Bahai News - An attack on tolerance 27 Kislev 5762 07:36Wednesday December 12, 2001

An attack on tolerance

By Larry Derfner

(December 11) - The terror bombing in Haifa last week tested its reputation as one of Israel's havens of Jewish-Arab coexistence. Larry Derfner reports on how the city responded to the tragedy.

The crowd that gathered in the aftermath of the bus bombing in Haifa on Sunday, last week, was unusual by Israeli standards. There were no chants of "death to the Arabs," no hysteria.

But given the character of the neighborhood, a rundown eastside section overlooking Haifa Port, the restrained reaction could have been expected.

"There were a lot of Arabs in the crowd. They were saying, 'Look how terrible it is,'" says Moshe Amsalem, standing on Rehov Yad Lebanim where the Palestinian terrorist on the bus detonated the nail-studded bomb strapped to his waist. Some Arabs helped rescue injured victims, most of whom were Jews.

The bombing, which killed 14 Jews and a Philippine guest worker along with the terrorist, took place on the "seam line" between Tel Amal, which is nearly all Jewish, and Halisa, which is predominantly Arab.

Amsalem, a Jew, is overseeing the repair of the apartment building where he has lived for all of his 40 years, and which was damaged in the blast. He points to adjoining buildings, saying, "There's an Arab family who lives there, another who lives there," adding that some of the neighborhood grocery stores are Arab-owned.

"We've never had any problems. We grew up together, played soccer together," he says. "When you live next door to someone all your life, and see them all the time, you're not going to start hating them just because they're an Arab or a Jew."

IN THIS city of 240,000 Jews and 35,000 Arabs, there are some half-dozen "mixed" neighborhoods. Of them, though, only Ein Hayam, near Haifa's main, northern entrance, is truly mixed, with integrated apartment buildings being the rule, and integrated marriages being unexceptional. Otherwise, integration in Haifa means a nearly all-Arab neighborhood lying alongside a nearly all-Jewish one. Tel Amal-Halisa is the poorest of them.

At the corner of Yad Lebanim and Hagiborim, where the bombed-out bus came to rest after rolling out of control down the hill, and where candles and wreaths now mark the spot, a sign etched into a stone retaining wall gives the lay of the land. "Tel Amal," it reads, with an arrow pointing left, then "Halisa," with an arrow pointing right.

Last Sunday was the first successful terror attack in Haifa in the past year. Twice during the last 14 months Palestinians were apprehended before they could plant bombs in the city; one was headed for a crowded downtown street, another for a popular discotheque.

"We always thought we were safe here because there are so many Arabs living here," says Marina Annas, who witnessed the bombing from the sandwich shop on Yad Lebanim where she works. Annas says the only reason none of the dead were Arabs is because the terrorist set off the bomb just before the bus passed the boundary of Tel Amal and entered Halisa.

"If he had blown himself a little further down this street [at or beyond the Halisa bus stop], he would have killed some Arabs, too," she says.

Sitting across the table from Annas is her husband, Suleimany. He is an Arab Muslim, she is a Russian Jewish immigrant, pregnant with his child. They live in Ein Hayam.

"We have no problems because he's Arab and I'm Jewish. We know a lot of couples like us," says Marina, 23. "I'm sure that if we lived in some other Israeli city, it wouldn't be so easy."

Suleimany, 24, a mover, grew up in Halisa. "We were all like brothers - Muslims, Christians and Jews. We visited each other's homes on Ramadan, and right after that on Hanukka, and right after that on Christmas," he recalls.

But not all was tolerance and co-existence here after the attack.

"Later, after the bombing, there were a few Arab youths, about 20 years old, who were standing on the roofs, and they were clapping and laughing," says Marina. "I went to light a candle that night, and there were some young Arabs standing outside their doors, looking at us and laughing. A car drove by and the kids inside turned up the music full volume. You can't blame all Arabs because of what a few young people did, but I was disgusted."

Says Suleimany: "If I or any of my friends had known what these guys were going to do, believe me, we would have stopped them."

On the steep, crumbling streets of Halisa, the Islamic Movement's "Al Aksa is in danger" posters are pasted up. As throughout the Israeli Arab community, there has been a "return to religion" movement among young Muslims, and it leads almost inevitably to anti-Israeli hostility. But the movement has been limited in Halisa, even though the Arabs here are generally poor, and the majority are Muslims - unlike in the rest of Haifa, where most Arabs are Christian.

"Some of the Muslims who pray at the mosque at the top of the hill have returned to religion, but they keep it to themselves," says Amsalem. "There are no demonstrations here or anything."

Many of Tel Amal's Jews are traditionally observant Sephardim, yet there is no discernible tension between them and the devout Muslims, he continues. Many other Tel Amal Jews are Russian immigrants - 10 were among the dead - yet despite this sector's reputation for anti-Arab animosity, those in Tel Amal seem to get along with the local Arabs, too, Amsalem says.

After the bombing, a group of Jewish demonstrators came "and tried to stir people up against the Arabs," he continues, "but they came from outside, not from this neighborhood."

AT THE top of Halisa's ridiculously steep Rehov Gush Etzion, near the mosque, lives Kamal Yusef, a Muslim who has chaired Halisa's official neighborhood committee for upwards of 20 years. There are six Arabs and one Jew on the panel, he says, which about matches Arab-Jewish proportions in this neighborhood of some 2,300 residents.

Yusef used to chair the parents' committee at the local, all-Arab school.

"We organized two get-togethers with the [Jewish] parents from a Neve Sha'anan school, and they said they wanted to do it again," he notes.

Before that, Yusef managed the Hapoel Halisa soccer club. "I had eight Jewish players on the squad from all over the city, and they were never in a rush to go home after practice. They felt like kids from the neighborhood," he says.

Serving Arabic coffee in his living room, Yusuf paints an idyllic picture of Jewish-Arab relations in Halisa today. "We joke and drink coffee in each other's homes. When we [Arabs] have a street celebration for a wedding, the Jews join in. In one apartment building there are 17 Arab tenants and one Russian family. I ask the Russian woman in Russian, 'Kagdala?' ('How are you getting along?') - and she tells me, 'Hamsho' ('Very well')," he says.

"There's an Ethiopian family living here," Yusuf continues, "and I went there with an Ethiopian woman to translate into Amharic, and told them if they ever had a problem, to call me anytime, day or night."

When the Israeli Arab riots broke out in October 2000, the Arabs in Halisa demonstrated, too, but they were peaceful, Yusuf says. "I urged the police to stay out of the neighborhood, and they did," he notes.

Yet Yusuf didn't always have such glowing reports about life under Jewish rule. A pensioner at 66, and a member of the Labor Party central committee, Yusuf says he had to fight anti-Arab prejudice to work his way up to foreman at a local optics company, and that he quit the job not long after the Six Day War when it reached the point that one of the workers told him, "I'm not going to take orders from an Arab. Why don't you go work for Nasser?"

His own history, and the history of Halisa, was largely determined by wars won by Israel. The major influx of Arabs to the neighborhood came after the Six Day War, when Arabs who had lived near an army camp near the waterfront fled up the hill in fear, he says.

"Some lived in caves, some lived in the mosque," Yusuf notes. Later these Arabs moved into old "key money" apartments sold by Jews who, he says, "had the opportunity to move out and better their circumstances."

THE CURRENT good relations in Tel Amal-Halisa are typical of those in Haifa as a whole, but before 1948, the city was anything but a beacon of ethnic mutual respect. In the bloody Arab disturbances of 1936-39, Arab and Jewish fighting organizations traded horrific terror attacks against civilians. When the Hagana conquered the city in 1948, 70,000 Arab residents fled, leaving only a few thousand behind.

Still, if Haifa isn't the model of coexistence it represents itself to be, compared to the rest of the country, and to Israel's other mixed Jewish-Arab cities - Acre, Ramle, Lod and Tel Aviv-Jaffa - it probably is.

When the Israeli Arab riots broke out in October 2000, Arabs in the Wadi Nisnas area of Haifa gathered and threw rocks at police for a couple of hours, recalls Dr. Moti Peri, director of the city's Beit Hagefen Arab-Jewish cultural center, whose activities focus on Wadi Nisnas.

Amram Mitzna, the city's liberal mayor, stood between the police and the Arabs. Police arrested three or four rock-throwers. In a week of rioting in which police killed 13 Israeli Arabs, Haifa accounted for two hours of very mild disturbances.

"The shops and restaurants in Wadi Nisnas are frequented almost solely by Jews on Fridays and Saturdays," Peri notes, "and for a week after the October riots ended, the Jews stayed out. But a week later, in the middle of October, they started coming back. In Acre, Ramle, Lod and Jaffa, things didn't start getting back to normal until February."

Asked about tensions at Haifa University, where the administration has banned political demonstrations this year for fear of aggravating Jewish-Arab tensions, Peri points out that the university draws Arab students from across the country, especially the Galilee, where Arabs have grown more bitter and militant over the last year. The charged political atmosphere at the university is not a reflection of ethnic relations in Haifa, he maintains.

Peri attributes Haifa's interethnic calm mainly to economics.

"The Arab residents here, on the whole, are on a relatively high socioeconomic level. There are hundreds of Arab lawyers, doctors, accountants, people at the top of their profession - judges, heads of medical departments in hospitals," he says.

Another reason, he suggests, is religion - or rather the lack of it. The only religion with roots in Haifa is Bahai, which is known for its open-minded ecumenism. Otherwise, Peri says, Haifa is lucky to be able to say, "Muhammad was never here, Jesus was never here, and Moses was never here."

He offers an observation and a prediction that are heard frequently in Tel Amal-Halisa: "This terror attack has not changed the way Jews and Arabs live together around here - and it's not going to."


©Copyright 2001, Jerusalem Post

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