Keep dreaming: Damn everything but the circus

A Haifa festival asks how different peoples can be true to their origins and disparate narratives and yet live harmoniously side by side.

Christmas tree 311 (photo credit: Creative commons)
Christmas tree 311
(photo credit: Creative commons)
I didn’t miss the Christmas windows after all. It’s not exactly Fifth Avenue, but Wadi Nisnas has a charm all its own. An Arab-Jewish neighborhood in Haifa, it plays host to the city’s Festival of Festivals throughout December, celebrating the traditions of Christmas, Hanukah and (belatedly) Ramadan in an unequivocal salute to the virtues of co-existence. Along the predominantly Christian main thoroughfare, Santa Claus predominates, interspersed with humus joints and Arab bakeries touting typical Middle Eastern sweets.
Spending the weekend in this capital of the north, my wife and I made our way to the festivities by descending the 1400 steps built into the 19 terraces of the Baha’i Gardens, a breathtaking specimen of landscape architecture that is also home to this faith’s most sacred shrines. We were guided on our walk by a Catholic Arab from Nazareth who enlightened us along the way regarding the origins and tenets of the Bahai.
This youngest of the world’s religions was founded in Iran by Siyyid Ali Muhammad, who in 1844 at the age of 25 pronounced himself a Divine prophet and began preaching a doctrine extolling the unity of God, the unity of religion and the unity of humanity. He believed in the absolute equality of all people, regardless of gender, race, or nationality and enjoined his followers to work towards bringing about world peace. He was rewarded for his efforts by being executed on order of the Shah for the crime of heresy.
By the time we emerged from the gardens, we were well prepped for embracing the message of brotherly and sisterly love hyped by the events taking place in the streets below. We began our tour in Beit HaGefen, visiting the exhibition “Faithful to the Source” that opened the festivities. This unique community center was established in 1963 (before the Six Day War!) by then-mayor Abba Khoushy “for the purpose of bringing together Arabs and Jews and educating towards coexistence, neighborliness and tolerance by means of cultural and artistic activities, festivals, meetings and community activity.” Its premise has been summed up by reference to the proclamation of John Dewey, that "Every person has an equal right to be different." Rather than suggesting that we are all the same, the philosophy of the institution is that we are all distinct, but that our diversity need be celebrated in a mosaic of cooperation rather than challenged on a battlefield of conflict.
“Faithful to the Source” promotes this notion. Through a variety of art forms, it raises questions as to how we can be true to our various origins and disparate narratives and still live together, what it is that we choose to preserve even as we continue to evolve, and how we might go about maintaining our personal and collective identities, memories and values in a dynamic, multi-cultural public domain.
THOSE WHO would dismiss this attempt to face such questions as being the purview of bleeding–heart liberals would be wellreminded that we proudly proclaim to the world that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. What can that possibly mean if we don’t take the efforts of Beit Hagefen seriously? By chance, on the day we visited the gallery, the need for such introspection was driven home on the pages of this paper by Jay Bushinsky (Jews and Arabs living side by side, December 9). “Democracies are judged by the status of their ethnic, religious, and racial minorities and by their efforts to assure them genuine equality,” he wrote, and then went on to hold up a mirror for all of us to gaze into as an exercise in self-evaluation.
Whereas Arabs constitute some 20% of Israel’s population, he noted, they account for only 2% of government ministry employees, except in the Interior Ministry where their numbers reach 6%. He then went on to give examples of prejudice, discrimination and unequal opportunity in areas of housing, employment, schooling, and social integration. With all the blame we can ascribe to the ongoing conflict with our neighbors for this being the case, the bitter reality, as Bushinsky observes, is that after 2000 years of suffering in exile, we have fallen far short of our own expectation of what a sovereign Israel might have become: an example to the rest of the world as to how to treat the minorities in one’s midst.
Rambling along with the mixed throngs of merry-makers past open art galleries, musical performances and cultural exhibitions in Wadi Nisnas, we were given a glimpse of how things might be different. We were particularly taken by an outdoor circus performance being enjoyed by an audience of Arab and Jewish children sitting side by side, enchanted by a common language of anticipation, fantasy, wonder and delight. The spectacle transported me back to my college dorm room where long ago I had adorned one of the walls with a line from a poem by e.e. cummings: “damn everything but the circus.” I put it up at the time as a warning not to take anything too seriously, but in fact, the poem itself is serious.
damn everything /that is grim, dead, motionless, / unrisking / inward turning. / damn everything / that won’t get into the circle, / that won’t enjoy, / that won’t throw its heart / into the tension / surprise / fear / and delight of the circus, / the round world, / the full existence.
In this center ring of this Middle East circus we call home, we must all learn to embrace the “tension, surprise, fear and delight” that is part of “the full existence” of Israel, one relationship at a time. In the spirit of gleaning inspiration from the traditions of others, even as we remain “faithful to the source,” a final thought from the Bahai’s Abdu’l-Bahá: “Peace must first be established among individuals, until it leadeth in the end to peace among nations… Strive ye with all your might to create, through the power of the Word of God, genuine love, spiritual communion and durable bonds among individuals.
This is your task.”
I didn’t leave Haifa believing this little display of harmony in Wadi Nisnas was about to resolve all our problems, but I did leave having seen enough people caring about such things - and doing something about them - to allow me to keep dreaming.
Seasons greetings to one and all.
The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of The Jewish Agency executive. The opinions expressed herein are his own.