October 15, 2008

Tension may have been bubbling for some time in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Acre, but there’s still light at the end of the tunnel.I spent more than two years of my life working in an Arab-Jewish community center in a poor “mixed” area of Akko (Acre), whose goal is coexistence but whose scarcity of Jewish users indisputably made me “the other”.

It is not pleasant being “the other”. People watch you, treat you with suspicion and speak their own language in front of you even though you know they are all perfectly capable of conversing in Hebrew. But when you are “the other” no one really wants to speak to you anyway, and as for your religious holidays, well no one acknowledges them either.

But over a period of time, no matter how frustrating, hurtful and off-putting it could be walking into that center in the morning, knowing that no smiles or greetings would be awaiting me, slowly, slowly my Arab colleagues began to understand that my motives were pure and that I really believed that we could work together to make life better for us all.

Looking back over my special time in Akko, and comparing it to last week’s television images of hatred and violence, I think of Rehab, the office administrator who wouldn’t smile at me for almost a year, but who cried when we said goodbye; I think of Kareen, the Arab women’s coordinator who took up the veil last year and who pressed her phone number into my hand when I left; I think of Sara, from the FSU who tried so hard to convince Jewish women that it was safe to come to the center, and of Ahlam, my boss’s wonderful wife who spoke no English, whose Hebrew was far worse than mine and whose friendship was like a warm blanket. Four very special Akko women who overcame suspicion and fear, and became my friends.

Would the sparks of hatred have ignited into full blown riots, widespread damage to property, “pogroms”, and the shameful burning of three Arab flats in “Jewish” areas, if some Arab idiot hadn’t driven into a Jewish neighbourhood on Erev Yom Kippur and triggered an irreversible series of events fueled by religious incitement? Probably not.

But the tension is always bubbling beneath the surface in Akko, the wounds ready to be opened, and extremists on all sides ready, willing and eager to “have a go” and show once and for all that Akko is “their” city in “their” country.

Today I work at the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa, another of Israel’s mixed cities, where we are trying to reassure our Arab and Jewish residents that Haifa is different. But the truth is we are holding our breath that no knock-on effect will spread the hatred into the Galilee and Israel’s other mixed cities.

The sad reality is that no one I know will be going near Akko this holiday week; Kareen called off her dinner invitation to my husband and I, the annual Akko Festival, so vital to that city’s economy has been cancelled, and most certainly reservations will not be needed for a table at Uri Buri, my favourite fish restaurant in Akko’s old City.

But am I hopeful that we will find a light at the end of the tunnel? Yes of course I am; so long as I don’t stop believing in what I am doing.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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