Bund’s experiment might have worked, particularly if war had been averted, and Poland enjoyed, as now, the benefits of European integration.
In any case, burgeoning cities like Nazareth are, in a way, a chance to continue the experiment. They offer, already, a lovely chance for Israeli Jews to get in the car and breathe different air. In any peace, they will be a natural bridge to commercial opportunities and cultural exchanges in the Arab world. Finding new ways to integrate them into Israel would be a fitting tribute to, of all people, murdered Jews who wanted freedom and continuity and found grotesque human hatred instead.
Bernard Avishai is adjunct professor of business at Hebrew University and the author of “The Hebrew Republic.” He blogs at www.bernardavishai.com.