More than any community in Israel, the port city of Jaffa has proven itself to be an enduring bastion of coexistence where Arabs, Jews and Christians have peacefully lived, worked and socialized together for decades.
Located adjacent to Tel Aviv, Jaffa has approximately 46,000 residents – including 30,000 Jews and 16,000 Muslims and Christians.
And while it is best known for its picturesque beaches, restaurants, heralded flea market and shops, what is perhaps most notable about this small city is its uncommon camaraderie between otherwise warring factions.
Indeed, in Jaffa, Jews and Arabs frequent the same streets, eat in the same restaurants, drink in the same bars, work in the same stores, know one another’s families, and often greet one another with warm smiles and embraces.
As Soli Zopri, 48, waited patiently near the city’s celebrated clock tower on Tuesday afternoon for his best friend, who is Jewish, a group of teenage Muslim girls wearing pink, blue and black hijabs giggled while walking home from school.
Asked why Jews and Arabs get along so well in Jaffa, Zopri, an affable Muslim businessman born and raised in the area, cited familiarity, apolitical undertones and mutual respect.
“Many of these people were born here and have known each other all their lives,” he said.
“We don’t get involved in politics here, and treat each other with a lot of respect. Arabs and Jews are partners here, and my best friend is a Jew from the States.”
According to Zopri, no distinction is made by the city’s inhabitants based on religion.
“There is no difference between Jews and Arabs here,” he continued. “My neighbor is Jewish and my brother is married to a Jew. We see each other as human beings, not as enemies. The key to getting along here – and everywhere in the world – is respect.”
Einat Yeini, an Orthodox nanny pushing two toddlers in a stroller toward the beach while accompanied by her white Labrador, Che, echoed Zopri’s sentiments. Yeini noted that she works closely with Arab nannies, with whom she has become close friends.
“I work with Muslim, Christian and Jewish people, and we spend eight hours a day together,” she said. “Five or six of them are my closest friends, and we call each other all the time, trade Jewish and Arab recipes, meet for lunch every day at the same place, and celebrate important events in our lives together.”
While Yeini conceded that there are occasional spikes in tension every few years due to larger geopolitical factors, including war, she said such conflicts are usually isolated and quickly dissipate.
“I think Jaffa is the most beautiful city in the whole world because Jews and Muslims know each other, invite each other to our homes, and honor each other’s holidays,” she said.
Naell Hamid, 42, who commutes every day from Beit Hanina in northeastern Jerusalem to work as a chef at a nearby Lebanese restaurant, said none of the dehumanization between Arabs and Jews in the capital appears to exist in the picturesque port city.
“There are no problems here,” he said. “I think everybody here just considers each other humans. We’re not separated in Jaffa like in Jerusalem, where Jews and Arabs barely know each other.”
Hamid added that an unspoken rule to not discuss loaded political topics helps engender the easygoing atmosphere.
“We don’t talk about politics, like in Jerusalem,” he said.
“It’s like a different world here; there is no prejudice on either side. When we’re in Jaffa we’re always talking about how we feel like we’re not in Israel. You feel like you’re somewhere in Europe.”
Samia Chamy, a chef at Café Rogette, who moved to Jaffa from Bethlehem 40 years ago at the age of 19, also said Jaffa and the West Bank are worlds apart.
“I forgot how to live there [in Bethlehem],” she said. “The biggest difference is that Jews and Arabs can live together here. All my children and my husband’s friends and coworkers are Jewish, and they are nice people.”
The secret to coexistence, said Chamy, is that in Jaffa, Jews and Arabs live and work together and avoid political discourse.
“We rely on each other; but if you talk about politics, you will have a problem,” she warned.
“With all my Jewish friends we never talk about politics. We leave that up to the politicians who make all the problems.”
Chamy added that her grandchildren attend the area’s Hand in Hand bilingual school with Jewish classmates.
“They learn to respect each other in kindergarten, and this will last their whole lives,” she said.
Guy, a 30-year-old stock trader who has lived in Jaffa for the past four years, said coexistence is primarily reinforced by economic necessity.
“If the situation becomes more aggressive here, both sides will lose, because we live in an interconnected economic [environment],” he said.
While noting that flare-ups ignite every few years, Guy, who requested his last name not be published, said they are usually quickly contained and extinguished, based on mutual needs.
“When Muslims threw stones at buses here three or four years ago, when there was a lot of tension in Gaza, the Arabs living here told them to stop because it was driving away customers,” he said matter-of-factly.
Meanwhile, Doron Ben Shimon, an Israeli tour guide who has lived next to Arab neighbors in Jaffa’s Flea Market for over five years, said the absence of religious and political extremists is the key to the city’s ongoing harmony.
“We don’t let extremists on either side interfere or increase conflict,” he said. “People here just want to enjoy their lives. I wish it was like this everywhere in Israel and the world.”
Ultimately, Ben Shimon said, Jaffa’s secret to coexistence can be distilled into four simple words.
“Live and let live,” he said.