My Word: Captivated by Acre and hopes for coexistence

“It’s a pity that people only think of hummus when they think of Acre.”

THE COURTYARD of the Knights’ Halls (Hospitaller Fortress) in Acre’s Old City (photo credit: LIAT COLLINS)
THE COURTYARD of the Knights’ Halls (Hospitaller Fortress) in Acre’s Old City
(photo credit: LIAT COLLINS)
Despite his best efforts, Napoleon famously failed to capture the town of Acre in 1799. A couple of centuries later, the northern coastal city (also known as Akko) managed to captivate a delegation from the Israel Press Council, which made a brief visit as part of its policy to publicize the council’s work, and particularly the role of the Ethics Tribunal.
The tour started at a peculiarly Acre junction, where Weizmann Street (named for Israel’s first president) meets El-Jazzar Street, named for the Acre-based Ottoman-period governor Ahmad Pasha. He gained the epithet “El-Jazzar,” The Butcher, for obvious unflattering reasons, but is also remembered for being responsible for much of the splendid construction in the town – and of course for Napoleon’s failure to conquer the Holy Land.
There are many reasons for Napoleon’s downfall, among them outdated intelligence which led to him being poorly equipped in the face of the massive walls of the Old City. Some of the brass balls used by the French cannons can still be seen there, strangely less impressive than the larger sandstone balls used by the Crusader catapults.
The town is clearly enjoying a revival, with one million visitors a year. In a literal sign of the times, many of the places of interest at the awe-inspiring Hospitaller Fortress are marked in Chinese as well as Hebrew, English and Arabic.
Acre is special to many people, but it is holy only to the Bahai. As Roni Miyara, director of tourism marketing, pointed out: Wherever they are in the world, Bahai face Acre to pray. Although most people associate the Bahai Gardens in Haifa with the religion, it is Acre, with the garden tomb of the religion’s founder, that is its spiritual center. In fact, until the British conquered the area in 1918 and developed Haifa as a port town able to handle their larger ships, Acre and its harbor were more significant.
Acre is definitely a mixed city. Jewish residents make up about 70% of the population of some 50,000, and Arab residents – Muslims and Christians – the remaining 30%. Jews first settled in the city in Hasmonean times (and thousands were massacred there by the Romans) but most of the Old City’s residents are Arab Muslims. You can’t miss the El-Jazzar Mosque in the Old City, next to the market.
The city is divided into old and new, following the curve of the beautiful coast. While the Old City retains its enchanting historic and exotic feel, the new city is witnessing a growth spurt with modern skyscrapers. The city, already well known for its annual Fringe Theater Festival, is also busy adding much-needed hotel rooms and other accommodations to attract more visitors to stay longer than a day – and there is plenty to see.
Acre’s natural harbor made it an attractive place for commerce and it is one of the oldest cities in the world, with continuous settlement since Phoenician times. The port area still plays a role in today’s tourism industry. But pride of place goes to the Old City, which is on the world map. In 2001, Acre became the first place in Israel to be listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Sometimes UNESCO gets it right.
“The present city is characteristic of a fortified town dating from the Ottoman 18th and 19th centuries, with typical urban components such as the citadel, mosques, khans and baths. The remains of the Crusader town, dating from 1104 to 1291, lie almost intact, both above and below today’s street level, providing an exceptional picture of the layout and structures of the capital of the medieval Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem,” the organization determined in a rather dry depiction of the place where Saladin and Richard the Lionheart fought for control in Crusader times. In a measure of how old and new abide in Acre, we saw local children playing soccer on a grassy pitch in the Old City moat. “Space is at a premium in the area,” Miyara explained.
After playing tourists, our delegation got down to business – and still managed to enjoy ourselves. Our first meeting was with a group of Jewish and Arab 11th- and 12th-graders, who discussed their joint projects ranging from a “youth parliament” to junior hi-tech ventures.
Retired Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner, president of the Press Council, presented the role of the media, emphasizing the importance of freedom of expression to preserve democracy, and called on the adolescents to be aware of their rights, including the rights of minorities.
The teens expressed their views candidly and said their religious and political views did not get in the way of friendships and partnerships. The key to their harmonious coexistence seems to be focusing on working on creative projects together rather than focusing on “The Situation.”
All accepted that at age 18 the Jewish teens would begin military service. In answer to a question, several of the Arab youths, male and female, said they would probably do some kind of civilian national service instead.
Following the meeting with the teens, we traveled to City Hall and met some of the local leaders who set the tone when it comes to coexistence: longstanding Mayor Shimon Lankri (who was reelected in this month’s municipal elections without facing any opposition), Acre Chief Rabbi Yosef Yashar and the imam of the El-Jazzar Mosque, Sheikh Samir Assi. All three stressed the importance of “mutual respect and dialogue.”
Lankri described the riots that swept through the city after Yom Kippur in 2008 as “traumatic” and a wake-up call. “We had to pull ourselves together,” he said.
We were treated to a performance of two songs, one in Hebrew and one in Arabic, by a female trio studying at the local music conservatory of which Lankri is particularly proud. The three singers were Jewish, Christian and Muslim. I noticed that the rabbi averted his eyes and politely tuned out while the young women sang right in front of him.
Later, the rabbi told us how he objected to the so-called Muezzin Law, saying there was no need for legislation and he had no problem with the sound of the Muslim call to prayer. When the volume became problematic, he spoke to his friend the imam, who was happy to help, Yashar said.
“No religion calls for hate,” Sheikh Assi told us. “It’s people who call for hatred.”
The three glossed over violent incidents between Muslims and Jews, stressing instead how they had dealt with them and the importance of personal contact between members of the different religions.
“As a religious Muslim man I can tell you that life is the most important thing in all religions,” Assi said. “We all want to create a better world for our children.”
Lankri, who is known to have difficult relations with the local press, preferred not to address the issue and instead spoke of the social media, which he described as “intolerable” and “worse than war.”
Both Dorner and Press Council director Moti Rosenblum called on all those who had complaints regarding the press to appeal to the Ethics Tribunal.
On the way back to Jerusalem, I realized that the Nation-State Law, which dominated a visit by the Press Council to the Druze town of Daliat al-Carmel in the summer, strangely had not been raised at all.
Almost everyone I told about my visit to Acre mentioned eating hummus there. Our delegation dined in greater style at the Roots restaurant, located under an impressive stone-domed roof at the entrance to the Enchanted Garden, the Hospitaller Fortress courtyard. The impressively vaulted Column Hall, which in days of yore served as a splendid dining room, is one of the sites I plan to explore more thoroughly on a future visit.
“It’s a pity that people only think of hummus when they think of Acre,” said local resident Fatima Hijazi, one of the younger citizens helping transform the town. “Come and eat hummus by all means, but Acre is about far more than that. It’s also about history.”