Mixed cities were burning all over Israel last month, except this one. Here's why

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In Lod, a Jewish man was killed by a stone-throwing mob, and synagogues, cars and stores were torched. In Haifa, Jewish vigilantes marched through the streets chanting “Death to the Arabs.” In Acre, a Jewish man was hospitalized in critical condition after an Arab mob clobbered him with an iron bar. In Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market, an Arab man was stabbed by a Jewish gang.

Jewish and Arab mobs clashed on the streets of Israel’s mixed cities last month in the worst outbreak of civil violence within Israel proper since 2000. Over the course of six days, shops were looted, property was vandalized, religious sites were desecrated and drivers were pulled out of cars and beaten in the streets. Exacerbated by the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas, the rioting spreading rapidly, threatening to erupt into all-out civil war.

There was one stark exception. Aside from a few minor incidents of vandalism, life continued as normal in the northern city of Nof Hagalil (formerly known as Upper Nazareth). Not even one Jewish-Arab clash was reported in this city of 42,000 residents.

How did Nof Hagalil avoid getting swept into the violence that engulfed another half dozen mixed Jewish-Arab cities?

The short answer is that municipal officials saw it coming and took preemptive action. A day before clashes broke out in Lod on May 10, Nof Hagalil Mayor Ronen Plot read some troubling posts by top social-media influencers in his city, both Jewish and Arab, and summoned them one by one to his office for what he describes as “frank, personal discussions.”

A car in Lod set on fire during mass civil unrest in May.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

“I explained to them why they needed to lower the flames and not make things worse,” he recounts. “At the same time, I published posts on my own personal Facebook page and sent text messages to residents urging tolerance at this critical moment.”

Local police were stationed in every neighborhood, and municipal workers were asked to volunteer for patrol duty. Any suspicious gathering in the streets was immediately reported. Most importantly perhaps, barriers were erected at the entrance to the city to prevent troublemakers entering from outside. Indeed, several busloads of right-wing Jews, looking to stir up trouble in Nof Hagalil as they had in other mixed cities, were stopped in their tracks.

Critical to the effort was the full cooperation of Arab city council members, especially Nof Hagalil Deputy Mayor Dr. Shukri Awada. The Arab party he heads, an offshoot of the Joint List, is one of six factions in the municipal coalition.

“We understood that if riots broke out in our city, we’d all suffer, so we put a lot of pressure on people to exercise restraint,” says Habib Odeh, a local accountant and one of three representatives of the Arab party at City Hall. “As soon as we got word of some attempt to start trouble, we’d immediately call the mayor’s office, and he would alert the police. This heavy-handed approach paid off.”

Bracha Barov, head of the regional branch of the Na’amat women’s organization, has been living in Nof Hagalil since she immigrated to Israel in 1972 from what was then the Soviet Union. A representative of the Labor Party on the local council, she has seen mayors come and go. This one, she insists, is different. “When he says he’s the mayor of every resident of this city, those aren’t just empty words – he means it,” she says.

Bracha Barov.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Dr. Khalil Bakly, a local dentist active in Jewish-Arab coexistence work, agrees that much of the credit goes to Plot. “Had his predecessor still been in power, I venture to say the outcome would have been very different,” he says. “The spirit of the commander, so to speak, clearly played a role in how things played out here.”

No baggage

But so did other, more deep-rooted factors. Unlike Lod, Ramle, Acre, Jerusalem and Haifa, for example, Nof Hagalil did not exist before Israel’s founding and is not a historically Arab city. Rather, it was established in 1957, nearly a decade after Israel was created, as part of a grand plan to “Judaize” the Galilee.

“The Arabs haven’t been living in this city enough time to have strong grievances,” says Dan Segal, a former kibbutznik who lives on the urban kibbutz set up in Nof Hagalil about 20 years ago. “They don’t carry the same 70-plus years of baggage with them.”

Nof Hagalil sits on a hill overlooking Nazareth, on land that once belonged to the large Arab city below. Originally set up to house new immigrants – many of them from the former Soviet Union – it would eventually become a magnet for a very different population: Arabs from Nazareth and the surrounding Arab villages seeking more space and a better quality of life.

Hof Hagalil. The hillside city overlooking Nazareth was first developed in 1957. Credit: Gil Eliahu

Today, the Arab community accounts for some 30 percent of the city’s total population, putting Nof Hagalil almost on par with Lod as the most “mixed” Jewish-Arab city in Israel.

“In mixed cities where Arabs have always lived, the situation is very different,” notes Ruth Lewin-Chen, who heads the division for mixed cities at the Abraham Initiatives, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering shared society in Israel. “There are deep-seated resentments in such cities over the Nakba,” she says, using the Palestinian term for the creation of Israel, when many of them were displaced and evicted. “By contrast, the Arabs who live in Nof Hagalil came there by choice. We’re talking about a very upwardly mobile population, people who wanted to improve their standard of living. These are people who have an interest in keeping things calm.”

In other mixed cities, she notes, rioting was often initiated by unemployed youth. In Nof Hagalil, by contrast, youth unemployment is not a serious problem.

Khalil and his wife Reem, both dentists, are probably the only Muslims in Israel who put up a sukkah to celebrate the Jewish autumn holiday of Sukkot. They started the tradition several years ago, hoping to create a place where their Jewish and Arab neighbors could get to know one another. Built on the terrace of their spacious, three-story villa, with its magnificent views, their sukkah draws hundreds of visitors every year, from Nof Hagalil and beyond.

The couple, who have three children, moved to Nof Hagalil seven years ago from Nazareth, mainly to get away from the noise and traffic jams. “Nof Hagalil has fewer than half the number of residents on five times the area,” Khalil says, adding that “just getting out of the city in the morning to get to work is a nightmare.”

A cafe in Hof Hagalil, now home to about 42,000 residents, about 30 percent of whom are Arabs.Credit: Gil Eliahu

A ‘joint city’

To be sure, Arab residents have not always felt so welcome here. The previous mayor, Shimon Gapso, who was jailed after being convicted of bribery, refused to accommodate demands for an Arab school, despite promises to the contrary, and would not allow public displays of Christmas trees or Ramadan lanterns in the city.

Known for draping the city in Israeli flags to mark his territory, as it were, he insisted at every possible opportunity that Nof Hagalil was and would remain a Jewish city.

While his successor is also a card-carrying member of the right-wing Likud party, Plot favors a more inclusive style of management and, by all accounts, is far more attuned to the needs of the Arab population.

But the push for coexistence hasn’t only come from above. In the past few years, a grassroots initiative aimed at bringing together Jews and Arabs has made significant inroads in Nof Hagalil. Known as the Bustan (the Hebrew word for orchard), it was founded by members of the urban kibbutz in partnership with several prominent Arab families, including the Baklys. Its purpose, says Segal, one of its founding members, is to turn this mixed city into what he calls “a joint city.”

Dan Segal.Credit: Gil Eliahu

“Our goal is to create a city that provides opportunities for positive interactions between different communities and equal access to resources,” he explains.

Hundreds of local families are active in the Bustan, which organizes, among other activities, joint festive celebrations and family hikes on Shabbat. The success of this initiative is especially noteworthy considering the strong right-wing bent of the local Jewish population, as indicated by recent election results.

“I don’t ask people how they vote, but you can be sure there are also right-wing Jews who have gotten involved,” says Segal, 48, who moved here nearly a decade ago.

As the riots erupted in other mixed cities last month, Bustan activists immediately took action. They put out messages to all their WhatsApp groups begging for calm. They had local residents post photos of themselves on Facebook carrying signs that read: “Nof Hagalil says enough to violence.”

When an elderly Jewish resident was attacked while driving in a nearby Arab town, they sent a Jewish-Arab delegation to pay him a visit in the hospital. They did the same for a young local Arab man who had been beaten badly by a Jewish gang in Haifa.

“What we helped put in place here over the past few years I’m sure played a role in keeping things calm,” Segal says.

Khalil Bakly.Credit: Gil Eliahu

‘Far from perfect’

Calling Nof Hagalil a model for Jewish-Arab coexistence might be a bit far-fetched, though. Despite his more conciliatory approach to local Arab residents, Plot still refuses to give them their own school, and thousands of Arab children are forced to travel outside their hometown every day to study. Unlike other mixed cities, notes Lewin-Chen, Nof Hagalil has yet to install a salaried deputy Arab mayor. “Things are far from perfect,” she says.

Odeh moved to Nof Hagalil with his parents in 1989, on a plot that had belonged to his grandparents. Although he has lived here ever since, he says it’s hard to consider it home. “We don’t really feel we belong,” Odeh says. “There is still no school here for our kids, no after-school programs for them, and no cultural events for the Arab population. Basically, all we do is sleep here. Everything else, we have to do outside of the city.”

Habib Odeh.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Bakly shares his friend’s grievances, but says the picture isn’t entirely bleak. When wildfires broke out in the city last October, he recounts, many Jewish homes were damaged. “We saw many Arab volunteers rush to help put out the fires, and Arab owners of nearby hotels offered to put up for free Jewish families whose homes had been damaged.”

The coronavirus pandemic, he relays, provided another opportunity for Jews and Arabs here to put aside their differences at a time of crisis and work together for the welfare of all.

Several dozen Jewish and Arab families from Nof Hagalil had a hike planned for the day after the cease-fire between Israel and Gaza, when the situation was still rather precarious. Organized by the Bustan, it proceeded as scheduled, which was not at all obvious at the time.

If life in Nof Hagalil retained a semblance of normalcy during some of the most turbulent days in recent Israeli history, says Bakly, it was no fluke. “It just goes to show that when there’s a will for shalom bayit,” he says, using the Jewish term for peace in the home, “there’s a way.”