This Israeli Arab Couple Is Building a Sukkah, Hoping to Destroy Jewish-Muslim Stereotypes

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Khalil and Reem Bakly at their sukkah in Upper Nazareth, Israel.
Khalil and Reem Bakly at their sukkah in Upper Nazareth, Israel.Credit: Rami Shllush

UPPER NAZARETH – To accommodate the huge number of guests they’re expecting over the holiday, these two Israeli dentists have built a super-sized sukkah. And in keeping with the time-honored Jewish tradition, they got to work on it as soon as the Yom Kippur fast ended on Saturday night.

Khalil and Reem Bakly, however, aren’t Jewish. They’re Muslim Arabs. This is their first sukkah ever, and there’s good reason to believe it’s the only temporary outdoor hut of this type being built in Israel this year – and presumably most years before that as well – by an Arab family.

On Sunday, Monday and Tuesday of next week – the interim days of the seven-day Feast of Tabernacles, as Sukkot is also known – they are inviting Jews and Arabs from near and far to join them for food, music, laughs and discussion at their beautiful, “100 percent kosher” sukkah, as they like to boast.

To make sure the word gets out, they’ve advertised the event in two local newspapers: one that serves their hometown of Upper Nazareth and another that serves the central Sharon region, where Khalil’s main dental clinic is located and where most of his patients live. Authentic Arab dishes, along with Jewish delicacies prepared by a certified kosher caterer, will be served, and the Bakly couple will be footing the entire bill.

The wacky idea of building a sukkah to host his Jewish and Arab neighbors first entered Khalil’s mind just before the holiday last year. Realizing he wouldn’t have enough time to get organized, he decided to wait until the next time the holiday rolled around to try and pull it off.

Khalil and Reem Bakly at their sukkah in Upper Nazareth, Israel.Credit: Rami Shllush

“Definitely one of the triggers was a conversation I had at the time with my Jewish office manager in Netanya,” he recounts. “I had asked her to come to my clinic here in Upper Nazareth to train the staff, and she asked me if it was safe to come. That really took me by surprise. I mean I couldn’t believe she thought Nazareth was unsafe, but it made me realize how much all of us – not just Jews, but Arabs as well – tend to stereotype one another. And the reason we do that is we never really make any effort sit down together and try to get to know one another.”

Through his sukkah, Khalil says, he hopes to provide such an occasion. Besides that, he confides, Sukkot happens to be his favorite Jewish holiday, and what better opportunity for him to celebrate it just like his Jewish friends. “I love that it’s such an outdoors holiday,” he says.

Khalil, 45, and his wife Reem, 39, have three children, the youngest barely a month-and-a-half old. Both of them grew up not far from here – he in Nazareth, situated just below and known as the Arab capital of Israel, and she in the town of Ar’ara in the Wadi Ara region. They met while completing their residencies in dentistry, and today, outside their day jobs, they are both active in non-profit organizations that promote health awareness in Israel.

In recent years, the population of Nazareth has spilled over into largely Jewish Upper Nazareth, where far more land and space is available. Today, about one-quarter of Upper Nazareth’s roughly 40,000 residents are Arabs, and like the Bakly family, they live in mixed neighborhoods with Jews.

At his main clinic in the coastal town of Netanya, says Khalil, every single one of his patients is Jewish. Here in Upper Nazareth, the majority are. “Believe it or not,” he says, “most of my friends and colleagues are Jewish, and probably the same holds true for my wife.”

Khalil and Reem Bakly at their sukkah in Upper Nazareth, Israel.Credit: Rami Shllush

Call him nave, but Khalil believes Jews and Arabs in this country spend way too much time focusing on politics – that is to say, the issues that divide them – rather than the common social problems they share. “Talk to them and you’ll see that Jews and Arabs have the same complaints about the schools and hospitals in this country,” he notes, “domestic violence exists in both societies, and so does cancer. But we never seem to talk about these problems and how we can overcome them together.” 

To foster such conversations, he plans to hold a two-hour panel discussion at Monday’s open-sukkah on issues specifically affecting women in Israel. Tuesday’s open-sukkah panel will be devoted to literature and the arts, with Jewish and Arab writers and actors in attendance.

In recent years, special tours that offer Jews an opportunity to learn about the Muslim holy month of Ramadan have gained popularity in Israel. In many of these so-called “Ramadan tours,” Jews visit Arab homes where they partake in iftar, the ritual meal that marks the end of the daily fast.

Based on that model, Khalil agrees, it would have made more sense for Jews to open their sukkahs to Arabs on this holiday than the reverse. “But since nobody else picked up the glove,” he says, “I figured why not me?” 

His Arab friends and neighbors have rallied behind the initiative, many of them volunteering to help him build the sukkah on Saturday night. “I called two friends and asked them to come over, and before you knew it, there were 20 people here working on the sukkah.”

His wife reminds him, however, that there were other friends who “raised an eyebrow” when they heard about his project.

Overseeing the entire sukkah-construction operation was Khalil’s devoted office manager, an Orthodox Jew of Yemenite origin, who made sure, he says, that the structure was built in accordance the strictest dictates of halakha, or Jewish religious law.

“You see the schach,” Khalil says, pointing to the palm tree branches that cover the sukkah.  “There’s no roof or anything else above it blocking the view of the stars – just like it’s supposed to be.  And see over there, all the strings tied around the sukkah, they’re 24 centimeters apart – just like they’re supposed to be. And the walls, they’re 90 centimeters high – just like they’re supposed to be. We actually measured everything.”

The all-white sukkah is built on the terrace of their spacious three-story villa, with its magnificent views of the Jezreel Valley and Mount Precipice where, according to the New Testament, Jesus once evaded an angry Jewish mob. The late afternoon hours here are the windiest time of day, so Khalil plans to wait until later before putting up the traditional decorations, meanwhile gathered safely inside.

The Jewish mayor of Upper Nazareth and his Arab deputy have already confirmed their participation on the opening day. But aside from them, no other politicians have been asked to speak at the event. “I know many politicians, and they’re obviously welcome to come and sit with everyone else,” explains Khalil, “but I want to keep politics out of this.”

While Khalil and Reem hope to turn this open-sukkah event at their home into an annual tradition, they are also thinking bigger. “My dream is for this to serve as a springboard for more and more gatherings of this type that will help foster a shared society for Jews and Arabs in this country,” says Khalil.

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