“What will you do if the community invites you to a barbecue on Independence Day?” asked one of the six selection committee members of the Nes Ammim community. He asked the question in English, for the benefit of two of his fellow committee members who were Dutch – members of this Christian community that was established between Acre and Nahariya in 1963.
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In 2012, the community changed its original designation and started releasing agricultural land to allow for expanded housing construction, as part of the process of becoming a “multicultural” community. Despite this, none of the four Israelis on the panel was Arab. They did not introduce themselves by their full names to the interviewees, and two of the committee members them did not even live in the community when the interviews took place.
The two candidates appearing before the committee were both shocked yet also not entirely surprised by the question. They were human rights lawyer Abeer Baker and Ala Hlehel, a writer, translator and editor. It didn’t surprise them because this is precisely the kind of question Palestinian citizens of Israel often hear on the street – reflecting ignorance, insensitivity or the desire to irritate. But it did surprise them since they weren’t expecting to hear it at a selection committee for a “unique, high-quality community based on the principles of openness to all religions, tolerance and acceptance of the other,” as is stated on the community’s website. They also were surprised since they thought that in an interview for this kind of community, the bar for measuring acceptance of the Other would be higher, and the horizons for a joint life wider.
Baker and Hlehel, parents of 5-year-old Shada and 1-year-old Mohammed, surprised some of their friends when they decided to move to a newly emerging Jewish-Arab community. For both of them, though, this was a natural decision, compatible with their vision of a secular, democratic state for two nations in which the basic condition for its establishment is dialogue with the Jews of Israel, states Hlehel.
In mid-2014, when the Nes Ammim initiative was in its second trial year, Baker and Hlehel heard that not enough Arabs had registered and that an Arab marketing person had been employed to address this. Hlehel was familiar with the swimming pool at Nes Ammim from his childhood, since Arabs swam there without hindrance. He knew that the Christian founders of the community wanted to live among Jews as a way of seeking atonement after the Holocaust. The definition of the community as a joint one appealed to him and his wife.
They also knew that the Western Galilee community was built on land that was legally and freely sold by a resident of the Arab town of Abu Snan, and not on terrain from which its Palestinian owners had been expelled in 1948 and then expropriated by the Israel Land Authority. As a result, they thought they wouldn’t have to face nagging questions every morning, such as who are the real and lawful owners of the land? Where are they now – perhaps in the embattled Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria? And what other tragedies befell them after the original one? And, yes, the idea of a house with a garden also attracted them – a small bourgeois dream within reach. “Bourgeois” is a self-directed barb used by Hlehel. The price was 1,600,000 shekels ($405,000).
It’s important for them that there is a safe playground for the children and, of course, that “the values on which we raise them will find natural expression in their neighborhood, so they don’t live in dissonance between values they learn at home and their immediate surroundings,” explains Baker.
They aren’t concerned about being different. For example, Shada often hears them say they don’t believe in Allah – words not often heard in their community. “Who knows, maybe in her rebellious years she’ll wear a veil,” says Hlehel, sarcastic as usual. A few weeks ago, when Baker muttered “With Allah’s help,” little Shada looked at her scoldingly and said, “But there is no Allah.” Hlehel knows they could have made things easier by telling their daughter that God exists. But if they were looking for an easier life, perhaps the interview at Nes Ammim would have gone differently.
When asked about the Independence Day barbecue, Baker told the interviewers that they would turn down the invitation. Hlehel added, “We live in Acre and there are fireworks on that day. People dance in the streets and we remain at home.” Another choice they could have made while their Jewish neighbors were celebrating their independence at a barbecue would be to participate in a march commemorating one of the Palestinian villages Israel destroyed in 1948.
“My philosophy is not to put a damper on anyone’s joy, but to insist on having my own space,” explains Baker. “On that day I have a right to live as I wish. [However], this is not accorded to us because of the Other’s refusal to accept my space, because of the Other’s difficulty in understanding that, logically – in essence and in principle – you can’t ask me if I’ll come and join Independence Day celebrations.”
Both of them are children of “internal” refugees, citizens of Israel whose lands were confiscated and homes destroyed by Israel after 1948. Baker’s father was from the village of Safuriyya (now Tzippori, near Tiberias). Hlehel’s father is from Kadita, which is now an alternative-style Jewish community in the Galilee, built alongside cisterns and stone houses, including the one owned by his family. They often pass close to these strikingly beautiful places, in which they could have been living without the filter of a selection committee. These places are off-limits to them and their imaginations.
Up until the first interview in 2014, Baker and Hlehel were under the impression that the committee phase was simply a technicality. They were encouraged to sign a contract before the interview took place, to choose a plot for their house and to pay an advance of 25,000 shekels. “It didn’t occur to us that we might not be accepted,” admits Baker. She believed that, of all communities, this one would recognize that there are different kinds of Arabs; that there is diverse political activity and multiple viewpoints among them.
The couple was asked why they had chosen Nes Ammim. Baker replied that she is frustrated by contemporary life in Acre. She was born and raised in that city and remembers the truly mixed neighborhood she lived in and the Jewish girls (from Georgia) who were her friends. It used to be and to feel like a binational and multicultural place, without the hiding of differences, but without obstacles to friendship. “I explained during the interview that today there are no spontaneous mixed social encounters between children and that this is dangerous” she recalls. “And then one of the Jewish interviewers interrupted and pointed out that his mother lives in Acre and still asks for and gets sugar from her Arab neighbors. I understood that for him, saying ‘Good Morning’ to an Arab in the elevator is enough for him to state that there is a Jewish-Arab communal life there.”
At the second interview, held last January, the Jewish Israelis were silent and the Dutchmen asked the questions. The woman on the committee told Hlehel that she had Googled him and found an interview with him in which he likened the Knesset to a garbage dump. Hlehel explained that he knows what goes on there since he had worked as a parliamentary assistant for half a year. To his surprise, the committee never asked about his literary work and only focused on the outspoken style of the opinion pieces he writes. “I told them that as a member of a minority I don’t have access to a microphone, as the majority does, so occasionally I have to yell.” Baker continues reconstructing the interview: “The Dutchman said that it’s bad to yell, that it’s impolite.” Hlehel understood that his metaphor was lost on that person.
And then, says Baker, came the comment that blew it all up. “The Dutchman said that they thought we were a very interesting and intelligent couple, but that they were afraid that we would foster confrontations in the community.” Hlehel replied: “Do you want to tell me that the people in this room are less intelligent than we are and that this is the reason you selected them as community members?” The two of them explained that they were not seeking confrontations and were not concerned about ideological differences. Baker explained that as one ages one realizes that it is possible to hold a dialogue even with ‘enemies,’ accompanying that last word with her fingers indicating quotation marks. One of the men then jumped up and asked in English: “Who are your enemies?” Baker explained in Hebrew that she meant “rivals.”
It didn’t take long for the letter of rejection to arrive. The deposit was returned. The two tried to appeal the verdict. “The community is not completely populated yet, and communal life has not yet been put to a real test,” they wrote. “Thus, disqualifying someone in advance could derive from prejudice on the part of people who have never experienced joint communal life. It’s highly doubtful that the committee members who have not yet lived in the community and have not yet internalized its principles in practical ways can judge our suitability. Our sense is that our disqualification stemmed from the wish not to hold a dialogue with someone expressing legitimate opinions that may not be acceptable by some of the community’s members.”
The selection committee replied: “We emphatically reject the claim that the decision to refuse your request was based on discrimination and unwillingness to dialogue. Nes Ammim is a mixed community of Jews and Arabs, Muslim and Christian. It espouses coexistence and interfaith tolerance. We currently have members of all faiths and ‘Arab’ (sic) candidates were accepted both before and after your rejection.”
The office at Nes Ammim did not respond to a query by Haaretz as to why the word Arab was put in quotation marks, as well as other questions, such as why there is no Arab member on the committee, why its members didn’t give their full names, how many Arabs applied and how many were accepted, and why the reasons for rejection weren’t given in writing, as required by law. The committee only responded by saying that the community is built on private land, so that it is not subject to the admissions committee law (which regulates the criteria by which communities established on state land can select or reject potential members.)
A request by Haaretz to meet with officials in Nes Ammim went unanswered. In a letter signed by the committee the community is again defined as a “tolerant and accepting community, open to all faiths and nationalities.” The letter states that out of “concern for privacy” the reasons for rejecting Baker and Hlehel were not given in detail. The committee notes that they accepted “families of different religions and nationalities and any attempt to suggest that their rejection derives from their being members of a minority is erroneous, superficial and unfounded.”