High in the Hills

It is not surprising that the wave of racism first surfaced in Safed that became multicultural against its own will - like much of Israel.

safed (photo credit: eetta prince-gibson)
(photo credit: eetta prince-gibson)
ALL OF THE CONFLICTS IN THE SMALL, mystical Galilee town of Safed converge into Defenders’ Square, a small courtyard located in the Old Quarter and named for the city’s defenders in the 1948 War of Independence.
Over the past few decades, this ancient city, the center of Kabbalistic thought in the 16th century, has seen an influx of ultra-Orthodox groups, mixing uncomfortably with mostly American New-Age Hasidim, modern- Orthodox professionals, immigrants from the Former Soviet Union and from Ethiopia, and a handful of veteran, secular residents.
More recently, Safed, with its population of 35,000, became the epicenter of a storm of racism that swept across Israel. In early December, Shmuel Eliyahu, the chief rabbi of Safed, issued a religious ruling prohibiting Jews from renting or selling property to Arabs. Several hundred rabbis have since expressed support in various petitions, letters, edicts and proclamations, setting off demonstrations throughout the country. In Safed, the proclamation loosed local violence against Arabs living in the city; several were lightly wounded and several Jewish youths were arrested.
Through the arched gateways that bracket Defenders’ Square, there are views of the beautiful, soft Galilee hills. The area is enveloped in that special light of Safed that reflects off the old walls and cobblestones.
But the square itself is dirty and neglected, filled with rubbish and debris.
To the right is a small coffee shop, serving excellent cappuccino and playing Shlomo Carlebach Hasidic tunes. Limor, 26, a newly religious mother of her first child (“God-willing, I will have many, many more”), dressed in the layered chic that is now so popular among young observant women, her hair wrapped, turban-like, in multi-colored scarves, pours the coffee and, somewhat reluctantly, agrees to talk about the confrontations in the city.
“There are lots of Arabs living here,” Limor explains. “Most of them come from villages in the area and they go to college here. So they want to rent apartments in our city.” She points up the hill, where the main building of the Safed Academic College, a branch of Bar-Ilan University, looks down on the square. “I don’t have anything against them, but the rabbi is right. Jews and Arabs simply don’t belong together. That’s just the way it is. This is a Jewish country and Safed is a Jewish city. I came to live here because I want to live in a holy city.”
A man dressed in the loose white pants, collarless shirt and large knitted white kippah embroidered with the “Na-Nah-Nahman” slogan that identifies him as a member of the New-Agey Breslaver group of Hasidim, stands on the other side of the courtyard, talking with a group of other young men, similarly dressed and hanging out at the shwarma bar, which is decorated with pictures of revered rabbis. He saunters over and, somewhat aggressively, demands, “What do you want to know? I’ll tell you about the situation here. If an Arab man sees a Jewish girl, he just can’t help himself. And Arabs steal. That’s who they are. So, of course, the rabbi is right. We can’t let them live here because we have to protect our women and our property. If we let them into the city, they’ll be the majority and then what will happen to us?”
Seated nearby, Shmuel, who refuses to give his full name but says he is 39 and a lawyer, shakes his head in disgust. “I am ashamed that I live in the same city as these people,” he growls. “Who cares if you rent to an Arab or a Jew? What’s the big deal? These ultra-Orthodox people are primitive racists. They’re destroying our city.”
Oblivious to the discussions, a group of tourists sits in a small restaurant across from the shwarma that serves fresh juice and falafel and is incongruously playing American pop music. “It’s now or never,” Elvis croons, but Elaine, an evangelical Christian from Youngstown, Ohio, is enraptured. “How beautiful this city is!” she exclaims. “How mystical! How close to God!”
OFF TO THE SIDE IS THE OLD STONE complex of rooms and apartments that belongs to Eli Tzvielli. An 89-year-old, Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor, Tzvielli unwittingly became the center of the storm when he rented an apartment to three Arab students.
Dressed in jeans and a Fair Isles knit sweater, Tzvielli has kind, bemused blue eyes, thinning hair and a look that says he’s seen it all and doesn’t scare easily. He’s lived in Safed for some 60 years, more than 40 of them with his beloved wife. “My wife died 12 years ago and I am alone in this big place,” he says, gesturing broadly. “So I rent out. When the apartment became available, I advertised at the college, and three nice young men, who happen to be Arab, took the apartment.”
He never thought, he says, that anyone would care. And he says he doesn’t care that they do.
“I went through the hell of the Holocaust, and I rehabilitated myself and lived with my wife in perfect harmony. Politicians have come and talked to me, trying to convince me to join them in this cause or that. I’m not a political man. I don’t belong to Peace Now – or to peace yesterday or peace tomorrow. I’m a Jew like any other Jew. And I am a man of principles and I have my self-respect. I rented this apartment to very nice tenants, and I won’t go back on my word, no matter what anyone else says or does.”
Since the publication of Eliyahu’s edict, Tzvielli has received threatening phone calls, including even a threat to burn down his house. Pashkavilim (broadsheet placards) have been posted on his door, accusing him of returning the Arabs to Safed – a clear reference to the Arab majority that lived here until 1948, including Mahmoud Abbas, now head of the Palestinian Authority.
“It’s all about ‘goalizations’ – he says, using Israeli slang that combines the words for coalition and disgust. “All the politicians, from the mayor down, only care about keeping their positions, so they don’t stand up for what’s right.”
“Safed is the pearl of the Galilee,” he continues firmly, using a poetic reference to the city. “It could be the gold of the Galilee. Once, we had tourists, artists and mystics, and we all lived together. Instead, these ultra-Orthodox want to turn it into a garbage dump.”
“And as for the rabbi – well, he should change himself before he goes about trying to change the whole world,” he sums up decisively.
But “the rabbi” – Eliyahu – happens to live next door, and says he is unwilling to tolerate the presence of Arabs in his city. In fact, in mid-November, the rabbi himself came over to Tzvielli’s house, uninvited, when Tzvielli wasn’t home, and tried to persuade the students to leave.
“He told us we don’t belong here,” says Daoud (not his real name), the19-year-old diminutively-built nursing student who is one of Tzvielli’s tenants. Tzvielli smiles at him, more like a grandfather than a landlord.
“Mr. Tzvielli said we don’t have to leave. He is a good man and a good landlord. There are many good Jews here in Safed,” he says quietly.
“Some of the Jews have asked us to respect the Sabbath and not have parties or make noise on Friday night and Saturday. That’s fair, and that’s how we should behave. I don’t want to cause any trouble.”
Daoud stops for a moment, then says, more emphatically, “Some of the Jews hassle us. They knock on our doors late at night. They broke my car windows. They insult the Arab girls. But I want to say that we are not guests here. We are citizens, too. I just want to study and get my degree. And that’s my right.”
THE MAIN BUILDING OF THE SAFED ACADEMIC College is located on a busy commercial street that narrows suddenly into gridlock, with almost no parking. The stores nearby seem to cater to the haredim. There are a few coffee shops scattered around, most of them farther down the street.
The college has been here for 28 years, but it’s growing fast. And it specializes in the paramedical professions, which are particularly attractive to middle-class Arab students, because they know that due to the chronic shortage of paramedical personnel, they will at least have a chance of finding a good job when they finish. There are 2,230 students here; about one-quarter of them, according to college officials, are Muslims – which is an oblique way of saying that they are neither Druze nor Circassian and for the most part don’t serve in the IDF. The language of instruction is Hebrew and most of the classes are mixed, Arab and Jew, men and women. A few courses are offered solely to the 150 or so haredi men who attend the college, enabling them to maintain the strict gender separation they demand.
With only 130 spaces in the dorms, most of the Arab students are forced to either travel back and forth to their villages or try to find apartments in the city, an increasing impossibility. In response to Eliyahu’s proclamation, the college spokesman says, the school is trying to find more space in the dorms and to help the students locate apartments.
In the sun-washed college courtyard, most of the students hanging out speak Arabic. The bulletin boards are filled with student-type advertisements, in Hebrew and Arabic, for apartments, secondhand motorcycles and rock concerts. There’s also a bilingual advertisement for a newly forming composting group.
Very few of the women wear headcoverings, but at the appointed noontime hour, a handful of the male students moves into a shaded corner and bow down in prayer, facing towards Mecca. Most continue with the breezy chatter and laughter.
A few young women, their long, layered floral skirts identifying them as members of the national religious camp, walk by. Only one agrees to speak to The Report, and only on condition of anonymity. “I don’t want to see Arabs here,” she says plainly. “They just don’t belong here. This is Safed, one of Judaism’s four holiest cities. And they disrupt our holiness, making noise on Shabbat, talking Arabic.
“And I’m afraid that they will hassle me on the streets,” she adds.
Has she ever been hassled?
“No,” she answers, “but that’s not the point. I am a Torah Jew and I support the rabbi, who says we should never rent or sell property to non-Jews. That’s Jewish law, and if it contradicts secular law, then we must disobey the secular laws. That may sound harsh, but it’s what our Torah tells us. If we do as God wants, it will all work out. When redemption comes, we will understand what God meant for us.”
As she walks out the gate, she ignores a group of Arab girls, chattering together nearby. And they ignore her. “We don’t interact much,” Kholood, a psychology student, says. “But things are OK in the college. On the streets, it’s different. Arab women have been spat on and verbally sexually harassed. If you look like an Arab or wear a head covering, you’re a target.”
THE SITUATION IN SAFED HAS HEATED UP MOST recently, says Mimi Smoocha, 68, a retired expert educator in the field of autism, because of the planned medical school, also an extension of Bar-Ilan University, which is scheduled to open in the 2011-2012 academic year.
Originally from upstate New York, Smoocha came to Israel in the 1950s and to Safed nearly 20 years ago. Sitting in her cozy apartment, surrounded by well-tended flowering houseplants and pictures of children and grandchildren, she says it was different when she first came. “Safed was always special, always religious, but it was comfortable for secular people, too. There was an inspirational synthesis between the religious and the secular, the historical and the present. It was wonderful.”
But now, she says, “I am ashamed that some Jews behave like this, or even think like this. I’m ashamed that I live in a racist city. I don’t know how long I can continue to live here.”
She believes that the medical school will bring in new people, new energy, and demands for higher-level services. “It will force the municipality to care about the way the city looks, and so maybe the tourists will come back to visit and the professionals will come back to live.”
But Nadav Cohen, a member of the Chabad organization in Safed, views the medical school differently. Although he admits that he benefits from tourism – he is involved in an educational institution for American youth – he says he rejects the “progress” that the medical school might bring. “Yes, it will bring a certain development, but our gain may be our loss. We will lose the specialness of the city, the holiness that is Safed. Tourism means that there will be women walking around here dressed immodestly and secular activities on the Sabbath. Sure, Safed needs the money. This city is very poor. But the economy isn’t everything – living according to God’s will is everything.”
And, he adds, “Of course. I support the rabbi’s ruling. It is a religious ruling. We must obey our Torah. That’s all there is to say.”
Mayor Ilan Shochat, 35, says that Safed is a difficult city, suffering from the poverty, cultural mix, unemployment and neglect that most of Israel’s development towns suffer from. But he also says that whatever the haredim think, he has great plans for the city. Safed has hosted a very successful annual Klezmer music festival for years, and he intends to build on this, branding the city as “the City of Jewish Spirituality, Renewal and Mysticism.” He has investors on board already, he says, and will soon begin construction of additional hotel rooms and other public buildings.
And as for secular entertainment, he notes that the quaint, upscale town of Rosh Pina, with its wide variety of restaurants, pubs and clubs, is only a 15 minute ride away.
He carefully dictates a denunciation of the rabbi’s letter. “I am utterly opposed to any form of racism or incitement or violence, he declares. “While it is true that the location of the college causes problems, in terms of transportation as well as sociological difficulties due to the great diversity of sectors, I believe that the college is one of the most important growth engines in our city and I intend to promote and support it. I am very sorry that our wonderful, amazing city has been embroiled in this issue, and I can promise you that the majority of the citizens of Safed are not racist and that the rabbi does not represent their opinions.”
According to Shochat, only 35 percent of the residents of Safed are ultra-Orthodox and they are divided among themselves. Men and women like Smoocha, he says, represent the majority.
But they are a silent, acquiescent majority.
Says Smoocha, “This is a very small city, and we interact in many different ways. For example, many of us belong to an environmental organization that has done very important things in this city. I know that some of the members of this group also support the rabbi; but I would hate to undermine the good work we do because we disagree on something else.”
Lev Aran, the northern fieldworker for social and economic justice for Shatil, an empowerment organization that is part of the New Israel Fund, has tried several times to organize this “majority” to oppose the rabbi’s staements and to push the mayor to be more proactive. Yet he recognizes the difficulties inherent in living in a small, isolated development town, he tells The Report. “In the peripheral areas of Israel, people are very interdependent,” he explains. “They really do not have anyone else. They are isolated and neglected by the establishment, which is located in the center. Safed is a town with high unemployment, poor services and a very heterogeneous population. And it has suffered from terrorist attacks and from the missiles in the Second Lebanon War. Life here feels precarious, and people are wary of taking social risks.”
THIS SMALL CITY SEEMS UNABLE TO CONTAIN ITS different competing visions – whether it will be a historical city with a liberal future or a religious city bound, by its own choice, to darker values and to the past. Sitting in Defenders’ Square, it seems that everyone in Safed is defending something that they need for their sense of safety and survival.
When the rabbi published his letter, pundits clicked their tongues and shook their heads, lamenting the benighted xenophobia that had overtaken this once-beautiful town. But what did we expect would happen to a town like Safed? Would we have cared much if the letter had not spread through the rest of the country? Or would the more complacent center have continued to ignore the periphery, leaving it to its own impoverished devices?
On May 15, 1974, 22 Israeli school children were murdered in a terrorist attack as they camped out in a high school in the northern town of Maalot. Most people in Israel refer to this as the Maalot massacre. But in fact, the children were all from a high school in Safed. And when the rest of the country stopped mourning and moved on, rightwing extremists, such as Rehavam Zeevi, who openly called for the transfer of Arab citizens out of Israel, knew that a socially and economically depressed town that had just suffered another blow would be fertile ground to stir up anti-Arab frenzy. For years, Zeevi, and others like him, attended the annual commemoration ceremonies for the murdered students, while the rest of the country forgot.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe didn’t forget. Following the massacre, he knew that the town would be ripe for the messianic, missionary messages that Chabad provides. And so in 1974, he sent his emissaries to the town. They’ve never left.
Politicians like Zeevi and religious figures like the Lubavitcher Rebbe were right. Economic desperation and social alienation tear away at local pride and communal solidarity, leaving individuals lonely and vulnerable to simplistic messages that cast the blame on someone else. In a town like Safed, it’s easy to spread racism.
Especially when nobody stops them. When Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu first began issuing his anti-Arab edicts, back in 2006, the government took no decisive action. So while the rest of the country ignored them, development towns and inner cities fell prey to that vile combination of harsh religion, anti-elitism, rejection of modernity and the West, ultra-nationalism and popular mysticism peddled by politicians who use it to their advantage.
People who feel that they are barely making it have little use for the liberal post-modern embrace of multiculturalism. In the small towns in the northern and southern peripheries, people who have been neglected by the self-satisfied center have distanced themselves from its tolerant values. People who fear that they have no control over their lives don’t really care much about being politically correct.
Instead, they seek out a homogenous “we” that is safe and nonthreatening. In Safed and Bat Yam, that “we” excludes Arabs. In Hatikva, it excludes workers and asylum seekers.
Safed is not unique in its plight or response. Like much of Israel, it has become a multicultural society against its own will. Nor is Israel unique in this respect: It is always difficult to organize the relations among minorities and the state, and such efforts are often met with outbursts of hatred and xenophobia. To make things better requires great wisdom, deep sensitivity and determined leadership – qualities that are seriously lacking in Israel today.