Last month, I traveled to Israel in a quiet period bracketed by difficult events in the Middle East.  For the first time in many years, I went north to Haifa, in search of the spirit of coexistence. For more than 100 years, Jews, Muslims and Christians have been living together in Israel’s third largest city in quiet harmony. I had met Mayor Yona Yahav last summer in Los Angeles, and he extended the invitation to visit.

Haifa was a city in bloom. The jacaranda trees were flowering in deep purple; soon the petals would carpet the streets. Throughout the city, traffic islands are overflowing with wild jasmine, the intense heat bringing out the sweetest aroma. The Bahai Gardens, a UNESCO Heritage Site, slope down the Carmel Mountain in symmetrically-arranged terraces, with hundreds of species of plants.

The gardens meet the city at a traffic circle, called the UNESCO Square for Peace and Tolerance. There, the day before we arrived, the peace of the city was jolted by hundreds of protesters against recent violence in Gaza, some with signs that said, “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.” But there were arrests and reports of police brutality, still under investigation.

Sandee Brawarsky

“These were people from outside of Haifa” was the response that echoed from the mayor to a Jewish friend born in Haifa to all the taxi drivers, Jewish and Palestinian, that we encountered.

The day after, we understood that ordinary citizens of Haifa were taken aback by the protests but determined to steady their alliances. We were disappointed to have to turn down an invitation to a traditional break-fast meal for Ramadan in the Palestinian neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas.

The street where we stayed was named for Hassan Bey Shukri, a Muslim named mayor of Haifa by the Turks in 1914 — the first mayor of modern Haifa. In an interview in his City Hall office, Yahav credits Shukri with laying the groundwork for the city’s coexistence. Shukri added Hebrew language to municipal documents and supported Jewish immigration to Palestine. In the official portrait hanging in City Hall, he’s wearing a shirt and tie and deep red fez. When Shukri died in office in 1940, Jews hung public notices in the style they did for distinguished rabbis, naming him “a noble person.”

“I don’t expect them to say that about me when I die,” Yahav jokes. The same chorus of taxi drivers and other citizens we met love this down-to-earth mayor.

In office since 2003, Yahav, who turns 74 later this month, is the only Haifa mayor to be born in the city. One of the first things that Yahav did upon taking office was to plant flowers, following the path of his mentor, Teddy Kollek, the longtime and legendary mayor of Jerusalem. A former member of Knesset, Yahav is a booster of his city, more Ed Koch than Abe Beame, now trying to attract an international soccer competition to Haifa’s new stadium.

The Mayor of Haifa. Sandee Brawarsky/JW

“Everybody asks, how come it has been peaceful here more than 100 years? Because Jews are the same Jews, Palestinians are the same Palestinians. I don’t have any intelligent answers. Recently I arrived at the conclusion that we are lucky that three celebrities never set foot here: Mohammed, Moses, Jesus. Nothing is holy. We are not kissing walls.” 

Saddened by recent events, he adds, “There no line item in the budget for respect. When you give people equality and honor, there’s no taxation on that. We give it free.”

The day following the demonstrations was quiet. We visited Beit HaGefen – Jewish Arab Culture Center, where classes and process groups went on; people showed up. Asaf Ron, CEO, explains, “We exist here to open people’s minds.”

“Here in Haifa we are not afraid of each other,” Ron says. “We have to listen to each other’s stories, respect the stories. We’re not speaking about solutions. We try to get people to leave Beit HaGefen with more questions.”

For Ron and his colleagues, the process is complex and fragile. Just days earlier, Ron’s son, who serves in the IDF, was shot at during the rioting at the Gaza border. (Last Friday, demonstrations were held again in Haifa, but there were no reports of violence.)

Ron says that young people might spend a few months together in a social activity, with no talk of the conflict. “We don’t have to put politics on the table. It’s already there. I want them to learn to disagree, to speak together and see each other’s faces.”

Haifa’s panoramic views shimmer in the city’s light. Here, coexistence endures as more than an experiment or a longing; it is urgently felt. At Beit HaGefen, beauty is evident, with mosaics on the walls, outdoor sculpture incorporating poetry and olive trees in the parking lot, their branches extending into this city of hope.

Sandee Brawarsky covers books and culture for the paper.