by: Nathan Williams, Director of Marketing and Communications
The nation of Israel was shaken in May 2021 by countless rockets fired from the Gaza Strip and a new kind of aggression: unprecedented riots and lynchings in ethnically mixed Jewish–Arab communities across the country. Whether spurred on by the rhetoric and international media attention surrounding the Israeli Supreme Court ruling on the future of several Arab homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem or the perceived situation of the residents of Gaza, boiling point morphed into boiling over as tensions soared. Those who were once called neighbors were now something to be feared.
Located just twenty minutes outside of Tel Aviv, Lod is one of Israel’s most diverse cities. Hailed as “A Mosaic of Cultures,” almost every Israeli ethnic, religious and socioeconomic group can be found in Lod. Once praised as a model of effective Jewish–Arab shared society, Lod turned into a real war zone as violent riots erupted between Jewish and Arab residents. Purportedly, the Arab riots began as a show of solidarity with the residents of Sheikh Jarrah, but following the shooting of an Arab rioter by a Jewish man whose life was threatened by the mob, the situation intensified significantly. Vehicles, synagogues, an elementary school and numerous shops were set on fire, while a state of emergency was declared in the city, a curfew instated and the Israeli Border Police dispatched to restore order. Yigal Yeshoshua, a 56-year-old Israeli, died after being hit in the head with a brick when his vehicle was stoned by Arab rioters while travelling through Lod. Lod resident Rivi Abramovich told the Jerusalem Post: “My trust in my neighbors has been broken completely. I saw my neighbor join the riots. Until then I believed we could live here together well. They have destroyed everything, everything good.”
Further north in the ancient Mediterranean port city of Akko, once described as a place where Jews and Arabs live side by side in relative peace, violence also erupted. Arab and Jewish youths attacked each other in the streets, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, while protesters ransacked a police station and set it and several vehicles on fire. More than a dozen Jewish-owned restaurants, art galleries and other businesses in the historic Old City section of Akko were vandalized. Uri Buri, a world-famous fish restaurant, and the adjacent hotel owned by Jewish restaurateur Uri Yirmias, both sustained fire damage. Coincidentally, Yirmias has been a staunch advocate for the possibility of coexistence between Jews and Arabs and is determined to rebuild his restaurant and hotel where these two groups work side by side on a daily basis.
While the aggression erupted during a time of amplified tension in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, local residents in Akko and Lod have pointed toward reasons behind the flare-up in violence other than fundamentalist loyalty to the Palestinian cause. In Lod, an influx of Ethiopian and Eastern European immigrants, religious Jews who seek to establish a national Jewish presence in the neighborhoods as well as Palestinians from Judea and Samaria who relocated there in collaboration with the Israeli security services, have all threatened to disturb the delicate equilibrium between the city’s residents. Whenever one group is perceived to be growing in influence and potentially threatens the existence of another, the pressure increases. Furthermore, in both Lod and Akko, reports were made of outside extremists—both Arab and Jewish—being transported into the hotspots, which exacerbated the violence.
In Akko, residents point to the growing drug problem, the high unemployment rate and an education system that fails to offer an opportunity to uplift the city’s poor. Judith Bar Or, manager of the Jewish National Fund tourist center in Akko’s Old City, told the Times of the Israel, “There are lots of criminals here. The root of the problem is criminal and that’s a greater influence than coexistence.”
Perhaps giving credence to these assertions is the fact that Haifa, another mixed city just 15 miles [24 km.] south of Akko, experienced much less of a violent uprising, despite having a much higher population of Arabs. Protests in the city were mostly nonviolent, and were in fact opposed to the interethnic violence seen in other cities. Haifa has less unemployment, the city invests more into the education system, has programs to employ Arab graduates and its neighborhoods are more fully integrated, whereas in Akko, neighborhoods are clearly divided by ethnic lines. Regardless of the exact reasoning behind the events in May, the residents of these communities are now left shaken, carrying the scars of fear and distrust.
Since the establishment of the State of Israel, Arabs that desire to live peaceably within the borders of the Jewish state have been accepted. The community of Abu Gosh comes to mind. Nestled in a valley just outside Jerusalem, not only is this community famous for its hummus, it is also an example of an Arab community that chose to remain neutral in the Israeli War of Independence. The residents chose to live under Israeli sovereignty, have Israeli citizenship and welcome anyone—Jewish or otherwise—to support the local economy. Unfortunately, not many Arab-majority cities in Israel have the same story to tell, but rather seem to grapple with divided loyalties in times of increased tension in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. But the community of Abu Gosh is an example of how the ideal relationship between Jews and Arabs could be, and this should give us hope for the future.
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