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For Israeli Arab community director, coexistence is no dream

Posted By Leora Eren Frucht On July 29, 2007 @ 12:44 pm In | No Comments

Mohammed Faheli: I wanted to devote my life to bringing Arabs and Jews closer together. My experience taught me that it is possible.Mohammed Faheli is a man of dualities, a pragmatist who dares to dream. But a man who uses his street smarts to turn those dreams into well-funded programs that are changing the face of the Israeli city of Acre and making “coexistence” in this mixed Jewish-Arab town more than a slogan.

Faheli is the founder and director of the Sir Charles Clore Jewish-Arab Community Center in Acre, a refurbished bomb shelter that has become a cultural and educational jewel in this city of 58,000.

On any given day you’ll find Arab and Jewish teenagers playing ping pong in the youth club; new immigrants from the Caucasus – whose parents speak no Hebrew and have little money – getting private violin lessons; Arab girls who dropped out of school learning to become hairdressers; and a boisterous group of children producing a play based on the summer they spent huddled together in this bomb shelter, Arab and Jew, dodging katyusha rockets from Lebanon.

This is a place – the only one in Acre – where new immigrant and veteran, rich and poor, Arab and Jew participate in the same activities under one roof: Activities that range from folk-dancing to soccer; and from judo to opera.

The center – which hosts some 2,000 Acre residents every week, most of them youngsters – is the realization of Faheli’s dream. The 51-year-old Israeli Arab was born in the Old City of Acre, a walled maze of arches and alleyways, dating back to Crusader times. He shared a single bedroom with his seven brothers and sisters, while his mother, an illiterate widow, struggled to raise the children in a rundown neighborhood, rife with drugs and crime.

At 13, Faheli started working after school at a nearby kibbutz. The members, aware of his difficult circumstances, encouraged him to bring extra food home to his family. Faheli hung out with the kibbutz youth, and soon came to feel so comfortable with them that he joined their Zionist youth movement, Hashomer Hatzair.

“They were puzzled at first that an Arab would want to join, but I liked the hikes and other activities,” recalls Faheli. “Besides, I didn’t feel like they were my enemies. They helped me; they treated me like a person.”

At 18, Faheli left Acre to study engineering at the University of Houston and, in order to support himself, landed a job as a busboy in a restaurant. “It was known that the owner of the restaurant was Jewish; none of my Arab friends wanted to work there because of that, but I didn’t see what the problem was.”

That decision was to change Faheli’s life.

He soon formed a close relationship with the owner, David Moscowitz, who offered Faheli room and board in exchange for teaching his children Hebrew. The religious Jewish businessman from Houston became like a father to the young Arab student, who had lost his own father at six.

Faheli is a tough-looking, burly man, with coal black eyebrows and a prominent moustache highlighting his smooth-shaven, swarthy head. But when he speaks of Moscowitz, tears well up in his eyes. Even now, 28 years later, Faheli shakes his head in disbelief, recalling how this man “with a kippa and a sweet face” gave him the money to buy his first home in Acre when he completed his studies.

Faheli returned to Israel, married and moved into the new house in what was then Acre’s only mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood. But he never forgot what the American Jewish businessman and the kibbutz members had done for him.

“My contact with Jews changed my life. I wanted to devote my life to bringing Arabs and Jews closer together. My experience taught me that it is possible,” he told ISRAEL21c.

Faheli also wanted other disadvantaged Arab children to have the kind of opportunities that he had enjoyed.

He envisioned a community center in his neighborhood, where both Arab and Jewish youngsters could participate in after-school activities. At the time, such facilities existed only in more upwardly mobile Jewish neighborhoods, with all instruction in Hebrew.

Faheli took advantage of a heated mayoral election to launch his pet project. At the time, the incumbent mayor was being pressured by Arab residents to convert one of the city’s many bomb shelters into a mosque – an idea that upset many Jewish residents. Faheli advised the mayor to turn one bomb shelter into an Arab-Jewish community center instead, an idea the mayor quickly embraced.

“Arabs accused me of being a traitor. They said I ‘saved’ the Jewish mayor [who was re-elected.] But I really saved the Arab children – who had nothing to do after school.”

Soon after, a visit to the city by British Jewish philanthropist Dame Vivien Duffield led to much-needed funding that transformed the fledgling neighborhood center into a three-storey building, catering to all the city’s residents.

Meanwhile, Faheli spent his days working fulltime as a furniture warehouse manager, but devoted his afternoons and evenings to volunteering at the center helping children and youth at risk. When, after 10 years, the fulltime paid director, a Jew, resigned, Faheli was asked to take over, and has been at the helm ever since.

Sitting behind his desk, wearing a pinstriped shirt and wire-framed glasses, Faheli recalls the initial skepticism of his neighbors. “When I started this place, I was alone in my dream. People laughed and asked: who will give you the money?”

In addition to its main supporter, the Clore Foundation, the center has received backing from the Abraham Fund, the Jewish Agency, the Knesset, and the Housing Ministry.

Today its quality progams – in Hebrew and Arabic, and sometimes Russian – attract many of the wealthiest children in the city. The poorest are able to attend for free by an arrangement whereby their parents do repair and maintenance work at the center.

The building is situated in Wolfson, about a block away from the train station. It’s a mostly Arab neighborhood of tenement buildings, where vandalism used to be rampant, and burnt cars, a common site. In the last year, Faheli notes proudly, there has not been a single incident of youth crime or vandalism in the neighborhood.

As an Arab Israeli committed to coexistence, Faheli walks a thin line, his identify stretched between his people and his state. He prefers to call himself a Palestinian Arab who is a citizen of Israel.

He can’t identify with the symbols of the Jewish state – the flag, the Star of David, or the national anthem – all of which he says exclude him. But that doesn’t stop him from keeping one flag in his office and displaying a much larger one on the fa├žade of the center every Independence Day – an act that has provoked angry reactions by some of the city’s Arabs.

“There are those who think I should raise a black flag to mark the Naqba (the ‘catastrophe’ – a term used by Arabs to describe the establishment of the Jewish state in May, 1948),” he says…

Faheli’s own family were displaced in 1948, separated from their relatives in Syria, and cut off from their land (near Ein Gev on the Golan Heights). They gravitated from Tiberias to Haifa and finally settled in a poor neighborhood in Acre. “We lost all our property. But does it help to raise a black flag, or cry about it?” he asks.

“I’m a practical man. I live in this country – I must do what’s good for me and my children. Ask any Arab Israeli – even the fiercest critic of Israel – where he wants to live, and he’ll choose Israel over any Arab country. Who has enabled the Arabs here to learn? Mostly, the Jews. So, there was the naqba – so what?” says Faheli, almost daring his critics to challenge him.

Today Faheli lives with his wife Ahlam, a teacher, and their five children in a spacious high-rise apartment with a breath-taking view. From the roof of the building, Faheli can see the Old City where he grew up – a poor but ambitious child, whose mother drilled into him the value of education. (He recalls how she once bullied a neighborhood drug pusher, threatening to smack him if he ever sold drugs near her house; he never did).

The posh high-rise he lives in today is home to 12 families – six Arab and six Jewish ones. His next-door neighbor is the former mayor Eli De Castro, who won re-election in part by adopting Faheli’s idea of the Arab-Jewish community center two decades ago. He smiles at the irony.

Taking in the panoramic view of the blue sea, picturesque Crusader remains and modern city, Faheli sighs. “I’m like a fish. Take me out of Acre and I die,” he says of the city that has captured his heart.

From the rooftop, Faheli can also view landmarks that evoke less pleasant memories – like the places katyusha rockets landed during last summer’s war with Lebanon.

“That war really showed how much we, Arabs and Jews of Acre, are in the same boat. If we can raise our children together and build peace from within, maybe we can one day achieve it with the outside world too.”

Sounds like a dream. But not to Faheli who’s used to weaving tangible programs out of raw dreams.