Think About It: A nostalgic visit to Haifa

I was born in Haifa, but since I moved my elderly mother to Jerusalem in 1997, I have rarely visited there and when I have, it has usually been to Haifa University on Mount Carmel.

A young girl looks down over the city of Haifa. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A young girl looks down over the city of Haifa.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On the eve of Succot I drove to Haifa to visit a friend, who recently moved back there from Jerusalem, after convincing the government ministry that employs her to let her do her work from its downtown office in the city.
I was born in Haifa, but since I moved my elderly mother to Jerusalem in 1997, I have rarely visited there and when I have, it has usually been to Haifa University on Mount Carmel.
My friend suggested that we take a walk in the “lower city,” which the Haifa municipality is slowly transforming from a run-down port area, into a lively student campus and hangout.
We strolled along to the German Colony, passing by Jaffa Street, where my father ran a prestigious CPA office in the years 1938-1988, and what is today a nursing home – which used to be a quaint hotel way back when, where my friend’s mother used to play tennis in the 1950s. Nothing wrong with a bit of nostalgia.
We stopped by the new City Museum, situated in what used to be the cultural center of the German Templar community back in the 19th, and beginning of the 20th Century, where an exhibition of photographs from the Yishuv in the 1930s is showing, including many photographs of the modern port of Haifa, constructed by the British Mandatory Government, and officially opened in 1933.
Another exhibit at the museum is made up of recorded interviews with the leaders and some of the surviving participants in the famous (some would say infamous) seamen’s strike of 1951, which was directed against the Israeli shipping company ZIM, which was about to enter an era of glory (part of the restitution payments from Germany after 1952 came in the form of 36 passenger and cargo ships).
At that time Haifa was a Mapai-Histadrut stronghold, but the seamen’s strike was headed by the most radical section of the Israeli workers’ movement, whose leaders were members of the then Marxist Mapam. Those were the days. I wonder whether today there are any Israeli seamen left. Certainly ZIM is no longer what it used to be in patriotic terms.
My own childhood memories include the contempt of Abba Hushi, Haifa mayor in the years 1951-1969, for the “bourgeoisie” of Mount Carmel. I especially remember sitting in our family car (a small Peugeot), which my mother was driving, at a stoplight at the intersection of Herzl and Balfour Streets, when the mayor’s chauffeur driven Cadillac stopped next to us. Hushi lowered his side window and said to my mother in a condescending tone: “Can’t Hadassah get you a better car?” My mother was the voluntary chairwoman of the Haifa chapter of Hadassah at the time, and the Mapai mayor simply couldn’t imagine that anyone would work voluntarily and use their private car to move about – especially not someone who lived on Mt. Carmel.
“Red Haifa” is no longer as red as it was when I was a child, and its current mayor – Yona Yahav – is the first non-Labor mayor to be elected since the establishment of the State, even though he was a Knesset Member on behalf of the Labor party in the 14th Knesset (he was preceded as mayor by Amram Mitzna). Yet Haifa remains “different” among Israel’s cities.
Its population is still predominantly center-left secular, public transportation runs on Saturday and holidays, but it is not as hedonistic as Tel Aviv, and is certainly much more modest and provincial than it. Coexistence between its Jewish and Arab inhabitants is much more harmonious and authentic than in any other city with a mixed population in Israel, its religious population (both national religious and haredi) are much more prone to live in harmony with their non-religious neighbors (the relatively small size of the religious community certainly has a lot to do with this), and radical settlers are nowhere in sight. (I wonder whether settlers actually consider Haifa, with its population of close to 300,000, to be part of the Land of Israel, even though the general area was part of the territories of the tribes of Asher and Menashe in biblical times). One is also unlikely to find the likes of former MK Michael Ben-Ari, and attorney Itamar Ben-Gvir rabble rousing in Haifa, though back in 1959 the first major mizrahi demonstration against Ashkenazi dominance took place in Haifa’s Wadi Salib.
While sitting in a fish restaurant on Ben-Gurion Avenue in the German Colony, where Jewish and Arab families were dining side by side as if there was nothing more natural than doing so (which is unfortunately not the case in Israel’s other mixed cities), I was wondering whether life in Israel wouldn’t be more pleasant and tolerable if the Haifa model were the predominant one. Though the population make-up of Haifa is probably still tilted in the secular-old timer-Ashkenazi direction, it is undoubtedly much more balanced than that of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, as far as the make-up of the general Israeli population is concerned.
Of course, the “Milky” in Haifa is double the price of that in Berlin, as it is in the rest of Israel, and presumably there are as many young ex-Haifaites living in Berlin today as there are young people from other parts of Israel (perhaps more, because there was always a large “Yekke” population in Haifa – where I learnt my rudimentary German). It is also said that on balance Haifa has a negative population balance, due mainly to employment problems. However, I couldn’t help thinking that it might not be such a bad idea to move back to the city where I was born.
Housing in Haifa is cheaper than in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and the Haifa municipality seems to go out of its way to greet those who decide to settle in it (my friend has received a whole parcel of benefits). The scenery from Panorama Street on Mt. Carmel is as breathtaking as it was 60 years ago, and the beaches along the coastline from Bat Galim southwards are constantly being improved to the benefit of bathers, and those just wanting to take a seaside walk. The fact that one of my daughters and her family recently moved to Kiryat Tivon – a garden town south-east of Haifa, which seems to be drawing many secular, educated, liberal young couples, seeking alternative schools options and “quality of life” – is another good reason to consider a move, though I am still hooked on my former place of employment. There remains a strong attraction; from the Knesset to the capital’s Botanical Garden, where I am helping construct a botanical data-base, to the low humidity in summer and occasional snow in winter, and to the magical insanity of the Holy City. I guess that being a member of a small social minority, as the likes of me are in Jerusalem today, also constitutes an intellectual attraction of sorts.
Succot next year will undoubtedly still find me in Jerusalem.
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.