Approaching Masada Street in Haifa, a small bakery kiosk with “Masada” written in orange and blue graffiti welcomes you. The kiosk offers the usual fare: burekas, chocolate and cheese baked goods, and of course, pita. But on a large plate next to the cashier, the bakery displays a food combination this reporter had never seen before in Israel: halla with za’atar.This unusual fusion symbolizes a lot about Masada Street. It is one of the few places in the country where Jews and Arabs live side by side. This street is the bohemian heart of Hadar Hacarmel, which is one of the country’s most diverse neighborhoods: Jewish Israelis, Arab Israelis, Russian immigrants, students and foreigners all reside here.
Many of the street’s buildings are adorned with graffiti art reminiscent of Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood, and a good number of store names are written in Hebrew, Arabic, English and Russian.The street has an alternative, grassroots vibe. A poster hung on the door of MishMash, a
new vegan café and restaurant, presents an intriguing invitation: “In March, a group was created for men that will engage in a wide range of issues: sexuality, politics, emotions, ecology, and more.”At Café Masada, the street’s signature neighborhood café, one often hears snippets of political, left-wing conversations.One person exclaims, “I’m not an extremist! I’m just.…” Similar to Florentin, many of Hadar’s buildings look ill-kempt, and one can tell that the neighborhood, although colorful, could use a face-lift. Nestled between Arab neighborhoods Wadi Nisnas and Wadi Salib, Hadar has historically been characterized as a Jewish immigrant neighborhood. The peak periods of the neighborhood, created at the beginning of the 20th century, coincide with the largest waves of Jewish immigration: in 1948 when many Holocaust survivors settled in the area, and in the early 1990s when many newcomers from the former Soviet Union were first absorbed there.However, both groups treated Hadar more like a launching pad than an ideal destination. Some Russians have stayed in the area, largely because of economic constraints. Most of the neighborhood’s residents are lower income, and many of the neighborhood’s buildings have suffered from years of neglect.When asked about the city planning department’s strategy for Hadar, a top official (who asked not to be named) says, “The city is in the midst of renovating Yerushalayim and Pevsner streets. That is what the city is investing in Hadar. This construction is the only project specific to Hadar.”Although this is a solid effort, it seems more could be done to improve the neighborhood’s infrastructure so that it can become a desired, long-term place of residence. Instead, the city has focused more attention on bringing young people to the neighborhood. In partnership with the Haifa Municipality, the University of Haifa and the Jewish Agency, a student village – Kfar Hastudentim – was created in Hadar in 2007, shortly after the Second Lebanon War. Students participating in the project move to Hadar and receive a NIS 14,500 scholarship. In exchange, they do community work with Hadar residents, such as facilitating youth groups, community organizing, assisting the elderly population and coexistence projects.Inbal Levy-Leibovits, the director of Kfar Hastudentim, explains that the project’s main goal is to “stimulate a process of urban renewal.” In the long term, she hopes that the students that “have gone through this program will be dedicated to society and the country later on in their lives.” She also hopes “that some of them might choose to manifest this dedication within the neighborhood.”So far, around 200 people have participated in the program, 50 of whom have remained in the neighborhood.Noam Fonia, a 27-year-old Technion student, moved to Hadar a year ago and has been active in the student village.He thinks the neighborhood is “fascinating… There are a lot of groups, communities, activities and good people. I’m always recommending it to other students.”He is involved with a project that helps teenagers in the neighborhood, and he likes it a lot. When asked if he plans to stay in Haifa after he graduates, he says, “Yes, I would like to stay in Hadar if I can. That’s the plan.” But he will need to find work in order to stay in the area.Perhaps he will follow in the footsteps of activists such as 32-year-old Shai Nir, who manages Hadar’s Community Center. Nir moved to Hadar seven years ago from Jaffa. He says he moved from that mixed Arab-Jewish area because “Hadar is more mixed. It’s more like Israeli society: Arabs and Jews, immigrants and veterans, religious and secular.Everyone is here.”At the Elika Art Bar Café, where an Arab artist’s paintings, a Che Guevara poster and Banksy prints line the walls, an amusing cross-cultural interaction is taking place. Two older Americans are sitting with a Jewish Israeli man in his 60s. One of the Americans proudly tells the manager, who is Arab, that they are all attending their first Arabic lesson tonight. The manager smiles, says that’s great, and then continues to talk to his co-worker in Arabic.When asked if there is a feeling of coexistence in Hadar, Fonia reflects, “On Masada Street, you see students, Jews and Arabs all sitting in one place. It’s not exactly a rosy picture; it’s more a feeling of openness.”In fact, whenever this question is asked, the term “coexistence” feels a bit like a dirty word. Var Kevenbrov, the cofounder of MishMash, flatly states, “Yes, there’s coexistence because everyone is living here together.” She then laughs, not knowing what else to say.Nir explains, “We do not live outside Israeli society.”Addressing racist incidents that are reported in the media, he adds, “Of course it influences us. But we deal with this. We work in collaboration. We work together. Of course, we have a lot of work to do.”Waheed Asakli, who manages the Elika Art Bar Café, says that racism in the Arab community has been on the rise: “Life for Arabs is not easy. Racism is increasing all the time; the economic climate is difficult.”When asked if there is a feeling of coexistence at Elika, he simply replies, “For me, it’s not exactly true. I would say that everyone speaks his truth, but I wouldn’t call it coexistence. That’s what we’re trying to do here…Your truth is different from my truth. But if you say, ‘That’s okay’ and it’s not okay, then you’re not being real with me. We want everyone to be real.”It appears that the words “coexistence” and “reality” do not mix.Coexistence perhaps connotes a state of utopia where people live in harmony.Although folks who frequent Masada Street do interact with each other, often forming close bonds, the mere word “coexistence” seems to gloss over the challenges each community faces: discrimination felt within the Arab community, economic hardships and challenges integrating the Russian community.Even though the student village and other social groups work with Russians, their presence can hardly be felt in hip, younger areas such as Masada.Instead of lofty ideals, Asakli hopes that Elika provides a space where “many different kinds of people are more free, true, human and democratic.”Everything is done in the three main languages of its clientele – Hebrew, Arabic and English – so that everyone can be understood. He hopes this open atmosphere – where films and music are played, art and books are discussed, and alternative thinking is constructed – encourages people to create change.Not surprisingly, Masada’s peak hours are in the evening. When choosing what to eat for dinner, one is likely to order street food – hamburgers, empanadas, chorizos, pizza, felafel and the like. Music is playing, people are conversing, but there’s one big thing missing: foot traffic.Masada Street’s multicultural bohemian epicenter is only two blocks long. It is hard to believe this because there is so much activity in these two blocks.While sitting at any café in the area, one could not see a passerby for a span of five minutes. Many of the smaller cafés have only half a dozen customers in an hour.However, the solution to this lack of activity is complex. As Inbal Levy- Leibovits notes, “On the one hand, you want to help the local population living here and bring them up. But on the other hand, you want to re-brand the neighborhood to the outside, and make it attractive to people from different backgrounds.”