Acre Affairs: A microcosm called Acre

Poverty and Jewish-to-Arab population ratios underlie the eruption of riots on Yom Kippur.

By DAN IZENBERG
October 23, 2008 22:05
4 minute read.
Acre Affairs: A microcosm called Acre

acre riot on the ground 224 88. (photo credit: AP [file])

 
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After spending most of the High Holidays keeping the peace in Acre, hundreds of policemen returned to their routine assignments in other parts of the country, leaving the divided and embittered city to its own devices. In a country as eventful as this, where one crisis follows another at dizzying speed, the city of some 55,000 inhabitants is bound to be forgotten, unless - or until - there is another eruption of violence. But if there is one lasting result of the four traumatic days that began on the night of Yom Kippur, it should be the end of the myth created by propagandists and image-makers that Acre is a model of Jewish-Arab coexistence. That is not to say that Jews and Arabs do not live together with some degree of success. The city functions. And unlike Jerusalem, here Jews and Arabs own stores side-by-side, shop on the same streets and in each other's stores and eat at the same shawarma and felafel stands. Jews and Arabs also live side-by-side in the area north of the old city, although many of the run-down apartment buildings are today predominantly inhabited by Arabs. Over the years, the Arab community of Acre has burst the seams of the old city and spread northward. On the other hand, many Jews have left the city because of the endemic poverty and lack of good social and educational services. Indeed, poverty is an obvious and concrete problem in Acre, where unemployment levels are high and income levels low. It is not surprising that the violence on the night of Yom Kippur erupted in the housing project in and around Alkalai St. The project, which contains hundreds of apartments, is poor, almost entirely Jewish and famous for being virulently anti-Arab. For Jamal Taufik to drive his car into this hostile neighborhood on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar was stupid, if nothing else. One day after the riots ended, a group of high school youths - who identified themselves as "the boys of 8 Alkalai St" - told The Jerusalem Post they were happy to hear that the Arab families living across the street had been forced to leave. "We never had any relations at all with them," said one 17-year-old. "It's not good for them with us, and it's not good for us with them. There was never coexistence in this neighborhood." The Arabs from the old city and its environs who marched on the project that night also come from poor and overcrowded homes. Once the match was lit, they took their private frustrations and resentment out on the Jews, just as the Jews of Alkalai and similar streets took out theirs on the Arabs. BUT THIS kind of mainly delinquent violence along religious and national lines is only one aspect of the problem. The other goes to the very heart of the tensions and mistrust between Arab and Jew, not just in Acre, but throughout the country. Acre is just a more acute version of a national problem. Many Jews fear that Acre is being taken over by the Arabs, and that the city is losing its Jewish character. They see the Arab population steadily growing, while the Jewish population dwindles. Government and local Jewish leaders have tried to fight this phenomenon by encouraging Jews, including thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, to move to the city. Over the past decade, ardent representatives of the national-religious movement, led by former West Bank settlers, have also moved to the city to strengthen its Jewish character. A hesder yeshiva has been established for the same purpose. In the same spirit, Acre mayor Shimon Lancri made it clear earlier this week that he regards the rioting as an effort by the Arab community to dislodge the Jews. "We are here on a mission," he told Jewish residents at a Simhat Torah celebration. "Acre was ours and will be ours forever. Acre will continue to march foreword, in spite of our enemies and those who hate us. No one has the strength to remove us from Acre, nor Acre from us. It is ours. We will safeguard the city, because it is dear to the people of Israel." Such statements instill fear in the Arab population, whose point of reference is the War of Independence in 1948, when almost the entire indigenous population of Arab Acre fled. Ninety-five percent of its current occupants are internal refugees - those who fled their homes but remained in Israel. In a recent report on the riots, grass roots Arab leaders published a statement by the head of the hesder yeshiva, Rabbi Yossi Stern, to prove their fears were justified. "Co-existence is a slogan," wrote Stern. "After all, Acre is a city like Ra'anana, Kfar Saba and Haifa, which must preserve its Jewish identity. We are here to safeguard the Jewish identity and strengthen the spirit and to pass the national test with dignity." For the Arab mainstream in Acre, statements like those of Lancri and Stern stoke the fires of their certainty that the Jews intend to drive them out as they allegedly did 60 years ago.

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