A 70-year-old Letter Will Make You Hopeful About the Future of Jewish-Arab Coexistence

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Shimon and Rivka Elbaz. Shimon's life was saved in 1929 by an Arab friend named Karim al-Shatti.
Shimon and Rivka Elbaz. They raised 10 children in a period encompassing the 1929 riots, the Arab revolt in 1936-39, World War II and the War of Independence. Credit: Moti Milrod

Between the photos in one of the Elbaz family’s albums hides a 70-year-old letter. Reading it in 2020 could infuse even the biggest sceptic with optimism, showing that good relations between Jews and Arabs are indeed possible in this land.

The writer of the letter, Shimon Elbaz, is long dead: In 1956, four years after composing his missive, he died at the age of 60. The addressee and person on behalf of whom it was written, Karim al-Shatti, is also no longer among us. But the special friendship shared by this Jew from a Moroccan family and a Christian Arab – a friendship that survived some of the most difficult periods in the conflict between their two peoples – is still alive in the memories of their descendants.

The letter – addressed to “To whom it may concern” – begins thus: “I, the undersigned, Shimon Elbaz, owner of a Tnuva store on 9 Shmaryahu Levin Street, a resident of Haifa for over 30 years, hereby affirm that I have personally known Karim Salim al-Shatti from Haifa for the last 30 years.”

Elbaz and Shatti were indeed long-time acquaintances. For a quarter of a century, from 1920 to the eve of the state’s establishment in 1947, the latter provided Elbaz with meat for his butcher shop in Haifa.

Shimon Elbaz's letter to Karim al-Shatti. "For the Elbazes, there was a clear distinction between national-collective aspirations and personal relationships,” says Horev.Credit: No credit

“The above-mentioned Mr. Shatti,” Elbaz wrote, “was a merchant who sold sheep and goats and I entered into a commercial relationship with him, buying mutton and [also] beef from him for my shop.” The letter also describes the pleasant relationship between the writer and his Arab friend, noting that “Mr. Shatti always had good relations with his Jewish neighbors.”

Put to the test

These relations were put to the test during some of the most violent episodes, in the last century. During the week-long riots that broke out in 1929 in Mandatory Palestine, 133 Jews were murdered and hundreds of others were injured in attacks by Arabs around the country.

In his 2015 book “Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1929,” Hillel Cohen, a scholar of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, notes that most of the Jewish victims were unarmed and murdered in their homes by Arab assailants. In contrast, the majority of Arab victims, 116 all told, were killed by members of the pre-state Haganah underground militia or by British forces while they were attacking Jewish communities.

Elbaz noted that his shop was also targeted – “During the 1929 riots, when the Arab rioters were killing and robbing Jews and their stores in the Street of the Churches located in a Haifa market, where my butcher shop stood, I was attacked by a gang of Arabs” – but added that his friend had rushed to his aid.

“Mr. Shatti saved me from being killed and took me to his house. I stayed with him for 15 days, until the trouble subsided,” Elbaz wrote, adding, “He also saved my workers from death, as well as other Jews, including Dr. Lubrani.” Dr. Aharon Lubrani, it emerges, was a veterinarian who worked on behalf of the Haifa Municipality, and father of senior diplomat and security affairs adviser Uri Lubrani.

Elbaz’s son Shmuel, who lives in Haifa today, related to Haaretz how “Shatti threatened he’d use his weapon against anyone who approached my father, telling everyone he was a friend who was under his protection.”

Shimon Elbaz, left, with friends. His descendants wrote the Shattis, in 2006, that "they are obligated to remember, express thanks to the family and cherish Karim's memory."Credit: Rami Shllush

The purpose of the letter in which Elbaz describes his long acquaintance with Shatti was to reciprocate and assist him, years later, by providing a declaration that could be submitted to any relevant authorities. Shatti, like many of Haifa’s Arabs, fled the city during the 1947-49 war period, finding refuge in Lebanon. In 1951, however, Elbaz decided to help him by writing a letter that he hoped would pave Shatti’s way back to Israel.

“Mr. Shatti is currently in Lebanon after leaving during the war…I think it is the government’s duty to help this person return to Israel and I recommend giving him a permit to this end,” he wrote.

Shatti never did return, since his business in Lebanon was going well. While a number of his descendants still reside there, other members of his family continue to live in Israel, in the northern city of Shfaram, where Jews, Christians and Muslims once lived side by side, but which is today predominantly Arab. Years later, when relatives of the two men met, the Arab family gave the Jewish one the letter Elbaz had written to, and for, Shatti.

‘Right-wing but not fanatical’

In recent years, Shfaram has been trying to brand itself as a city that’s trying to bring Arabs and Jews closer together. Late last year, the municipality organized a meeting of local residents and of descendants of Jewish families who resided there until the first part of the last century. “Brothers sitting together,” “one family,” “love, fraternity, peace and friendship” were some of the slogans used by the excited participants.

Also two of Elbaz’s descendants are occupied, each in their own way, with improving relations between the two peoples. His granddaughter Revital Duek is co-executive director of a nonprofit organization called Tsofen, which encourages Arab participation in the high-tech industry. Elbaz’s great-grandson, historian Harel Horev, is a researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.

“The Elbaz family is one of the larger Sephardi families. It had branches in Morocco and the Algerian city of Oran. Several notable families descended from this family, among them the Abuhatzeiras,” Dr. Horev says.

Shimon Elbaz’s family came from Meknes, Morocco, went on to Alexandria, Egypt, and arrived in Palestine in the early 1920s, settling in Haifa. Elbaz and his wife Rivka raised 10 children, in a period that encompassed the 1929 riots, the Arab revolt in 1936-39, World War II and the War of Independence.

Shmuel Elbaz with a picture of his father, Shimon. “Shatti threatened he’d use his weapon against anyone who approached my father, telling everyone he was a friend who was under his protection.”Credit: Rami Shllush

For his part, Horev sees the relations between his great-grandfather and his Arab friend Shatti as a reflection of the differences between the national/collective and personal levels of ties between the two sides.

“[Elbaz] was a Revisionist. All the people around him, including some of his children and sons-in-law, were in the Irgun or the Lehi underground movements,” he explains. From stories he has heard, Horev learned that some of those same relatives sometimes hid in Elbaz’s house in Haifa after participating in various missions, including those in which Arabs had been killed.

On the other hand, the historian notes, “Elbaz lived among Arabs all his life, and greatly respected them. The Ard-al-Yahud neighborhood where he lived was an Arab neighborhood in those years. The family never hated Arabs; they had good relations with them. For them, there was a clear distinction between national-collective aspirations and personal relationships.”

“Many Arabs in Haifa were friendly with my father,” says Avraham Elbaz, Shmuel’s brother. “It’s true that there always were extremists and rioters who stoked the flames, but overall, Arabs and Jews knew how to get along.”

“He was a Zionist through and through, on the right-wing side, but not fanatical,” according to Shmuel.

Beyond its personal significance, the seven-decade-old letter is testimony to a brief period after the state was established, during which “many refugee families managed to return home, mainly in the north,” Horev says. Some did so illegally, like the family of poet Mahmoud Darwish; others, like Shatti, apparently received permits to return, due to the intervention of friends like Elbaz. Also, he notes, other stories of Arabs who saved Jewish lives during the era in question have come to light over the years.

In 2006, on the 50th anniversary of Elbaz’s death, his descendants wrote a letter of appreciation to Shatti’s relatives.

“Karim Salim al-Shatti, of blessed memory, did something heroic, showing courage, decency, friendship and true good neighborliness during a time of distress,” they wrote. “We, Shimon’s sons, grandsons and great-grandsons, are obligated to remember, to express our thanks to the Shatti family and to cherish his memory. He was an honest man, decent and conscientious, who proved that loyalty to a friend is stronger than differences of religion and nationality.”

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