Acre: A model of Israeli coexistence struggles after racial riots
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Acre: A model of Israeli coexistence struggles after racial riots

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 The streets of the northern coastal town of Acre are already buzzing by 7:30 a.m. In front of Ofer’s coffee shop, five plastic tables are set with shots of espresso in small angled glasses, steaming cups of Turkish coffee and lattes, filled high and frothed with milk.But around the tables of the store, which has existed for the last 30 years, is a sight rarely witnessed in the State of Israel: Jews, Muslims and Christians are sitting side by side.

At one table, an Arab grandpa mocks a toothless, white-haired Jewish man. At another one, two neighbors sit contemplating the security situation. They call each other “brother” and “friend.”

An older, homeless woman sits quietly at the far end of the gathering, her hand slightly cupped, waiting for her first shekel.

“The fabric of life that we have created in Acre is unique,” Mayor Shimon Lancry tells The Jerusalem Post at his municipality office. “The rabbis and the sheikhs of the city have created special and important partnerships here. That is why Acre has flourished like nowhere else, with guesthouses, hotels, tourism, restaurants and a cultural scene that puts Acre on the top of the list.”

Coexistence is not just a slogan but a way of life, he said. The residents and its leadership have been working on it for years, and in front of Ofer’s coffee shop one can see the results.

“The best way to describe Acre is like Jerusalem, but without all the stress and conflict, and set on water,” said Jerusalem-based tour guide Kobi Cooper.

However, last week, three awful days of violence traumatized the city. A series of Arab riots left city icons smashed and burned. Lynches sent Jewish residents to hospitals, including Elad Barzilai, a 37-year-old teacher who remains in serious condition at The Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya. A father of four, he was beaten with rocks and metal rods, ultimately sustaining life-threatening head injuries.

“I was scared,” Yehuda Azulay, one of Ofer’s patrons, said on Wednesday morning. “They had murder in their eyes. They wanted to do lynches.”

But Azulay, who has worked in the city’s employment office for more than 30 years, said he will not accept that this is Acre’s new reality. He blamed the youth and said he is “embarrassed by our children.”

“Something ignited the young people, and it is too bad we did not stop them in time,” he continued. “What happened was not something that was supposed to happen.”

An older Arab man who was sitting 10 meters away nodded his head in agreement.

“The younger generation has no self-respect,” Muhammad (name changed) told the Post. “They are bored, out of work, no sports – so they waste their time. All this technology, social media brings in Satan from the outside.”

THIS IS not the first time that riots have erupted in Acre.

In 2008, five days of violence spread across the city after an Arab drove into a mainly Jewish neighborhood on Yom Kippur and was attacked by residents who felt he was purposely disrespecting the holy Jewish day.

When mosque loudspeakers spread word of what was happening, Arabs took to the streets, vandalizing property. Jews later set fire to two Arab homes and damaged several others.

But residents said that this time was different.

“Even the people who started this did not think it would blow up this way – not the extremists, not the government, no one could have thought things would get to this place,” said Chamudi Bargut, 32, who grew up in the city and owns two popular restaurants there – one of which was damaged during the recent riots. “One match and all this fire, like it was festering there, underneath.”

He believes the flames of violence were fanned by the state, specifically Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Bargut said that the prime minister’s government knew that the situations in Sheikh Jarrah and on the Temple Mount were volatile and was hoping for an eruption to help keep Netanyahu in power.

“The government caused this to start,” he contended, but said sadly that even Israel’s leadership could not have thought that the situation would spiral downward so quickly and extremely. “They did not think it would all explode in their faces. That’s why they did not increase police presence in the mixed cities.

“I don’t know if [Netanyahu] will think twice about what he did,” Bargut contended. “I don’t think it would bother him if it happened again.”

Bargut spoke from a quaint and colorful garden belonging to his downstairs Jewish neighbor, Eytan George Hurwitz, who moved to the city from Tel Aviv 10 years ago. Hurwitz, too, blamed Netanyahu’s 12 years of racist policies for the escalation.

“He decided how [the public should] connect with the Arabs,” Hurwitz said.

“But if the public wanted something different, they would have chosen it. Out of fear, they elect Bibi every time,” another neighbor, Evan Fallenberg, retorted.

Fallenberg’s Arabesque Hotel Acre was destroyed in the violence.

“I owned a hotel once. Like Monopoly, only better; real people came to stay. They told stories, we told stories, everyone listened to everyone,” Fallenberg wrote in a May 14 Facebook post of the tiny boutique hotel and artists’ residency he and his son had created in Acre. “Micha and I are Jewish; all our neighbors are Arabs – mostly Muslim, with some Christian descendants from the city’s Crusader past. That mattered, certainly, in a country obsessed with tribal boundaries and religious identifications. But our experience was one of welcome and warmth. We became part of the fabric of the city.”

He said he did not wish to envision the frenzy as his hotel was destroyed.

“I prefer, instead, to remember what has been lost: laundry day, when the dining table and the piano stood full of linens to be sorted and we talked and laughed as we worked; the pleased astonishment of first-time visitors as they encountered our oasis after meandering through the narrow stone alleyways of our town; the scent of hibiscus flowers cooking on the stove for the next morning’s breakfast juice; the bells from St. George and the muezzin call from the Al-Jazzar Mosque, occasionally at once; the daily encounter with Abu Saleh, the oldest man in the Old City, on his daily walks to feed bread to the pigeons on the seaside promenade.”

THE CITY of Acre is rooted deep in Jewish faith, tour guide Cooper told the Post.

An ancient midrash describes how the seas of the Mediterranean flooded the world, but when they reached the shore of Acre they stopped. The midrash is based on a passage in the Book of Job (38:11): “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further: and here shall thy proud waves be stayed?” God said. Hitherto in Hebrew is “ad po,” which became “ad ko,” and hence Acre (sometimes spelled Akko).

Many great sages, including the grandson of Hillel the Elder, Rabban Gamaliel, lived in the Old City. Visitors today flock to the Ramhal Synagogue where the famous 18th-century Italian kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzatto prayed. They also visit the Jariva Tunisian Synagogue, whose four floors are masked in mosaics that depict the history of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel from the Bible until today.

There is also the Rambam Wharf, the site where Maimonides landed when he came to Israel. Cooper said it is popular to take boat rides in the harbor there.

At the same time, Acre is home to the Al-Jazzar Mosque, also known as the Pasha’s Mosque.

“Built in the late 18th-century, it is the holiest mosque for Muslims in Israel besides al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount,” Cooper explained. “The mosque claims to have a lock of hair from the bead of the Prophet Muhammad.”

Finally, Acre is where Bahá’u’lláh, the prophet who founded the Baha’i religion, lived and is buried. Tradition has it that he wrote “the Most Holy Book” in the city.

Acre is built on the remains of a Crusader town dating from 1104 to 1291, which visitors can see mostly intact above and below today’s street level. The population of around 60,000 people is roughly 30% Arab and 70% Jewish.

IN RECENT years, more Orthodox Jews have moved into the city, as Lancry has made efforts to gentrify it. In 2012, the city’s Deputy Mayor Adham Jamal, an Arab, told the Associated Press that these Jews threatened to disrupt Acre’s equilibrium.

The newcomers “don’t understand the mentality of Jews and Arabs living together,” he told AP. “Those coming now aren’t coming to live in Acre. They’ve come to kick out Arabs.”

But on Wednesday, Lancry, who has been in office since 2003, said he does not agree.

“God has blessed this city,” he told the Post, explaining how money has poured into Acre for renovations from philanthropists, nonprofits, the government and more. He said the municipality has invested in education, employment, social and sporting activities and cultural events that all residents participate in together.

“That is why the violence hurts so much,” he said. “It harmed what is most important to us – living together.”

According to Lancry, those who were part of the recent mobs were mostly people bussed into the city from the outside or criminals who wanted to stir things up.

“This was economic terrorism,” he said. “Sheikh Jarrah, al-Aqsa Mosque, the settlements, Gaza – the smoke was already in the sky. We thought it wouldn’t happen here, but people came from the outside and lit the match. When the fire started burning, it was easy to take part. And those who didn’t want to could not stand up to it. They got scared.”

He claimed that only 200 residents were involved in the angry mobs, and that “99% of residents want nothing to do with it.”

According to Prof. Alexander Bligh, a former adviser to the prime minister for Arab affairs (1987-1992), Israeli-Arab political leaders have moved from “illegitimate in the eyes of the Zionist majority” to “full and legitimate partners in any possible coalition.”

However, alongside the development of mainstream Arab leadership that is based on coexistence, the country is seeing the beginnings of a new, spontaneous leadership – a small minority that uses violence to promote its interests.

“Hamas is interested in making sure that no Arab would participate in the formation of the new coalition government,” Bligh contended. “They are interested in domestic violence to help them destabilize Israel during the time that Israel and Hamas are exchanging fire. So, we see a meeting of interests between this small, violent Arab minority in Israel and Hamas.”

BARGUT, HOWEVER, believes that the situation goes much deeper than that. While he and his colleagues and friends have not chosen violence, he said that the country has been neglecting the Arab minority for generations. He said the government has not invested in a single new Arab city, and that there are major gaps between the education systems – the government spends around 25% less on Arab schoolchildren than on Jewish ones, according to some reports – which put Arab students at a disadvantage.

Only 44% of Arabs feel part of the State of Israel and its problems, compared to 85% of Jews, according to the 2020 Israel Democracy Index, published by the Israel Democracy Institute.

Moreover, Bargut noted that in most parts of Israel, Arab and Jewish kids don’t even meet each other or speak the same language.

“The first day an Arab kid will speak Hebrew will be at university. There is a big distance between the communities,” he said. “If you want coexistence, let’s start with equality.”

He said the solution to the violence is not more police or security personnel, but listening to each other and changing.

“In order to restore confidence between us will take more than a single pinpoint event,” President Reuven Rivlin said last Friday during a visit to Acre. “Condemnations will not be enough. It will require deep and comprehensive work, which many of us are already part of in education, public information, enforcement, investing resources and narrowing the gaps between us.”

GALILEE MEDICAL Center nurse Fadi Kasem saved the life of Mor Janashvili, who was in Acre last Wednesday to visit his mother when dozens of angry Arabs tried to lynch him with stones, sticks and knives. Even after he got out of his car and tried to run away, they continued to attack him.

“I arrived at the scene together with a sheikh from Acre and several other residents from the Arab sector in order to calm the winds,” Kasem, 28, explained. “Immediately, I saw Mor lying on the ground. The only thing I could think of was how to save him. It didn’t occur to me if he was Jewish or Arab.”

Kasem shielded Janashvili with his own body while he bandaged his wounds. Then, he offered support to Janashvili’s mother, who had fainted at the sight of her injured son.

“I promised her that I would take care of him,” Kasem, who had Janashvili transferred to the Galilee Medical Center, said.

A few days later, Kasem visited the young man in his hospital bed and the two embraced. But then Janashvili told his new friend that he was unlikely to go back to Acre in the near future.

“Don’t talk like that,” Kasem said. “Even in 2008, when there were severe riots in Acre, people did not believe coexistence would return, and here everything is back to normal. Overall, most Acre residents are good people, sane people who advocate coexistence.

“We will stay in touch and I will take you to eat hummus in Old Acre,” he continued. “We are like a family. My home is your home.”

THIS IS the outlook that the residents will need to restore what has been lost, they say.

Hurwitz did not leave his house for a week. But on Wednesday morning, he started talking to Bargut about holding an art workshop outside his restaurant.

Fallenberg said that the first days after the vandalism he felt like he was sitting shiva, mourning the loss of his hotel but also the peaceful coexistence that was Acre.

“I thought about leaving,” he told the Post, but said that he realized that running away was not the solution.

“It is not yet clear whether the people in this sad, beautiful, ravaged land can ever learn to respect the differences and distinctions between us and use them for an enhanced joint future, whether the wrongs committed by all parties can be righted,” Fallenberg wrote on Facebook. “Only this, I know for certain: the friendships I have made in Acre are real and unassailable.”

Lancry expressed similar sentiments. “We went through something horrendous,” he said, “but this is something that we can beat together.”

At Ofer’s coffee shop Muhammad stirs his cup. He looks up toward the horizon, and then to his Jewish friends on his left and right.

“Enough with the wars,” he sighed. “I am for peace between the nations.”

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