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Thursday, 14 August 2008

I'm not a racist, but... Upper Nazareth

One city, two peoples By Lily Galili

For three years, the official documents of the Prime Minister's Office have referred to Upper Nazareth as "code No. 20," a designation for ethnically mixed cities. This definition is not meant to say that together, Nazareth and Upper Nazareth constitute a mixed city. Rather, it describes a situation whereby Upper Nazareth and its approximately 50,000 residents has become a Jewish-Arab locale.

This is not really what David Ben-Gurion had in mind when he decided in the late 1950s to establish the Jewish city above Arab Nazareth. Since then, the number of Arab residents in Upper Nazareth has been steadily rising. Much of the younger Jewish population has decided to relocate to rural communities or to the expanding neighboring kibbutzim.

Not long ago, Upper Nazareth civic leaders were incensed to discover a full-page ad in the local daily, Yediot Hagalil, for the Sharbat contracting company based in Afula. The ad read: "Good morning! This month we're offering special deals for residents of Upper Nazareth." No wonder residents of Upper Nazareth felt like refugees to whom a neighboring city was offering sanctuary.

A tour of the city's neighborhoods shows that dozens of "For Sale" signs are hung on apartment buildings and single-family homes. The sellers are all Jewish, the buyers mostly Arab. The Jews talk about this situation using terms such as "occupation" or "takeover." The Arabs - that is, the ones willing to talk - respond by claiming their natural right to pay good money to return to their lands, which were appropriated to allow for Upper Nazareth's construction.

"The lands of Upper Nazareth belong to the Arabs," states Salim Khouri, a veteran resident and former city council member. "Let the racists leave, not us. They'll give up first."

"I wasn't a racist until the problem started to affect me personally," says Ilya Rosenfeld, who immigrated to Israel 18 years ago. Rosenfeld worked in the Prime Minister's Bureau during Ariel Sharon's tenure, dealing with Russian affairs, and is now running for a seat on the city council. "The Jewish city I came to is up for sale," he continues. "It bothers me that on my street, you no longer hear Hebrew and Russian, just Arabic."

The look of entire streets changed when the new Arab residents knocked down 50-year-old houses and built beautiful villas instead. The Jewish neighbors feel as though the Arabs razed monuments of Jewish culture - not ugly buildings. On streets filled with offices and businesses, signs for Arab lawyers, doctors and realtors have sprouted up. All the signs are written in Russian, too: Not only are half of Upper Nazareth's residents new immigrants from the Commonwealth of Independent States, but many of the local Arabs also speak Russian, which they learned while studying in the CIS.

Several rabbis have mobilized to halt the Jewish residents' flight. They pay a visit to the Jewish sellers and, quoting from religious sources, persuade them not to sell their homes to Arabs. The Arab contractors working in Upper Nazareth have taken this issue into account. Rosenfeld says he once worked with an Arab contractor, who offered a contract to buyers with an escape clause allowing for the deal to be canceled if a Jew does not want to live next to an Arab who buys an apartment in the same building.

Not normal

In a normal setting, the demographic changes in Upper Nazareth could be seen as part of a familiar socioeconomic process, a kind of gentrification. The Arab buyers are ready to pay as much as $500,000-600,000 for very nice villas. They do not look into the city's employment possibilities or its schools; they already have them someplace else. The Jews are leaving to improve their living standard in nearby communities, while the Arabs are moving out of crowded Nazareth, and upgrading their lives in spacious homes, away from the polluted downtown area.

But in Israeli reality, there is nothing normal about this story, especially not three months ahead of municipal elections in the very city where Yisrael Beiteinu won most votes during the last elections. Even the question of the exact number of Upper Nazareth's Arab residents has political ramifications. "No more than 10 percent," say associates of the current mayor (who has been in office for 32 years), Menachem Ariav. "More than 20 percent," says Shimon Gapso, head of the Uri Ir (literally, "Wake up, city") movement, who is running for mayor. He is considering setting up a fund to purchase Jewish homes for sale to prevent them from being purchased by Arab buyers willing to pay outrageous sums. Gapso also proposes renaming Upper Nazareth, to differentiate it from Nazareth and strengthen its Zionist association.

"When I arrived 13 years ago in my neighborhood of single-family homes," he adds, "there was one Arab family there; today 35 percent of the population is Arab. My father abandoned both property and status when he left Tunis, so his children would grow up in the Jewish state, not in a mixed city."

Gapso says a delegation of Arab residents arrived at his campaign headquarters not long ago. They asked him to set up two churches and two mosques, and also demanded two sections of the local cemetery. "I asked whether they had just disembarked Noah's ark, since they wanted everything to be in pairs," he relates. "They explained that there was a better chance of my agreeing to half of their demands. I told them that there are some things I am willing to discuss, and there are things that will never be. They then told me they would approach another candidate. I am all for a democratic Upper Nazareth, but first of all a Jewish one."

"The problem is not the Arabs, but the Jews," says Ronen Plut, the Likud's mayoral candidate, who also approaches Arab voters. "The fact that lots of Arabs are moving here is proof that they're looking for quality of life. The problem is that Jews are abandoning the city. The Likud and I personally have researched the matter extensively. The lack of good job opportunities, such as in high-tech, for example, is the main reason why Jews are leaving the city. I intend to make a supreme effort to bring science-based factories to the city."

Plut enjoys the explicit support of Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu as well as that of Ze'ev Hartman, who heads the Ihud Ironi (Municipal Unity) movement, which is running for a seat on the city council and can be defined as having racist overtones. Hartman's support for Plut is a double-edged sword: On one hand, Hartman is bringing him support, while on the other, he is damaging Plut's image. On Tuesday, one of Plut's election posters was pasted on Hartman's house.

The whole city is covered with signs stating "We are all with Plut," but the candidate is not happy. After talking with Hartman, he came back with this answer: "It's a provocation. Hartman did not hang up any of my signs. Maybe it was Gapso's people who put on the show. In any case, the posters disappeared within a short time."

Rosenfeld, who belongs to Gapso's list, rejects this claim: "Where would we have gotten those giant canvas banners from?"

Futile attempt

To prove his claim that the government is neglecting Upper Nazareth, Mayor Ariav made another futile attempt, in our presence, to talk with the Prime Minister's Bureau. But this conversation also failed to yield any results. "The PMO's director general told me in advance that he has no answer [regarding the matter of Jews leaving the city]," complains Ariav, who has yet to announce whether he will run for a ninth term in office.

Two police officers came to Ariav's office this week to discuss the city's security problems, among them Arab youths who come from neighboring areas and harass teenage girls and young women.
"These aren't our Arabs," stresses Ariav. "The Arab population here is mostly made up of doctors, lawyers and engineers. I'm careful of how I choose my words. I have already been accused of racism because I voice concern about the city's Jewish character. So I'm trying to deal with the issue in a different way. I approached all the government ministries and begged them to invest here, to invest in the surrounding Arab settlements so they won't come here. But there is no one to talk to, and we're too small a place to merit a national response for this area."

There is a reason for Ariav to say "this area." While he is only referring to Upper Nazareth, a similar process is under way in Ma'alot, Carmiel, Acre and Tivon. "Northern Israel is being abandoned," Ariav concludes.

As we left the city, Nazareth's church bells echoed in the center of Upper Nazareth. "This is another problem," sighed a city leader. "One-third of the immigrants here are not Jewish and these bells are constantly reminding them of who they are."

This is additional proof of the complex nature of an area that could have benefited from the magic bestowed by its heterogeneity, but instead is groaning under its burden.

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