The Israeli City Where Coexistence Is Alive and Kicking

Life's good in vibrant Haifa, where Jews are not 'landlords,' but 'tenants,' living alongside Arab neighbors. We have to take this message and go national with it.

Nissan Shor
Nissan Shor
Arab women at Bat Galim beach in Haifa, 2013.
Arab women at Bat Galim beach in Haifa, 2013.Credit: Rami Shlush
Nissan Shor
Nissan Shor

I spent last weekend in my old hometown, Haifa. In the course of my stay there, I reached a very simple conclusion: If there is a future for the State of Israel, it is being written right now in the streets that run down Mount Carmel.

The Jewish Haifa in which I grew up no longer exists. This isn’t a eulogy. It’s a reason to be happy. Haifa is the end of the Zionist enterprise as we knew it. And the start of a new enterprise. One that could most certainly be more successful than its predecessor.

If anyone wishes to mourn the Haifa in which I grew up – let him mourn. That’s his right. But the future doesn’t belong to mourners. They are always crying over what used to be. You cannot build a country in puddles of tears.

Haifa is the most optimistic city in Israel. It embodies the murky slogan “coexistence” in such a natural way that you don’t have to think about it too much. It simply happens in and of itself. No administrative assistance from all sorts of peace organizations is needed, nor are public initiatives or funding by foreign governments necessary, either.

When it happens on its own – that is the scariest thing. It is the greatest nightmare of the Israeli right wing. The Arabs are no longer streaming by the masses in buses. They are simply living their lives. With such bourgeois harmony that it is practically incomprehensible. They’re just doing what they do. In Haifa. What chutzpah!

Haifa has changed. I remember the 1980s and ‘90s. It was a city of Ashkenazim then. Held in their exclusive possession. The concierges in the cafes on the central Carmel were savage, officious women who ruled the roost. They reigned with a heavy hand by means of their Wissotzky tea and apple strudel. Tracking with a leery expression every pedestrian and every car passing in the street. Anyone they didn’t like earned a scornful glare.

It was a family city, just as Israel is a family country. The identity of the householders was very clear. In my grade at school was a girl whose family had a thriving fur coat business. In 11th grade, I learned Yiddish. My teacher contended that Haifa would one day be the Warsaw of the Middle East. She died before she was able to see her dream go down the drain. Warsaw? In what way does this have anything to do with Warsaw?

IllustrationCredit: Sharon Fadida

It used to be colder in Haifa. On winter nights we’d wear boots. Now there’s a heat wave in the middle of January. The weather understood before we did the simple, razor-sharp fact – that we’ve got nowhere else to go. So we stay. In Haifa. Everyone together, making the most of it.

This was my weekend in Haifa. The whole city is filled with Arabs. Arab families. Arab mothers. Arab fathers. Arab kids on scooters. Arabs in running clothes. Angry Arabs. Smiling Arabs. Arab couples flirting in Arabic. Arab senior citizens hobbling in Arabic. Arab gays. Arab sports cars honking in Arabic at the corner of Allenby Street and Zionism Boulevard, across from Emil’s shawarma. Even the cats are Arabs.

It was a sunny day, 24 degrees, and I was smoking a narghile with apple-mint tobacco. I felt like a member of the minority, and there was nothing more natural than that. Jewish sovereignty is overrated. We haven’t yet proved that we are capable of governing ourselves. And certainly not others.

This whole business has been pretty shaky of late. The solution: to blend and be blended. To no longer being frightened of all sorts of demographic doomsday scenarios. And mainly – to understand your place in this urban fabric, which has reorganized itself without asking your permission.

There is a refreshing feeling to walking around Haifa. You don’t feel like the only lord of the manor. In certain places, you are a guest. And that is perfectly fine. The time has come for Israelis to be a little more humble. We’ve grown accustomed to being the landlords. We can also be plain old tenants. Imagine, living in the Arab homes on Allenby Street in Haifa, there are – surprise, surprise! – Arabs. Not Jewish magnates who’ve emigrated from France. Arabs, real Arabs. Who were born there. Were raised there, and continue to live in the Arab homes of their Arab families. It is sheer lunacy. Ce n’est pas possible!

Look what’s happening in Haifa, under the radar of the pampered left, which believes in coexistence, but in practice supports almost-absolute segregation. This is the only city in Israel where there is new construction for the Arab population, and it’s been going on for years. There is an Arab deputy mayor (and this is the third-largest city in Israel, if you need to be reminded).

The Arab residents don’t make do with the living space allotted to them post-1948. They move from place to place. My parents, who have lived in Haifa for nearly 40 years, tell me, in sheer amazement and unconcealed shock, that nowadays the Arabs are moving up to the Carmel, the traditional home turf of the Jewish bourgeoisie.

“It’s like a virus,” they told me, and I ignored the comparison. “They are buying villas and big apartments. Where are they getting the money?” my father asked angrily.

Yes, there are affluent Arabs. Who would believe it? And the Ashkenazi cultural commissars have died out, and will soon be replaced by Arab ones who will perhaps drink Turkish coffee and eat baklava. As far as I’m concerned, they can drink Wissotzky tea and eat apple strudel, too. It’s not my business what other people eat or drink.

My parents won’t leave Haifa, because they are enjoying the changes that the city is undergoing, although they would never admit it. The city is becoming younger. More fun, more hip. There is finally a positive net migration rate to the city – of Arab young people who are not captive to antiquated conceptions and humorless jokes. For them, Haifa is a den of opportunity. It isn’t a sleepy city. A dead city. These people are reformulating the city.

In their wake, all sorts of Tel Aviv types are arriving, people looking to rent or buy cheap apartments. But they are only hitchhikers.

There is a certain talk in the air. A hype. A buzz. It isn’t an artificial trend manufactured by exploitative cultural festivals, or by real-estate initiatives the municipality is pushing on us in an effort to revive this dying urban entity. It is a Haifa of upward and downward.

Friends in the city tell me there are new cafes, clubs, gay parties, plays, cultural events – an entire intelligentsia and bohemia. All of it is Arab. And all of it is under the nose of my parents. Ironically for them, Jewish young people have fled to Tel Aviv, and Arab young people – to Haifa. It is like Detroit after the financial crisis. On the ruins of Jewish Haifa, a new Haifa is being built. The Arabs are saving Haifa from itself. And if it’s happening there – it could happen in all of Israel.

A mixed city with a strong bias toward the Arab side, stunning views and a bustling local culture scene. What could be better? Haifa is what needs to happen here. And if anyone doesn’t like it, he can go drink from the sea at Dado Beach.

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