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June 7, 2021 11:38 am
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A Different View of Haifa

avatar by Menachem Kellner

Opinion

Israel’s Haifa port. Credit: Zvi Roger – Haifa Municipality.

In a May 25 guest essay, “The Myth of Coexistence in Israel,” Diana Buttu writes of Haifa, my hometown. Self-identified as a Palestinian citizen of Israel, she is resolutely focused on the glass half-empty. Her op-ed was illustrated with maps presenting a false, agenda-driven picture of the geography of the holy land fought over by Israelis and Arabs for over a century. I want to paint a different picture of the city in which I have lived for the last forty years.

My wife and I, both retirees from Haifa academic institutions, love to sit in coffee shops. Our favorite one near our home is jointly owned and managed by a Jewish citizen of Israel and an Arab citizen of Israel. (I have never asked, it being none of my business, but I have reason to doubt that he identifies as a Palestinian citizen of Israel). Misleadingly, Buttu has decided for Arab citizens of Haifa that they have no choice but to identify as Palestinians, not as Arab Israelis. I wonder how many of them has she asked? How many of them, including Buttu herself, have moved from Haifa to areas under Palestinian control? 

My wife and I also enjoy walking on Haifa’s beautiful beachfront. I cannot identify whether the large majority of the people enjoying the sunny stroll with us are Arab, at least not until they speak. The other morning we noticed a pair of armed security guards at the beach, speaking Arabic to each other. Despite recent events, we discern no tension in the air, or on people’s faces. 

When we swim in our local pool, we swim together with Arabs and Jews. When we need medical attention, it is often Arab physicians and nurses who treat us, as was the senior rheumatologist who recently saw me through a painful bout of arthritis, with care and compassion. In Haifa it is rare to encounter a pharmacist who is not an Arab. We feel fully comfortable putting our lives and health in the hands of Arabs.

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One of our Arab friends (a colleague from before we retired), told us that his mother praises God every morning for living in the State of Israel. Her deceased husband had a brother (the colleague’s uncle) who chose to flee Haifa in 1948. Sadly, he fell for the lies propagated by Hitler’s co-conspirator and ally the “Grand” Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini, who sowed fear by painting a grim picture for Arabs of what would happen if the invading Arab armies failed to throw the Jews in to the sea. Her husband, who chose to stay in Israel, made a successful life for himself and his family here and raised a son (our friend) who earned several academic degrees and is highly regarded professional. Her husband’s brother, on the other hand, the one who had elected to flee to Lebanon, spent the rest of his life in a Palestinian refugee camp, denied by his Lebanese Arab brethren the rights of legal residence, not to mention citizenship. That brother chose to abandon his home — he was not “ethnically cleansed” as Buttu would have it.

There are two universities and several colleges in Haifa. Each institution is blessed with senior Arab professors, administrators, and many Arab students, whose percentage of the student bodies is greater than the percentage of Arabs in the general population. Generally, the relationship of Jewish and Arab students in Israeli universities is civil and even harmonious. I write as someone with first-hand knowledge of the University of Haifa, where I taught for many years and served as Dean of Students.

It is true that Haifa suffered from one night of clashes between hooligans, both Jews and Arabs, at the beginning of the most recent round of fighting. Everyone in the city was shocked, embarrassed by the outliers in each side, and quickly came together to put a stop to it. It may also be true that Haifa’s largely successful coexistence between Jews and Arabs is partly a function of the fact that many Muslim Haifaites are members of the Ahmadi movement and that many other Haifa Arabs are Christians. This shows that Jewish-Arab relations elsewhere could be different and better. It also helps that many Arab political activists in Haifa (some of whom I know personally) focus their efforts on improving the lives of local Arabs, instead of tying themselves to Hamas terrorists in Gaza or to the geriatric kleptocracy that the Palestinian Authority has become.

No doubt Buttu would reply to all this that it is easy for me, a Jew, to see Haifa through rose-colored glasses. Yet it is no less true that her own hatreds make it impossible for her to see beyond her falsehoods.

Menachem Kellner is Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Jewish Thought at Shalem College, Jerusalem, and Wolfson Professor of Jewish Thought emeritus at the University of Haifa. Kellner’s most recent book (with David Gillis) is Maimonides the Universalist: The Ethical Horizons of the Mishneh Torah (Littman Library); his next book (due out in July) is We Are Not Alone: A Maimonidean Theology of the Other (Academic Studies Press).

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