Safed, a Model for Coexistence or Sectarian Tinderbox?

Haaretz speaks with Safed Mayor Ilan Shohat after weeks of tension between local Jewish youth and the hundreds of Arab students residing in the city.

Eli Ashkenazi
Eli Ashkenazi
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Eli Ashkenazi
Eli Ashkenazi

An ugly shadow is passing over Safed these days. Around 500 Arab students go to the local college and live in Safed. Some have been assaulted, including a recent violent attack on three students, for which two Safed residents have been charged. A few days ago, 89-year-old Eli Tzavieli received death threats simply because he rented an apartment to Arab students.

Before these incidents, 18 rabbis from the area called on residents not to sell or rent apartments or land to non-Jews; they held an "emergency conference" called "The quiet war - fighting assimilation in the holy city of Safed."

Mayor Ilan Shohat.Credit: Dror Artzi

At the conference, the college was cited as the source of the problem because most of its students are Arabs.

Speakers also warned about plans to open a medical school in the city, which they said "threatens to make the problem much worse and damage the sacred nature of the holy city. Anyone who has the ability to act to prevent the medical school from being built in the city should do so, and the heavens will repay him."

Similar criticism was directed at the city's hospital and staff, which includes Arabs.

As a result, Israel's youngest mayor has been trying to take action. Ilan Shohat, 36, was elected two years ago as mayor of Safed and its 32,800 residents.

Shohat, by the way, was named after his aunt Ilana Neeman, who was murdered in the 1974 terrorist massacre at a Maalot school of 22 pupils from Safed and the three adults accompanying them.

Shohat won the election even though he is secular in a city that is turning ultra-Orthodox; he was a representative of an independent list identified with Kadima and with the support of Yisrael Beiteinu and the Labor Party. Now, when the government is trying to build a medical school in the city, he is doing his best to lower tensions.

Ilan Shohat, does your city stand for racism and the persecution of minorities?

As one who lives in and knows Safed, I think the story has grown out of all proportion and the situation is far from the picture painted of the city. Safed is a symbol of coexistence between Arabs and Jews.

An Arab neighborhood, Akbara, includes more than 200 families. And 120 families of members of the South Lebanon Army live in the city. They live quietly and peacefully with Safed's [Jewish] residents, and we have never run into the kind of thing we are seeing now.

Furthermore, the city's water engineer is an Arab, an Arab-owned law office represents the city, and one of the biggest law offices is also owned by Arabs. More than 30 city employees are Arab.

So, on the face of it, we know how to live and get along together in the best fashion. It upsets me that such a beautiful and special city is being depicted in these colors and, of all things, today, when it needs all the love and sympathy it can get amid the challenges it faces. It's getting headlines that create tension and pure hatred.

Are you afraid things will escalate?

I don't see a deterioration and escalation, but all the flammable substances are here waiting for a spark to set them off.

How would you describe the difficult events that occurred recently?

The picture is not black and white .... I doubt there is a direct connection between the statements by the city's chief rabbi and recent events. The reality today is that the college is in the center of the city, surrounded by points of friction.

The local population is 70 percent secular and 30 percent ultra-Orthodox.

The Arab students, who from my point of view are the city's guests, don't completely understand how to behave in their host city.

Unfortunately, when you don't understand sensitivities and don't know how to respect the other, we get fist fights, friction and statements that make the situation worse.

Are you blaming the Arab students?

They must learn to have respect for the city's residents, its nature and ethical code.

For example, as someone who doesn't wear a scullcap, and a resident of the city for 36 years, I know enough not to play music loudly on Friday night near an observant community, and not to drive near the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood on the Sabbath.

Nobody is shut behind gates. There is a local ethical code of mutual respect between secular and observant people that has been preserved over the years to the point that Safed residents don't walk around the Old City on the Sabbath with a lit cigarette in their mouths. When the students don't honor this code and behave any way they want, it is taken as a provocation.

Do you have a problem with the presence of Arab students in the city, and are you opposed to the renting of apartments to Arabs?

I have absolutely nothing against Arab students in the city, as long as they honor the city's customs and regulations. Just as I wouldn't conduct a feast in the middle of an Arab village during Ramadan, I expect them to behave the same way.

Is Safed's fate sealed? From a town once identified with art and recreation, has it turned into a magnet to extremists and economically weak sectors of the population?

I know Safed very well, and it's being depicted now as if a war were going on here. Unfortunately, a city can be known only by the way it is publicized ....

These were sporadic incidents that take place every day in other cities. For example, the statements by the city's chief rabbi are nothing new, they've been said before and didn't draw as much attention and media coverage.



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