The eighth of January was rainy. The gloomy weather seemed to complement and soothe my mood and I cried with the skies as we drove from Isfiya to Akko, which I had been dying to visit for a long while. Unfortunately, due to time restrictions we only had time to pop into the Old City for an afternoon visit, much of which we spent exploring the excavations of medieval buildings that belonged to the Knights Templar. We enjoyed it thoroughly.
Following that, we entered Old Akko proper and wandered through the market place looking for certain landmarks and historical sites and – to my mother’s great frustration – failing to find them. We continued beyond the city walls and by the sea. The hard-hitting spray and strong winds resulted in us quickly stepping back to protect our cameras and find a place where I could grab a hummus sandwich before heading back to the car and driving up to Rosh Hanikra.
Rosh Hanikra is probably the place I regret not visiting the most. Unfortunately for us, the stormy weather meant that the cable cars taking you down to the caves were closed and we were unable to do more than walk along the bridge and look down at the rough waves and across the tip that forms Israel’s border with Lebanon. I later googled images of the caves and they are absolutely stunning.
Exhausted, I fell asleep in the car as we drove up to Safed – the center of Kabbalah – for the night. We miraculously found our way to the hotel without much difficulty and stepped out into the Old City to find a place to eat. The first three places we tried to find were all closed. Befuddled because it was a Sunday, and therefore not Shabbat, we decided to try out a vegetarian restaurant as a last resort and had some ultra-orthodox men guide us there. We finally sat down to eat and had a fascinating chat with the woman running the place about how she felt the restrictions on Shabbat were freeing. She also gave us a long talk about the supposed differences between the ultra-orthodox in Safed and in Jerusalem.
I had been quietly questioning why the Arab quarter had been renamed the Artist’s Colony, as if erasing the Arab history in the town, but I didn’t say anything because my parents felt so good there and all the residents were proclaiming how peaceful and spiritual and wonderful the residents of Safed were. It was only later, when I read an article about the rabbis of Safed defending racism, that I realized that it was in fact the same town I had read about in which rabbis were calling for residents not to rent to Arabs. Here are some striking quotes from the post:
Safed, noted as the center of Kabbalah, a branch of Jewish mysticism, is one of Judaism’s four holy cities and has seen an influx of ultra Orthodox Jews in recent years. Palestinians have also been migrating to the town as students in Safed College, which now has a roughly equal balance of Jews and Palestinians.
The most recent controversy is Eliyahu’s call on Safed’s Jews, last October, not to rent rooms or apartments to Palestinians. He signed a petition, known as the “rabbis’ letter,” bidding landlords to turn away Palestinian tenants, signed by 18 other rabbis, many from Safed. 50 other rabbis lent their verbal support for the letter.
The rabbis’ letter of October was buttressed by PR tactics. Posters went up with the refrain, “Don’t rent to Arabs. Don’t give work to Arabs. Don’t give Arabs any foothold in our community.” This campaign saw some results, such as rioting by Jewish youth outside a house in which Palestinian students were living.
One elderly Jewish resident of Safed who rents to three Palestinian students said he received threatening calls from people who claimed they would burn down his house should he refuse to follow orders.
On Wednesday evening Jewish extremists attacked four Palestinian students at a bus stop in Safed, pelting them with stones. The four are now in hospital with light wounds. In March, two cars belonging to Palestinian students were set alight.
Posters mysteriously appeared in the town in 2005 sounding the alarm that Jewish girls had been snatched and were being kept in a nearby Palestinian village.
Last April, Eliyahu was given an award at a conference titled, “Land of the Nation, or Land of all the Nation’s Citizens,” held in Ramla. At this gathering, Eliyahu confirmed that “everyone realizes the enormity of the danger” of renting to Palestinians – they “eat one neighbourhood then another.”
The Minster for Science and Technology, Daniel Hershowitz, presented him the award for his “actions, effort and devotion to the Jewish nature of the land of Israel.”
This gracious appreciation for the man’s work can help to explain why the state apparatus prefers to stay quiet when rights groups demand Eliyahu be held responsible for racial incitement.
As rabbis are state employees in Israel, observers objecting to Eliyahu’s apparent carte blanche to indulge in hate speech have repeatedly lobbied the government to hold him accountable. The state’s response has been studied silence.
After much stalling, Israel’s Attorney General, Yehuda Weinstein, said in November he will open a criminal investigation against Eliyahu to ascertain whether he is guilty of racist incitement. The investigation will not broach the controversial letter, focusing on personal remarks made by Eliyahu.
Some of the statements for which Eliyahu faces investigation include: “Arab culture is very cruel,” “a Jew should not run from an Arab – a Jew should make an Arab run,” and “chasing Arabs out of Jewish neighbourhoods is an important strategy.”
Shocked and upset by how easily we had been fooled, I sent the article to my mother, who said “oh dear, they got us good!” and I decided that I would try to be a lot more aware of the places I visited in Israel.
Safed is beautiful and I would love to return, but when I do it will be as someone more knowledgeable of the situation in the town and as someone who will not be spending her money there to sustain the economy of an urban center that openly discriminates against its minority population.