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Profile: Israeli City Of Haifa And Its History Of Providing An Atmosphere In Which Arabs And Jews Can Live In Peaceful Coexistence

All Things Considered: October 10, 2002

Harmony in Haifa


Israel's northern port city of Haifa has suffered its shares of the tensions and violence that have torn through other Israeli communities over the past two years. But unlike their counterparts elsewhere, after each episode, the Jewish and Arab residents of Haifa have returned to a state of peaceful coexistence. Many Israelis considered Haifa the exception that proves the rule that Jews and Arabs can't live together. That's a notion that Haifa's mayor is hoping to dispel. He's campaigning to take his message to a national stage. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.


PETER KENYON reporting:

A bus idles in Haifa's Helisa neighborhood, not far from the spot where a Palestinian suicide bomber blew up another bus in December, killing 15 people. The blast caused tensions to flare in this mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood. In the following days, papers were filled with the kind of fearful and bitter comments you might hear anywhere in Israel after civilians are murdered.

But unlike other cities, within a few weeks, life in Haifa had returned to normal. Thirty-eight-year-old Arab resident Kamal Itmarat(ph), who was born in Haifa, says that's not unusual.

Mr. KAMAL ITMARAT (Haifa Resident): (Through Translator) Everything still is going on as normal. Everybody knows that in Haifa, there is coexistence. And there was the bombing here and everybody knows and there's a lot of problems between the Palestinians and the Jews, but the Arabs here are not part of the Palestinians.

KENYON: Like many Arab residents of Haifa, Itmarat speaks Hebrew as a matter of course. Jewish bus driver Shaha Amir(ph) remembers the chill that the bombing cast over Jews in Haifa and the ensuing boycott of the Wadi Nisnas, the Arab shopping district. But he shrugs as if to say, `Of course, it didn't last.'

Mr. SHAHA AMIR (Bus Driver): (Through Translator) There was a kind of protest against the Arabs, and people didn't go to shops down in the Wadi area. And, personally, I didn't, either. But today, there's less tension, there isn't any tension anymore and people are much more back to normal.

KENYON: When asked how Jews and Arabs manage to coexist in Haifa under the same kinds of stresses that have driven the populations apart elsewhere, most people say that's just the way it's always been here. Dr. Mordechai Peri, at the Arab-Jewish Cultural Center, says history is part of the answer. He's only half-joking when he cites another reason.

Dr. MORDECHAI PERI (Arab-Jewish Cultural Center): Muhammad was not here, Moses was not here and Jesus was not here.

KENYON: Haifa does have a few holy sites, notably the cave of Elijah and the tombs of two leaders of the Baha'i faith. But Peri says the city is virtually free of religious extremism, and local leaders are free to focus on secular concerns. But Peri argues strongly that coexistence is not just an accident of history; it's something that local leaders work at every day. He says it's a point of pride that visitors can move across town and not be able to tell if they're in a Jewish, Arab or mixed neighborhood. Peri says the key to Haifa's success is the effort it has made to integrate Arabs into the economy.

Dr. PERI: And there are hundreds of doctors, too many lawyers--sorry about that--a lot of judges, Arab judges, and businesspeople.

KENYON: Which is not to say that Haifa is a perfect model of equality. Having been an Arab city in the 19th century under Ottoman rule, Haifa had a Jewish majority by the end of World War II. And in the 1948 war, tens of thousands of Arabs were displaced or fled. Today, Haifa is a Jewish city with an Arab minority comprising 13 percent of the population.


KENYON: At the Matzah restaurant, manager Ali al-Wahddi(ph) greets his customers warmly. Six months ago, a Palestinian suicide bomber ripped a massive hole in the roof here, killing 15 people. Al-Wahddi was shocked that Palestinians would strike at an Arab-owned business, but within months, he says the municipality had helped the owners rebuild. Al-Wahddi says he's convinced that if other mayors worked as hard as Haifa's have at Arab-Jewish relations, both populations would be a lot better off.

Mr. ALI AL-WAHDDI (Restaurant Manager): (Through Translator) It's also because the mayors here have always been for reconciliation, they've always been honest and for coexistence. I've lived here for 40 years; I'm 57 years old. I've never felt any discrimination in this city.

KENYON: Mayor Amram Mitzna is the latest in a long line of liberal mayors that have helped preserve Haifa's tradition of tolerance. But the stack of local problems on his desk is now competing with his ambitious effort to win the leadership of the Labor Party. Mitzna believes Haifa's success in mixing Jewish and Arab populations could be exported to other Israeli cities, but he says addressing coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians is a more difficult proposition. There, he says, the level of hatred has grown so great that any reconciliation must be proceeded by separation.

Mayor AMRAM MITZNA (Haifa): Hopefully, both people suffered enough in the last two years that it is creating already a movement of, `Let's go back to the negotiation table. Let's separate ourselves from each other, take a period of time that everybody will work with his own people, and then in the future, we might sit again together.'

KENYON: Mitzna's supporters say his campaign is a sign that even after two years of violence, a surprising number of Israelis are still willing to back a candidate who openly calls for an end to the occupation of the Palestinian territories and a return to peaceful negotiations. But after an initial surge to the top of the Labor Party polls, Mitzna's support has fallen off, and analysts wonder if he has the stomach for Israel's brand of hardball national politics. Residents of Haifa wish Mitzna luck, but say they'll be happy to have him back at city hall helping to maintain the habit of getting along in at least one corner of this troubled region. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Haifa.

©Copyright 2002, National Public Radio

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