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

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.

"When people hear my accent, they say they're sorry, but they don't rent to Arabs," Ghadban said. "Other times, if they hear you have an Arab name, they say they have tenants already or that they'll get back to you, but they never do."

Similar accounts were heard from other Arab students, who make up about half of the student population at the school, the Tzfat Academic College. Because of a shortage of dormitory space, many Arab students commute from their villages. Some who have found apartments in Safed said they have recently felt uneasy walking the streets and preferred to stay in at night, fearing run-ins with religious Jewish youths.

Last month, a group of young Jewish men attacked apartments of Arab students near the old city of Safed. An indictment against two of the assailants said that before the attack, the group had talked about an increasing presence of Arabs in town and their alleged harassment of local Jewish women.

The mob gathered outside a building housing Arab students, shouted "Death to Arabs!" and "Stinking Muslims!" and hurled stones and bottles, smashing a window, according to the indictment. The Arab students threw stones back, and a shot was fired by one of the Jewish youths. He and the other indicted youth were charged with racist incitement, rioting and vandalism.

Eliahu Zvieli, an 89-year-old resident of the old city who rents a room to three Arab students, said he had received numerous phone calls and visits, including from Rabbi Eliahu, urging him to remove his tenants. One caller threatened to burn down Zvieli's house, he said. A sign was posted on the gate calling the Arabs' presence "a shameful disgrace."

Zvieli, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary who endured forced-labor and prisoner-of-war camps, said he was not fazed. "I've been through a few things, and I'm handling it," he said. "You can't surrender to terror."

Across the street at his food stand, Yosef Pe'er, bearded with a large knitted skullcap, said that providing housing for Arab students in the heart of the old city, where many strictly Orthodox and newly observant Jews live, is a provocation.

"This place has a particular character, and it's preferable that it remain Jewish," he said. Arab students drive by in cars blaring loud music on Friday night, during the Jewish Sabbath, and generally "don't respect where they are," Pe'er said.

Safed's mayor, Ilan Shohat, said the students were "behaving like they were back in their villages." He said the municipality had received complaints from religious residents after Sabbath weekends of disruptive behavior by students, ranging from playing loud music to smoking a hookah opposite a synagogue and badgering young women.

"Safed is not a racist city at all," Shohat said. "There's a cultural problem, which because of the Jewish-Arab divide in Israeli society, is interpreted by the residents as a provocation."

Arab students denied the allegations of inappropriate behavior, saying that most stay home on weekends and that those in town were often at work at hotels, replacing Jewish employees who were off Saturdays. Some students noted that they had warm relations with their Jewish landlords, who they said treated them like family.

On the streets of Safed, memorial plaques commemorate Jewish fighters killed in the town during Israel's war of independence in 1948. Safed's Arab majority fled the fighting, changing it from a mixed city to a Jewish one. The sign plastered on the home of Zvieli, the man threatened for renting to Arab students, accused him of "returning Arabs to Safed."

Yisrael Lee, an architect and a neighbor, said that the past still hangs heavy over the town. "Memories here are strong," he said.

Greenberg is a special correspondent.

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