Spirited away?

While some residents still maintain that Safed is a model of coexistence, Arab students feel increasingly uncomfortable there.

 Safed 521 (photo credit: Ariel Zilber)
Safed 521
(photo credit: Ariel Zilber)
‘The Jews here are racist. They hate the Arabs.” Fathie Hasson is a 23-year-old sociology student from the Galilee village of Deir el-Asad. On the days he has classes, he commutes 30 minutes each way to the Safed Academic College. For Hasson and his fellow Arabs, however, the city’s pastoral charm and idyllic setting belie the hostile environment he says has been created by the local residents.
“People came into an apartment [inhabited by Arabs], turned over all the furniture, and threw them out of the apartment,” he says. “They were also beaten.”
Hasson was referring to the forced eviction last month of four Druse college students from their apartment after their haredi landlord received threats from neighbors. The story was the latest in a series of events that have made national headlines. He said that while he rarely encounters racism in class, he knows of Arabs who have been violently accosted by religious Jews.
“I don’t feel comfortable here,” he says. “I’m afraid that [gangs of religious Jews] will come and beat me.”
He says he fears walking the streets by himself.
“There’s nowhere to run.”
When asked if he would ever consider moving here, he doesn’t hesitate.
“God forbid,” Hasson says. “I wouldn’t want to live among the religious here. It’s better that I stay in my village. There’s no racism there. But to live here is not recommended [for Arabs].” Even before the well-publicized case of the evicted Druse students, the city had gained notoriety in the past year or so after numerous incidents and controversies involving suspected Jewish attacks against Arabs. In October 2010, an Arabic-language news website reported that a group of haredi youths hurled stones through the windows of the college dorm rooms in which Arab students were living.
Two months later, the city’s chief rabbi, Shmuel Eliyahu, was one of 18 clerics who signed a religious edict that forbade Jewish landlords from renting property to Arab tenants. The letter prompted police to launch a criminal investigation against Eliyahu for incitement.
Weeks before the Druse students were evicted, “Death to the Jews” was spray-painted on four synagogues in Safed, an attack that authorities believe was in retaliation for the torching of a mosque in the Beduin village of Tuba Zanghariya.
Safed’s religious texture has not only been felt by the Arab student population – which comprises 70 percent of the college’s student body – that commutes into town for their studies, but also by liberal, secular Jews who say they have not been well received by the locals due to their lifestyle.
“I certainly feel oppressed and there is sexism in this city solely due to the fact that this city is being run by religion,” says Gal Shargill, a 27-year-old student from Rosh Pina who is pursuing a master’s degree in gender studies at the academic college. “If this is what I feel here, and I’m a Jewish woman, I’m certain that the Arabs here feel the same thing from the standpoint of racism.”
Shargill, a liberal, secular young woman who has a bachelor’s degree in law, is disturbed by the growing influence of the religious in Safed. She says that she personally has been prevented from entering a local supermarket after the store owner deemed her dress – “a tank top that I was wearing in the summer” – too immodest.
“I could sense [the sexism] simply by the way men look at me here,” she says. “If I’m walking down the sidewalk, men will cross over to the other side just to avoid me just in case, God forbid, they bump into me. There are also no signs or billboards with women on them. Nothing.”
Some Safed residents, particularly religious Jews, were hesitant to speak to the news media, which they deem hostile and reflexively “anti-Israel.” They say that the press has created a one-sided impression that the Arabs are blameless victims while ignoring incidents in which some local college students have assaulted Jews, vandalized shops and harassed young girls.
One woman who chose not to be identified does not deny that there was hostility toward Arabs, though she adds that it was “understandable” given acts of violence committed against Jews. She said that the main concern among the Jewish community was the “threat” of Arab males making contact with young Jewish girls. Two Jewish girls from North America who are now studying at a local religious seminary near the Old City say that they were accosted by Arab men who threatened to kill them unless they “went back to America.”
“I’m not saying that people need to act violently, God forbid,” says A., a female Jewish student at the college who denies that there is racism in Safed. “That is not my way. Nor do I think that rabbinical edicts [against renting out apartments to Arabs] is the way. But each side needs to be aware of their boundaries. Just like a Jewish man would never even contemplate, God forbid, to give off romantic or sexual hints to Arab women, so I believe that it should be vice versa.”
A. says that the Arabs are not blameless, and that incidents have been reported by Jews who feel that their minority neighbors often show insensitivity toward their needs.
“[The Arabs] often do davka [instigating actions that are deemed provocative by the other side] by having barbecues and singing songs on Shabbat,” she says.
“Here, Safed is defending itself.”
SOME LOCAL Jews are indignant at the portrayal of their city as a teeming hotbed of anti-Arab bigotry. Miriam, a housewife and mother of three who immigrated to Israel from her native New Jersey, has been living in Safed for over 30 years. Although she acknowledges that “there isn’t a high opinion of Arabs,” she bristles at the suggestion that the local residents take their cues from politicians and rabbis.
“I believe there is true coexistence in Safed,” she says. “Being that Safed is one of the four holy cities, there is something in the atmosphere here, a tolerance that can also be found in the other three cities [of Jerusalem, Tiberias and Hebron]. We found there’s a real open-mindedness and a love of all people. I’m not going to say that the latest political developments haven’t caused tension among certain groups, but that’s been reflected throughout the country. So in terms of just the daily interactions and acceptance, I think anybody would say that everyone is very respectful and very respected.
“Anybody who wants to come to Safed to check it out [and to see the city] spiritually and socially is welcome to do so.”
While the city is welcoming of its minorities, Miriam says that local residents draw the line at allowing interaction between Arab males and Jewish females, for fear of intermarriage.
“As someone who has personally experienced the problem with Arab men harassing and seducing Jewish women, I think this is opening a little Pandora’s box,” she says. “I think it invites this type of interaction to our detriment. This is one of the main reasons that having Arab students, particularly young Arab men, rent apartments would not be a wise decision. [Living next to] Arab women would be less problematic.”
Miriam says that her daughter, who is not religious, has on numerous occasions been approached by Arab men who have made romantic overtures. She adds that she and other Jewish families have reached out to organizations like Lev L’ahim, a religious association that dissuades Jews from intermarriage and assimilation.
Farid Daw knows all too well the lengths to which extremists will go to purge Safed of non-Jews. For nearly 20 years, Daw has owned and operated a pharmacy just down the block from the college. Ten years ago, arsonists set fire to his business. From that moment, he no longer felt safe commuting into the city from his native village of Rama.
“I stayed home for six months straight after that,” he says. “It wasn’t until the then-mayor of Safed, Oded Hameiri, personally paid a visit to my home and asked me to return that I came back.”
Daw, a Christian Arab, says that he has often had potential customers leave his pharmacy after they discern his accent. On the whole, however, he feels accepted in Safed.
“I don’t sense that there’s a big problem [with racism],” he says. “I have Orthodox Jewish customers whom I consider friends. There really are some wonderful people here, religious people.”
“My job here as a pharmacist is to help people,” he says. “And that’s what I do.”