Four years ago, leaflets were distributed around Upper Nazareth calling for an end to the application of the law allowing Israelis to live wherever they wanted. “Now is the time to defend our home!” the flyers declared. They were part of Upper Nazareth Mayor Shimon Gapso’s 2013 election campaign and were accompanied by billboards declaring “Upper Nazareth – Jewish forever.”
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Gapso won the election, although his term was cut short after he was jailed following a bribery conviction. His electoral pledge wasn’t the first on the subject. A year earlier, the chairman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party in city hall tried to initiate a plan that would have provided grants to Arab residents who sold their homes to Jews and then left Upper Nazareth. In fact, a decade ago, Gapso initiated a competition to choose a new name for the city so it didn’t sound like Nazareth – the Arab city in northern Israel it was established next to.
Nevertheless, over the past decade there has been a substantial increase in the Arab population of Upper Nazareth: in 2015 the Central Bureau of Statistics said that 23.1 percent of the city’s residents were Arab. Yet there is a lack of recognition of the city’s diversity. By contrast, in Haifa – which is considered a mixed Jewish-Arab city – Arab residents comprise only 11 percent of the population.
Haifa, though, has a different history and different customs. In the northern coastal city, there is no attempt to counter the statistics. In Upper Nazareth, there are more than 2,000 Arab schoolchildren but not a single Arab school, where Arabic would be the language of instruction. And, also unlike Haifa, there are no Christian or Muslim religious institutions - not even a cemetery.
For its part, the Upper Nazareth Municipality says the CBS figures “don’t reflect new trends in the city, both when it comes to receiving new families and with regard to [Jewish] residents moving into the [new] Har Yona Gimel neighborhood.” The municipality said the city is “an example of genuine coexistence that is impressively reflected in everyday life.”
Gapso said that when he was mayor, Arabs benefited from affirmative action. “Every citizen can live in Upper Nazareth when he is aware of the fact that it is a Jewish city and its rules should be respected – such as not driving on Yom Kippur and not doing construction work on Shabbat. Over the years I acted to strengthen the Jewish hold on Upper Nazareth, such as in the Har Yona Gimel neighborhood.”
But Gapso added: “Today there is someone else leading [the city]. The claims of racism are not correct. Anyone who knows me knows I espouse a Jewish Upper Nazareth, but I have never taken a discriminatory approach to Arabs.”
Although street signs in Upper Nazareth are in Arabic as well as Hebrew, English and Russian, the municipal website is only in the latter three languages. There is an Arab deputy mayor, Dr. Shukri Awada, but only 6 percent, at most, of municipal employees are Arab. Awada, who joined the governing municipal coalition in 2008, said Gapso had provided a document recognizing Upper Nazareth as a mixed Jewish-Arab city and promising the establishment of an Arab school. But when the school was not built, Awada’s faction withdrew from the coalition.
Awada only began serving as deputy mayor after Gapso was suspended in 2015, when Awada’s faction joined the coalition. He says his faction will do anything possible to oppose efforts to boost the city’s Jewish population.
The truth, though, is that there are efforts in that direction, such as the new ultra-Orthodox neighborhood that residents are currently moving into, and municipal officials are also trying to limit Arab migration into the city.
Awada acknowledges that “there is an effort on the part of the mayor, Ronen Plott, and our faction to establish a shared life.” However, he adds that there is much room for progress, alleging anti-Arab discrimination – including selective enforcement of building codes and inequalities in municipal infrastructure, and education. The lack of Arab school facilities is most vexing for Upper Nazareth’s Arab residents and is even the subject of a lawsuit filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
About 8 percent of the city’s 2,200 Arab schoolchildren attend Jewish schools in Upper Nazareth, Awada said, “and that’s fine.” But the others leave the city for schools elsewhere, “and that hurts,” the deputy mayor added. It gives the Arab students the feeling they’re not wanted in their own city, he said. For its part, the Upper Nazareth Municipality said it follows directives from the Education Ministry.
At one Upper Nazareth shopping center on Thursday afternoon, three women were engaged in a lively discussion in a mix of Hebrew and Arabic, while two younger women – one in a Muslim hijab head covering and the other in a T-shirt – were shopping together.
One Jewish woman, Lilach Merel, who has lived in Upper Nazareth for 30 years, said she and her Arab neighbors live together in peace. However, she admitted, when pressed by her daughter, that if Arabs were to become a majority there, she would leave. But Michael Tomasis, a Likud party member who owns a falafel stand at the shopping center, said he sees the city’s mixed demographic character as a positive thing for the country.
Prof. Dan Rabinowitz of Tel Aviv University’s sociology and anthropology department, said the roots of the current situation began in 1948 when, during the War of Independence, the Arab city of Nazareth grew considerably. There weren’t Arab refugees leaving Nazareth and, in addition, the city took in so many people that it boosted its population by 70 percent.
And then, in 1957, Upper Nazareth was established on land taken from Arab villages in the area, as well as from Nazareth itself, which lost its capacity to take in any additional residents. Rabinowitz wrote his doctorate on the subject in the 1980s and says he remembers that when he visited Upper Nazareth at the time, there were a large number of empty apartments that had been inhabited by new immigrants who had left at the first opportunity.
Young residents of the city of Nazareth – where there was a major shortage of new construction – saw there were empty apartments a short distance away and moved in, although their presence didn’t receive official recognition. “There was denial for a great many years – including denial that in difficult periods, the only population that was interested in this city and that maintained its real estate market was the Arab population,” Rabinowitz said.
“In the 1980s, at the height of this phenomenon, city hall looked for every possible way to deny the very existence of this community,” he added.
When Rabinowitz asked for data for his research, he says municipal employees claimed there was no information about the number of Arabs living in Upper Nazareth.
“Ultimately what I did was to sit down with the Upper Nazareth telephone book and I added it up until I came to the figure,” said Rabinowitz. “They related to the very existence of the Arabs in Upper Nazareth as a problem, and they denied it.”
Rabinowitz assumes that, even in subsequent years, the local government was concerned over damage to the city’s image.