Opinion |

Nazareth, the Thorn in Israel’s Side

Nazareth is stuck in the intrigues of Judaization, expulsion and the distortion of history. The family, urban and cultural continuum is very much in evidence there. And in Nazareth Illit? Judging by the nameplates, many of the residents are Arabs who live their lives in the lower city

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
The Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, Northern Israel.
The Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, Northern Israel. Credit: Gil Eliahu
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

A possible opening for a column that is not entirely political and includes a question to the Arab parties and the left-wing Arab-Jewish party: Why are you wasting energy on a competition for Knesset seats at a time when the Jewish community is accepting the calls of the Judeo-Zionists for a mass expulsion of your people with equanimity? (Last week, Michael Ben Ari of the Kahanist party, Otzma Yehudit, said we will resettle our enemies in their countries).

A second possible opening for a column, a reminder that even the non-political is political: The taxi driver said that he doesn’t need Waze or street numbers in order to find the house. “Just tell me the name of the family.” As in every Palestinian village.

But this is a street of private homes in a city that until two weeks ago was called Nazareth Illit (Upper Nazareth). According to the nameplates that are visible among the abundant greenery that covers the fences and the gates, many of the residents, including my friends who invited me for lunch, are Palestinians who were born in Arab Nazareth.

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“The municipality changed the name, but in a few years from now half of the residents of Nof Hagalil [A View of the Galilee, the city’s new name] will be Arabs,” laughed the driver, pronouncing the new name. “The Jews get good money for the houses they sell and then they move to Afula or to the center of the country.”

His prophecy is not far-fetched. About a quarter of the residents registered in the city that meant to Judaize the Galilee are Palestinians; some say it’s even a third. Some prefer to leave Nazareth listed as their place of residence in the Population Registry in order to participate in its municipal elections. They all pay the arnona property tax to the municipality that takes care mainly of its Jews, but they conduct their lives below in the original city of Nazareth, which is overcrowded. That’s where they study, work, manage businesses, conduct a social life, shop, worship.

The agora of Nazareth is bustling. It’s the square of Mary’s Well (the place where, according to Eastern Orthodox tradition, the angel Gabriel appeared and announced to the Virgin Mary that she was carrying the son of God in her womb) – a meeting place for young people and not-so-young city residents, who sit for hours around the tables of the restaurants that are right next to one another, and chat. Over the weekend I heard about the latest crisis in forming the joint Arab list, and that Balad apparently won’t be joining.

Alleyway in Nazareth. Credit: Gil Eliahu

I listened to those who are calling to boycott the election, whether as a way of punishing the ossified parties or due to alienation from the state that ignores them and their history in their country. When the voices of the messianic settler right are increasingly penetrating the Israeli mainstream, and calling for the completion of your expulsion from the country, isn’t it a luxury to give up on one of the existing arenas of activity or to lose votes due to a quarrel over one’s place on the Knesset slate, I wondered.

Your absence from the Knesset will only please the Smotriches (followers of right-wing leader Bezalel Smotrich). Even the Gantzes (followers of centrist Kahol Lavan party leader Benny Gantz) won’t mourn it. And alternatively, I asked: Will your act of boycotting help in any way to raise awareness and activity (not only on Facebook) against the planners of the expulsion and the danger of expulsion?

Another possible opening will make sense of the column’s title: The happy occasion that brought me to Nazareth for a few days is the performance of the Amwaj children’s choir (from Hebron and Bethlehem) together with young musicians from the city’s Ziryab music school. The children discovered that it’s possible to travel two kilometers from the city center without being blocked by a barbed wire fence, a concrete wall or a soldier aiming a rifle, shouting orders in a language they don’t understand.

I discovered a certain flourishing in the sad and lovely Old City, after the renovations for the second millennium were extended, paralyzing the city for years, emptying out its marketplace and causing many of its residents to abandon it.

The Amwaj children’s choir performing with young musicians from the city’s Ziryab music school at the Salesian church in Nazareth. Credit: Fares Mansour

Here they are convinced that it was deliberate, an attempt to force on them a process of Jewish gentrification like that taking place in Acre. The ancient marketplace, in the maze of Ottoman buildings, has not yet returned to itself. But cultural cafes and guest houses in ancient buildings with high ceilings and arches have opened here, and they are attracting visitors. Fortunately, here the word of God, the annunciation to Mary, turned into the flesh of Jesus, and the tourists are coming.

This is the only Arab city within the 1949 borders that Israel was unable to destroy and empty of its original residents. This time I felt the palpable energy of this known historical fact — and that was far more powerful than merely stating it. Like a magnificent thorn, Nazareth remains stuck in the plots of Judaization, expulsion and distortion of history. Here, in a city whose families were not forced out, the urban and cultural continuum and fabric are evident.

Metaphors are a literary gamble. So forget about the thorn. Let’s get back to the driver. He avoided the traffic jams that followed the Friday prayers, as we maneuvered among narrow alleyways lacking sidewalks and greenery, with houses crowded too closely to one another.

The taxi driver told me that a dunam of land costs $1 million. Before 1948 the area of Nazareth was 25,000 dunams. Today it’s only about 14,000. You won’t guess where all the rest disappeared to, so I’ll tell you: Israel confiscated it in order to build a city for Jews. The driver took me to my Palestinian friends in Upper Nazareth. By the way, their previous flat, also in Upper Nazareth, was built on land expropriated from her grandfather.

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