The Rotting Safed Cheese

Safed is not the main problem; the problem lies in the response from society and the government.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

Think of a town in Austria. Or perhaps France. A mountainous, ancient major district town, with a college situated in the middle of it, whose students include quite a few Jews. The town priest calls an "emergency meeting," funded by the government and held in the municipal cultural center, attended by 400 sympathetic citizens, including 18 priests from the area, calling for a ban on renting apartments to Jewish students.

The deputy mayor supports the meeting. The priest says sweetly: "I have nothing against Jews, but they shouldn't live in our town. Let them study in their yeshivas, not with us."

Residents of the town complain: "The Jews don't respect the place on Sundays," the public park has been turned into a "pigsty," the hospital has become a "dangerous place." Renting apartments to Jews, the priests warn, will hurt property values, and lead to the danger that our pure children will convert. A few young men harass Jews and beat them up; the Jews say they live in great fear.

If this took place in France, and even more so in Germany, it sounds quite bad. But this all happened in Safed - and against Arabs. If it had happened in Europe, Jewish organizations would shout to the high heavens, Israel would recall its ambassador for consultations. The president of the country, whether it be France or Austria, would hurry to the tainted city and do everything possible to calm things down. They would apologize to the Jewish students and instruct the police to see to their safety. The priests would be tried for anti-Semitism.

About 10 years ago, I found myself in Safed for a bar mitzvah celebration. Suddenly a bearded tough guy appeared in front of me and said threateningly: "For your own good, get out of town. We don't want you here." Since then, I have visited Safed during its bombardment in the Second Lebanon War and to attend the Hasidic music festival that I enjoy, and the city has only gone downhill.

An explosive mixture of poverty and religion, desolation and nationalism, has turned the beautiful city into Israel's ugliest. The city's beloved artists' quarter has been replaced by a nationalists' quarter. The famous Safed cheese has gone rotten, terrible decay has set in. The formerly mixed city - whose Arab residents were forced to flee in 1948, never to return, including the refugee Mahmoud Abbas, their abandoned beautiful stone houses to become pizzerias and ruins - has become the most racist city in the country.

That is what happens when we stay silent and forgiving. Four years ago the state dropped charges of incitement to racism against Safed's chief rabbi, Shmuel Eliyahu, after he called for a ban on renting apartments to Arabs and allowing Arab students to study at Safed College. The rabbi was required at the time to retract his statements.

A few days ago, Eliyahu returned to the spotlight in a big way - at the "emergency meeting" funded by the Safed religious council and held in the cultural center named after Yigal Alon, a man who also knew a thing or two about expelling Arabs. Rabbi Eliyahu issued a religious ruling, warning against the "declining value of apartments" and "assimilation," the incited crowd cheering him on.

Safed can continue to rot in its racism; it is not the main problem. Many countries have such centers of malignancy. The problem lies in the response from society and the government. The Arabs do not have an "anti-defamation league," and people are not buying the fight against anti-Arab racism like they do warnings against anti-Semitism, which cause hearts worldwide to tremble.

Israel is silent in the face of Safed's impurity. The prime minister does not consider visiting the town to apologize to the Arab students, the student unions fighting against stipends handed out to yeshiva students do not have time to engage in a solidarity struggle with their classmates, victims of hatred. The rabbi remains at his post, no matter how much slime he spreads.

Today it's Safed; tomorrow, Ramat Aviv. There, too, residents complain to the owner of the neighborhood market that his delivery man is an Arab.



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