Allegations of racism and questions about an Israeli town's character

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By Joel Greenberg
Sunday, November 14, 2010; 3:36 AM

SAFED, ISRAEL -

In the winding stone alleys of this Galilee hill town, a centuries-old center of Jewish mysticism, a campaign is underway.

It is being waged by the town rabbi, Shmuel Eliahu, who along with other area rabbis issued a religious ruling several months ago forbidding residents to rent apartments to Israeli Arab students from the local community college.

The rabbi has warned that the Jewish character of Safed, long revered as sacred, is at risk and that intermarriages could follow if the students mingle with the locals.

Last month, Eliahu called a public meeting to sound the alarm. On the agenda was "the quiet war," a reference to the feared Arab influx, and "fighting assimilation in the holy city of Safed."

Several days later, a building that houses Arab students was attacked by a group of young Jews, and an elderly Holocaust survivor renting a room to students received threats.

To civil rights advocates and other critics, the unsettling developments in this normally quiet community of 32,000 are a window into ugly currents of racism in Israeli society. The events here, the critics say, reflect a general atmosphere of growing intolerance under a government and parliament dominated by parties of the nationalist right.

Hagai El-Ad, executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said that public attitudes have been legitimized by proposals in parliament that send a message of exclusion to Israeli Arabs. One bill authorizes rural Jewish communities to review applications for residence on the basis of social and cultural compatibility, language that critics say is code for keeping out Arabs.

But people in Safed dismiss the accusations of racism, saying that the issue is a culture clash between rowdy Arab students and the city's strictly religious Jews who feel that their way of life is being threatened.

In a city park next to a college building on a recent afternoon, "Death to Arabs" was scrawled on a gatepost. The park is a hangout for the Arab students, who were scattered on benches during a break between classes.

Nasrat Ghadban, a student from the village of Arrabeh, said that he had been trying to find an apartment to rent in Safed but that his phone inquiries were repeatedly turned down.


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