Twilight Zone / Safed, a War Story

A campaign of racism and anti-Arab incitement is turning one of Israel's holy cities into a ticking bomb

The telephone rings. "Hello, this is Mustafa, I'm calling about the apartment." The response comes quickly and emphatically: "No, it's already been rented." Or, "I only rent to women," or "I only rent to families." Or, in an angry tone: "Heaven forbid, do you want to stop me from reading the Torah on Shabbat," or "I'm afraid of the rabbis."

Abu Salah- Miki Kratsman
Miki Kratsman

For an entire hour, student Mustafa Shahin, a resident of Sakhnin who studies sociology and human resources at Safed College, made telephone inquiries - in vain. Because he is an Arab, the rental listings on the college bulletin boards are irrelevant. Mahmoud Abu Salah, Shahin's representative in the student union (there are a total of eight representatives, but only one is an Arab ), says that he sometimes introduces himself on the phone as "Tomer" to get the conversation started. Now everyone has started calling Mahmoud "Tomer." But that doesn't mean people want to rent to Arab college students in Safed.

The city is roiling: It recently hosted an "emergency conference" of 18 rabbis and 400 of their followers on this issue. There was an armed attack on an Arab student apartment. A Jewish legal ruling was handed down by the city's chief rabbi, Shmuel Eliyahu. Mayor Ilan Shohat and veteran resident Eliyahu Tzvieli, who rented an apartment to Bedouin students, have received threats. The message is: Arabs, go home.

In response to plans for establishing a medical school in Safed, flyers were circulated last week by some sort of "campaign headquarters," declaring: "The smokescreen called a medical school obscures an evil scheme: to establish a refugee camp for psychotic, sadistic and debased Arabs, whose deceptiveness is, and always has been, aimed at tempting [Jewish women] and cruelly abusing them. On orders of the great rabbis of Safed, may they be blessed with a long life, we declare our protest and vehement resistance, and reiterate that it is forbidden under the law of the Torah to offer these people apartments for sale, rent, work or any form of entry. Our city will not succumb to wanton behavior - go back to your own locales and do not defile our camp."

The language of this flyer slams the Safed College Internet site, which touts "a city that blends academia, tradition, kabbala and a magical atmosphere."

Abu Salah reads the flyer and puts it in his pocket without uttering a word. For the time being, he and his peers are showing restraint, but a time bomb is ticking here. Safed is a war story in the making.

Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria was born on Safed's slopes, and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas was born nearby. Today, the town's artists' quarter is being snuffed out by ultra-nationalist zeal. On Jerusalem Street, where Safed College is located, there is a Rav Hesed supermarket; a Galgal Hakodesh store that sells Jewish religious articles; and a furniture store with a special "bride-and-groom" deal for furnishing an entire apartment for NIS 8,888.

Safed College, operated under the auspices of Bar-Ilan University, has 1,700 students, and the whole campus seems to speak Arabic. Indeed, when we visited the institution last week, it seemed to have an absolute Arab majority. The most obvious exceptions were a policeman and a prison warden, both enrolled as students, and two lecturers who wore skullcaps and ritual fringes. Strolling around the sun-drenched campus, with its olive and cypress trees, were dozens of Arab students from the Galilee. Some, but not all, of the female students wore traditional head coverings; male students had hair gel. On the lawn, next to the modest library, a student set down his jacket, and kneeled to pray in the direction of Mecca.

The whole area is full of surreal contradictions: There is the bearded driver who shouts threateningly, in Arabic, at what he calls "el Yahud [the Jews]" - a group of Arab students, who cross the street and stare at him apathetically. The campus seems tranquil, while the city seethes with racist hatred. One sees Bratslav Hasidim and newly Orthodox and other pious Jews roam the streets along with hijab-clad, traditional Muslims.

A recent editorial, titled "The Ishmaelites," in the Hamevaser newspaper proclaimed that one of the city's rabbis conducted an inquiry and discovered that funding from the European Union and Saudi Arabia finance the college's Arab students.

"I wish they did support us," reflects the student activist, Mahmoud Abu Salah, aka Tomer, with a wistful smile. He embodies several contradictions: He claims that he served in the Israel Defense Forces as an undercover soldier, yet he is the student union delegate of the "Arab sector" (an Israeli expression ), and his dream is to become the state comptroller or an ambassador. "I don't have any problem representing the state - this is my state," he says wanly.

Not exactly minted in the "Danny the Red" mold, the young man allowed himself to be photographed in a triumphant pose, alongside the memorial to the "Liberators" who expelled his forefathers from the city. A second-year law student who already has a degree in social work from the college, he wears preppy white shoes and a Puma belt.

Abu Salah has already resided in four apartments in Safed. At present, he is compelled to commute each day from his village because it is nearly impossible for Arabs to find a room to rent in the city. Out of the college's 900 Arab students, he says, only a few live in rented apartments, not including the 120 who live in the dormitories.

On a recent Saturday, Abu Salah met MK Ahmed Tibi in Jenin's market, and asked the parliamentarian not to visit the college.

"We don't need Arab MKs here," he explains now. "We keep things quiet on our own. I think the college should take care of things here. I don't want to organize demonstrations; I want to keep things calm. I stay silent, but the college has to do something. That's what I told the college president. We have never encountered racism on the campus grounds - so they [Knesset members] can come make the rounds in Safed, but shouldn't come here." This week Abu Salah met the Arab students' representative at Netanya Academic College, and learned that it is also nearly impossible for Arab students in that coastal town to rent an apartment. He says he has Jewish friends who signed a rental contract in the name of Arab students. But after it was discovered, the landlord was threatened; he was told that his own house would be burned down if Arab tenants were to remain in the Safed apartment.

Abu Salah: "Rabbi Eliyahu thinks that we want to return Safed to the Arabs. They think that we want to remain in the city after our studies. But only a few [Arab students] remain here on Saturdays. An [Arab] student comes here solely for the purpose of studying. After that he'll go anywhere, to get the hell out of here - what is there for us in such a poor town? A student spends an average of NIS 50 a day in the city, not including rent. We help Safed's economy. I'm not even talking about the money they make from parking fees. Most come to study here, and are not looking for trouble. Nobody comes looking to compile a criminal record ... They [those who object to the Arab students] want us to organize; they want to remove us from here. But we want to be smarter than that, to show them that we exist, without causing an uproar," explains Abu Sabah.

During his studies, he says, he has been employed in two local hotels, Rimonim and Canaan Spa, working as a shabbas goy - someone who assists devout Jewish guests on the Sabbath. He has provided similar services for neighbors: "I would return home, and a neighbor would tell me, 'It's cold.' At first, I didn't get it. What was I supposed to do, warm him up? But they spoke to me with gestures, so that I'd understand what they meant and light their furnace on Shabbat."

He also has stories of residents spitting at Arab students, and of students entering stores and being told that they were "closed." He has heard chants on streets, like: "An Arab is a son of a bitch." I asked him how he would respond were someone to call him a dirty Arab. "I would ask him, am I really dirty? I take a shower twice a day and dress better than you," Abu Salah quips.

At Hummus Atika, an ultra-Orthodox waiter served a smooth, kosher version of the chickpea paste, which was actually pretty tasty. The restaurant walls were covered with colorful portraits of past and present rabbinical sages, including the late Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, father of the Safed rabbi who is spearheading the Arab expulsion.

Haaretz's Galilee correspondent, Eli Ashkenazi, told us he heard recently from Eliyahu Tzvieli, 89, the resident who was threatened after he rented an apartment to Bedouin students, that an Arab student entered a falafel joint Tzvieli rents to a Jewish proprietor, and ordered a meal. "I'll give you poison," was the response. Tzvieli tried to cancel the rental contract for the falafel stand, but was unsuccessful.

The student Mustafa Shahin lived last year in rental apartments located off Safed's main pedestrian thoroughfare, and also in the Canaan neighborhood. This year, he spends 70 NIS a day on bus travel to and from his home. He has phoned dozens of landlords, explaining, "This is Mustafa, I'm calling about the apartment." He was always rejected.

He phones a man named Viktor, who has an apartment for rent.

"Only women," says Viktor.

"But I live alone," pleads Mustafa. "I don't make trouble and keep quiet."

Viktor responds: "I have a problem. I would take you, but there are the rabbis. They give me problems. I would rent to women, I'm not afraid, but not to men. Good luck, Mustafa."

Then there was a "fully furnished" apartment.

"Good afternoon, this is Mustafa, I'm calling about the apartment," the student says.

"Try calling at night, I'm driving right now," replies the landlord.

After several more fruitless phone calls, Mustafa gives up. Some students come up to us and relate their own experiences. A college bulletin board lists some living-room furniture for sale, and a wooden kitchen cabinet. Mustafa calls up, but is told the furnishings are no longer for sale.