Friday, December 11, 1998

An ode to Haifa

In an increasingly polarized nation, Haifa
stands out as a city where Jew and Arab,
religious and secular can coexist in peace

By Sami Michael

...In the course of my rather eventful life, I have lived in and visited hundreds of cities and towns in the Middle East. The picture is virtually the same wherever you go. Spiritual barbed wire stretches along the promenades and boulevards, crisscrossing the alleys.

It is not out of local patriotism that I believe Haifa is different. There is something special about this city, as it labors beneath the heavy weight of jokes about its provincialism. Maybe it is the enchanting view of verdant mountains and blue sea. Maybe it is the three countries one can see from its peaks. And maybe it is the lack of historical pretensions that has enabled the city to foster a rare brand of coexistence between different population groups...

...I am not saying that Haifa is an ideal city. There is no place in the real world that is ideal. What I mean is that the symbols of hostility lose much of their noxious and Satanic power in Haifa. The call of the muezzin is not aggressive in this city. The words "Allahu akbar" (God is great) are not terrifying. The arms of a black-garbed Haredi are not laden with stones. The chiming of the church bells has a soft, pleasant, soothing sound, unlike the jarring clangs of the bells in Jerusalem. I'm not interested in tempting fate, but no one in Haifa has been killed by a terrorist bomb in over 20 years. No buses have been blown up in Haifa. In the Middle East, that is a remarkable phenomenon.

So maybe it is not such a coincidence that Haifa was the chosen venue for the "Holiday of Holidays" festival - a joint celebration of Hanukkah, Christmas and Ramadan that opens next week and gives cultural and artistic expression to the human mosaic that is Haifa. The organizer and producer of the event is the Arab-Israeli cultural center that has been active in the city since 1965 - Beit Hagefen - with the collaboration of the European Union, the Haifa Municipality, the Ministry of Education and Culture, Omanut La'am and the local media. The festival is scheduled to run until the end of January.

Another event of special importance took place at Beit Hagefen this past week: the International Conference of Religious Leaders, now in its fourth year. Sixty religious leaders took part this year - chief rabbis and neighborhood rabbis, bishops of every Christian denomination, Moslem qadis, Druze qadis, Bahai community leaders and leaders of the Ahmads. Delegates arrived from Jordan, the regions administered by the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Morocco, Cyprus, Romania, Turkey and Switzerland. The dual object of the conference was to create a framework in the Middle East for encounters between religious leaders, thereby fostering religious tolerance, and to establish interfaith teams prepared to meet with Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian high school students....

...The highlight of the event was a panel discussion whose participants were the chief rabbi of Acre, Yosef Yashar; the Roman Catholic bishop Bulus Marcuzi,; Sheikh Ziyad Abu-Moch, director of the Islamic college in Baka al-Gharbiya; Naim Heno, qadi of the Shari'a Druze court in Julis; and Dr. Albert Lincoln, secretary-general of the Bahai community, whose religious center is located, not without reason, in Haifa. The conference was also attended by 100 high school students from the Reali school in Haifa, the Baptist school in Nazareth, the Moslem high school in Faradis, and other educational institutions.

Beit Hagefen provides young people with a rare opportunity to hear another voice - one that does not believe that prophets and religion command us to excommunicate, ostracize and kill, but sees the beauty of human existence in the idea that there is room enough for all faiths...

...Perhaps Haifa will be the model for an East-West meeting on a broader scale, a place where peoples and cultures reach out sincerely and learn that coexistence is possible.

©Copyright 1998, Ha'aretz

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