Safed as a Paradigm

It may make sense to think of Safed as a binational city.

Ruth Gavison
Ruth Gavison
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Ruth Gavison
Ruth Gavison

I assume that widely publicized remarks made by Safed's chief rabbi, calling for a ban on apartment rentals to Arabs, constitute a violation of the law. However, it is very important not to view this only through the lens of legality. Even if the rabbi is indicted and convicted, that will not provide a moral, social or political solution to a problem developing before our eyes.

Safed's Chief Rabbi Shmuel EliyahuCredit: Yuval Tebol

What is happening today in Safed is the tip of the iceberg of a strategic challenge faced by the State of Israel - the relatively rapid growth of Arab and religious and ultra-religious Jewish populations - and of a situation in which the demographic reality in certain parts of the country, such as the Galilee, has arrayed these two groups in a total, head-on confrontation.

Safed is not a small communal settlement where the ability to sustain a more or less homogeneous cultural character may allegedly justify selective admissions. It is a city that provides services to inhabitants of a region, which is home to a large, growing, Arab majority. At the same time, though, unlike Acre or Upper Nazareth - towns that face similar demographic circumstances - Safed is a city of kabbala and tradition, a large and growing religious Jewish population, and an artists colony.

Hence, violence toward Arab students and the calls not to rent or sell them apartments are not only illegal actions that harm the welfare and dignity of Arab students who wish to study at Safed Academic College. These phenomena are also a grave warning to top municipal officials, to leaders of Jewish and Arab groups, and to all of the state's institutions.

Safed is host to several regional institutions, including the college and a hospital that is slated for expansion with the addition of a medical school. The location in the city of these institutions, which are designed to serve all residents of the area, has contributed to Safed's growth. In view of the Galilee's demographic composition, it is clear that many Arabs are and will be involved in these institutions' activities - whether as students, teachers, physicians or patients. This fact can serve as a source of strength for the Galilee and the state as a whole. It can also provide a model of regional cooperation, and show that it is possible to accommodate the multiple identities of the region's residents.

However, if considerable thought and resources are not devoted to this matter, the reality in Safed will only strengthen the feeling that Israel is incapable of supplying a shared civil framework for all its residents. The need to deal on an ongoing basis with the situation in the city poses an urgent challenge to us all.

Possibly, for all of the above reasons, it may make sense to think of Safed as a binational city. On the other hand, the fact that the majority of people who use Safed's services live in other Galilee towns, villages and settlements that suit their own cultural preferences may enable us to deal with the city's problems in a way that honors this multiplicity of identities. This could include taking into consideration the desire of some residents to preserve the traditional nature of certain quarters of the city.

In any event, Safed needs to provide a proper solution for people who use its services, one that allows them to enter the city and to live there. This solution must involve making sure that finding a place of residence for someone who studies or works in a town, or depends on its services, is not considered the private problem of this or that individual, but rather the responsibility of the city's institutions and the state.

Quick, effective action to find such a solution can provide a model for confronting social, national and religious tensions - a paradigm more effective than violence and insults on the one hand, and vocal and publicized litigation, on the other.

Prof. Ruth Gavison is founder and president of Metzilah: A Center for Zionist, Jewish, Liberal and Humanist Thought.