Recipe for a Riot

Parsing Israel’s Yom Kippur Upheavals

by Peter Lagerquist | published November 15, 2008

On October 8, 48-year old Tawfiq Jamal got into his car with his 18-year old son and a friend, and set out for the house of his relatives, the Shaaban family, who lived as of then in a new, predominantly Jewish neighborhood on the eastern edges of Acre. A walled city on the sea, mainly famed in the West for having served as the CENTCOM of the crusading Richard the Lionheart, Acre is today a “mixed” Israeli town, inhabited by Jews as well as Arabs like Tawfiq. That day, he was on his way to pick up his daughter, who had been helping the Shaabans prepare cakes for a wedding scheduled for the following week. He insists that he drove slowly and quietly, with his radio turned off. It was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, one of the holiest days of the Jewish religious calendar, on which the streets of Israel’s Jewish cities and towns customarily empty of traffic. After he parked his car at the Shaaban home, a group of Jewish youths attacked Tawfiq and chased him inside. For the next few hours, a mob besieged the place, and as rumors spread that one of its inhabitants had been killed, Arab youths poured out of the city’s old casbah ghetto, some reportedly to come to the rescue. On their way back home the youths proceeded to break a number of windows in Jewish shops.

The next day over 1,000 Jewish residents took to the streets. By the time things had calmed down, one week later, 14 Arab families had been chased from their homes on Acre’s eastern outskirts, their houses fire-bombed. Five houses had been burned to the ground, 80 shops and 30 homes damaged, over 100 cars had had their windows and chassis smashed and numerous people, both Arabs and Jews, had been injured. The events came to dominate the news in Israel over the extended Jewish holiday season, as the national media refocused lenses otherwise turned on Israel’s outer borders with the West Bank and Gaza. While journalists and politicians noisily argued over What Had Happened and What Should Be Done, however, keener observers may have noted a curious dissonance in the debate. Not only were these questions not necessarily asked in that order, but in many ways they also seemed to be subjects of two entirely different discussions. In this dissonance lies the key to understanding Israel’s Yom Kippur upheavals.

Spreading the Blame

Filed four days after the facts, veteran Ha’aretz reporter Gideon Levy’s first post-mortem from the scene anticipated many of the questions that would shadow Israeli debates over the riots. Among the most pressing was how the violence could have happened in a city that until then, according to Israel’s soon-to-be-outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, had been a “shining example of coexistence.” Tellingly, even reports that confronted this idyllic foundation narrative could do so only by taking a hurriedly wide-angle view of things, and though a pillar of Israel’s left-of-center conscience, Levy was no exception. Mournfully reporting from “18 Burla Street in Acre—part of a crowded, shamefully neglected housing project where three Arab families and 29 Jewish families inhabit a single building,” [1] he quickly framed the city as a vivid tableau of despair and disrepair, which, while anything but shining, offered itself up as a cause in itself.

The riots, Levy inferred, had been a conflagration of social frustrations, “a clash between poor and poor, Jews and Arabs, egged on by nationalists…with a religious holiday as the catalyst.” Appropriately distraught and generously empathic, it was a narrative that also deferred investigative impulses, seeming reluctant indeed to tie much of anything together too tightly. Levy did cite local Arab residents accusing the police of siding with Jewish rioters, and darkly muttering about the establishment of a right-wing yeshiva in the city. The underlying problem, however, was something else, and not just according to Levy. In short order the theme of the “war of the poor” found traction on the country’s center-left, as well as in the mainstream daily Yediot Aharonot. [2]

Meanwhile, such diagnoses reinvested in the coexistence narrative propounded by Olmert. Troubled though it may have been, from Levy’s perspective Acre had also been “a binational city,” its tragedy accordingly “a little Bosnia in the making.” Its contradictions notwithstanding, this presentation of Acre as part Paris banlieue, part Sarajevo found favor among those progressive Israeli Jews who came to heal the hurt in the city.

Six days after the outbreak of violence began the week-long holiday of Sukkot, the “Feast of Tabernacles,” during which observant Jewish families socialize and pray in huts (sukkahs) temporarily erected in their driveways and backyards. Seeking to spread the season spirit, Hashomer Hatza’ir, a vanguard wing of the Labor Zionist movement, erected a “Peace Hut” on the outskirts of Acre’s old city, emblazoned with rainbows, peace signs and words of conciliation in Arabic and Hebrew. Inside young, mostly Arab children played hide and seek. “Akko [Acre in Hebrew; in Arabic, Acre is known as ‘Akka] used to be a symbol of coexistence in the Galilee,” explained a lightly stubbled Hatza’ir employee named Itai, 27, who lives in one of Acre’s better-off satellite towns. “After eight days of violence we wanted to show that not all in Akko are like this.” But he also understood why things had gotten out of hand, he said. “It’s a tough city. There are a lot of kids here who get drawn into a bad culture, to violence and drugs.” Which kids -- the Arabs or the Jews? “Both,” Itai concluded. “It’s all about lost children.”

“Are You an Arab or a Jew?”

Conspicuously, such empathetic drift transposed a relatively uncomplicated story with clear connotations -- members of a national majority attempt to beat up a minority citizen, with escalating consequences -- unto one that distributed and diffused the blame with ever less subtlety. As Itai distractedly tended to the children in his hut, a counterpoint to his version of events echoed in a small community center inside Acre’s old city. In previous years, the al-Laz theater would have been hosting Acre’s annual Alternative Theater Festival, which draws tens of thousands of local tourists every year, and is an important source of income for the Arab inhabitants of the old city. Days earlier, however, Acre’s mayor, Shimon Lankry, elected by the city’s two thirds Jewish majority, had decided to cancel the event.

That afternoon, the theater accordingly hosted a different kind of drama, as a group of local Arab activists banded together under the banner ‘Akka Residents’ Coalition sought to give voice to a number of local families who had been forced out of their homes, and to offer a different context for the events. To a small audience of mostly fellow residents and Arab journalists, ‘Azziyya Abu ‘Ali tearfully told of how a mob besieged her family for three hours, while her husband, who had just recovered from heart surgery, lay gasping on the floor. In this story it was not just the children who had gotten lost. “I called the police station to ask for help,” she said, “and they asked me, ‘Are you an Arab or a Jew?’ When I told them they hung up the phone.”

‘Azziyya’s account was echoed by other displaced residents. Wala’ Ramal, 20, had asked the police to escort her home in the midst of the troubles, and was told in response, “We are not a taxi service.” In a number of cases male members of such families were arrested after the belated arrival of the police, either on the charge that they had helped Arab rioters flee from the law, or because they had thrown stones back at the mob from their windows. Overwhelmingly, when the authorities finally did arrive they did not protect the besieged houses, but instead helped their inhabitants to leave. This picture of official indifference provided one clue to why the Arabs of Acre might have had reason to come out unto the streets on October 8. If they didn’t look after their own, who would?

Yet although a handbook documenting these stories was distributed by the ‘Akka Residents’ Coalition, translated from the Arabic into English and Hebrew, and the testimonies in the theater were videotaped and posted online, the Israeli and international media took scant notice. Reporting one week later, an Associated Press review of events said nothing about the police’s behavior. [3] Similarly, no one at the New York Times thought to ask why Jewish residents were able, in its own words, “to set fire to at least three Arab-owned houses in the neighborhood…despite a heavy police presence.” [4] One reason may have been that the state, including units of the military Border Police, was preoccupied with quarantining the Arab parts of town. “It was like the West Bank in here,” one local resident sitting by the old city market said afterwards.

Of Sense and Insensitivity

By all evidence, the reflexive posture adopted by the Acre police reflected something more than the ambient racism of a local gendarmerie. An early sign of the drift of things was the first public statement by the police, which established that the riot had started when the Arab youth came out of the casbah. Before that, presumably, it was just a large mob attempting to lynch a family. Recycled by Ha’aretz and other Israeli papers, this understanding was also picked up by the Associated Press, whose summation of the events came to read: “Arabs smashed Jewish shop windows. Jews hurled rocks at Arab homes.” Mayor Lankry later fixed on the man who had first broadcast news of Arab casualties through the city’s mosques, charging him with “igniting the riots” and spicing up this charge with information that he had since “fled to the [Palestinian] territories.” [5] Meanwhile, as Tzipi Livni, Olmert’s successor as head of the ruling Kadima party, gravely warned that “every citizen has to respect” Yom Kippur, the country turned its attention to the real culprit.

Tawfiq Jamal was hauled in front of a Knesset Committee to expiate his transgression of Jewish religious norms, which he did, profusely. Upon his return home he was arrested, after his son had been similarly detained, on charges of driving too quickly, hurting religious sensibilities and endangering life -- presumably his own. Next in the dock were Arab community leaders in Acre, eleven of whom volunteered a letter apologizing on Tawfiq’s behalf for affront to Jewish religious beliefs. Mayor Lankry, as well as the city’s main rabbi, who felt transported to “Nazi Germany” by the riots, declined to accept the apology. Carried by the media and the machinery of state, the blame for what had happened had finally settled squarely on the “Arab sector” writ large.

The response underscored a fact already well understood by most citizens of Israel, even if they did not all openly articulate it: At stake was something more than religious sensibilities, or communal harmony, let alone the rule of law. A solitary breach in this national wall of outrage was opened by Amir Hetsroni, a lecturer at a Galilee college. In a Yediot Aharonot article titled, “A Question of Equality,” he began by calling Tawfiq Jamal’s first ostensible sin into question: “How can a driver can be charged with driving over the speed limit without his speed being measured?” He then proceeded to the heart of the matter:

…even in our overly clerical country, driving on Yom Kippur is not an offense. I admit that over the years I drove during Yom Kippur more than once, and not for emergency purposes, but rather, to go on trips. During my rides I passed by many police stations. None of the police officers, some of them possibly religious people who regretted my decision to drive instead of praying, weighed the option of arresting me, as they respected my right to drive on a day where they do not drive.[ 6]

Observation of Jewish West Jerusalem at the height of Yom Kippur confirmed Hetsroni’s point. Though its streets were largely deserted, one or two cars did pass by now and then, and no pedestrians rushed to lynch the drivers, nor did the police arrest them. Which begged the question: Why did the Arabs of Israel have to be more Jewish than Jews? The answer calls for a better understanding of what line Tawfiq had actually crossed on October 8, one which in turn requires that his journey that day be retraced, not through a maze of religious sensibilities, but backwards through history.

A Brief History of Shining Coexistence

The Palestinian town of Acre fell to the Haganah -- the proto-army of the Jewish state -- on May 6, 1948, a week before British troops were scheduled to leave Palestine and armies from neighboring Arab countries crossed its borders to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state in a country which was at the time 75 percent Arab. By then a large number of the city’s 13,000 pre-war inhabitants had fled; once the war was over and the new state of Israel established, only 3,100 Palestinians remained. Arab houses outside the old city walls, an area known as Mandatory Acre, were handed over to new, mostly poor Jewish immigrants, for whom Acre’s present-day blight of housing projects were first built. It was the first time in its 5,000-year history that Acre, famous for having repelled a Napoleonic expeditionary force in 1799, less so for withstanding the ancient Israelites, would be dominated by this faith. [7]

A majority of the city’s post-war Arab population had double reason to feel out of place in this new reality. Some of the worst atrocities committed by the Haganah and its auxiliaries during the 1948 war, including massacres, rapes of women and looting, were perpetrated in Acre and the Galilee villages surrounding it, often in the context of clear written orders to empty these communities, as documented by Israeli historians Benny Morris and Ilan Pappé, among others. The Haganah operation that wrought this havoc was code-named Ben Ami. After the war, during which over 80 percent of the country’s Arab population had been expelled, and in many instance re-expelled, these villages were wiped off the map, leaving only a few structures standing, often the local mosque. Some three quarters of Acre’s present-day inhabitants are refugees from these places, denied the right to return to their villages and denied compensation for lands and property taken by the state. Today, many still rent houses from Amidar, a government agency that assumed ownership of expropriated Arab property after 1948. It was by such means that Acre was transformed into a “mixed town,” as per Israeli parlance, the sensibility of such cohabitation immediately impressed on its remaining Arabs. After the war, Mandatory Acre’s main thoroughfare was renamed Ben Ami Street.

Forcibly concentrated in what soon became the “Arab ghetto,” Acre’s post-war generation endured three years of military rule, which among other things required them to obtain special permits, first to leave the old city, later to visit many parts of the Galilee and the rest of what had once been Palestine. Only in 1957 were they allowed to travel freely outside their city. In doing so they could observe Jews living in their former houses and tilling their fields, as well as countless mosques, churches and cemeteries that lay neglected throughout the countryside. A number of these holy sites were simply plowed under. Today, the Mamilla cemetery in Jerusalem, once the largest Muslim cemetery in Palestine, is a sprawling park where Israeli Jews can be seen almost every day relaxing amidst broken cenotaphs and shattered headstones. In some instances mosques were reused as nightclubs, animal sheds or synagogues.

In the seaside town of Caesarea, today a touristic theme park centered on a large excavation of Roman ruins, a small mosque counts among the remains of the village that stood here before 1948. Then known as Qaysarya, it was the first Palestinian community to be emptied during the war, by a unit under the command of Yitzhak Rabin, who was later to serve as Israel’s prime minister before being assassinated in 1995. Today the building of which the mosque seems to be a part hosts two bistros. The managers of both establishments say that they are not using the mosque itself, which enjoys a separate entrance, barred by an iron door. Once, though, “that was an art gallery,” said Eldad, the young, beaming owner of Port Café, who otherwise lives in Tel Aviv. What happened to the people who lived in the village? “They died,” he said, and laughed. Perhaps for this reason, neither he nor Ela, the woman who manages Helena on behalf of its owner, on the other side of the minaret, has ever considered that their restaurants might offend any sensibilities, religious or merely human. “I think it just adds to the energy of the place, the atmosphere,” said Ela, when queried about the mosque. Asked for his feeling about what happened in Acre, an hour’s drive further north, her counterpart grew serious, however. “You know what Yom Kippur means to us?” said Eldad. “You don’t have to be religious [to appreciate the holiday’s significance]. He didn’t respect this.”

It is against such backdrops that most Palestinian citizens of the state would have absorbed the outrage over Tawfiq Jamal’s transgression, an outrage born not so much of diverging religious sensibilities, or even differing senses of entitlement, but of entirely parallel perceptions of reality. Whence came threats posted on the Internet by unspecified right-wing Jewish groups after the riots, one printout of which was handed to Gideon Levy by an Arab resident of the city. “We will not honor any of their [religious] holidays or any place of theirs,” it said, in language as ominous as it was redundant. Such is the dark looking glass though which most of Acre’s Arab residents perceive the terms of their “shining coexistence” with the city’s Jewish population, and the state at large. Prefaced by the warning “we will no longer buy anything from Arabs,” the declaration also reminded them of something else: their precarious place in the economy of this cohabitation. In his decision to cancel Acre’s Alternative Theater Festival, Mayor Lankry drove home acknowledgment that its Jews are equally clear about these terms.

Coming Out of the Ghetto

Stripped of property and land, often separated from kinship networks, subject to varying degrees of military rule, crammed into under-funded schools and actively discouraged by the state from entering universities -- as government documents declassified over the past years have shown -- the remaining Palestinians of Acre were rapidly shunted to the margins of Israeli society after independence, along with much of the rest of the country’s remaining Arab population. Today the community confronts growing drug use and other social problems, and is economically dependent on catering to Israeli Jews, particularly in-country tourists drawn to Acre’s historical attractions, Arab market and shoreline sunsets. The real money comes not from the city’s poor Russian and Ethiopian Jewish immigrants, or from the older community of Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern origin), but from farther afield. Souvenir shops and restaurants that are bargains by Israeli standards, offering up fish and Arab staples like hummus, kebab and falafel, have sprung up to serve the out-of-town visitors, and the Alternative Theater Festival is their best time of the year.

Though branded by the New York Times as a symbol of coexistence, an encounter between people who otherwise live mostly in separate neighborhoods and speak different languages, this festival also reprises a customary dynamic in Israel’s “enjoyment of the Arabs within,” to paraphrase anthropologist Rebecca Stein. [8] Jews come to visit Arab villages and ghettoes; Arabs are not supposed to repay the visits. And the critical context for what happened in Acre on October 8 is that this dynamic was being symbolically reversed.

Since 1948, the Arabs of Acre have been on the move, demographically, and to some extent economically. With less and less space left in the ghetto, the second and third generations of this community were forced to look outside the old city walls for housing. Meanwhile, poor Jews first settled in these areas were moving out to newer neighborhoods built on Acre’s eastern outskirts or to more upscale developments in the Galilee. In addition, Arabs from Galilee villages like Tarshiha, who survived 1948 but remain hemmed in by land confiscations and regional planning restrictions, have bought property in Acre. The result is that its Arab community has come back out of the ghetto. “This area used to be completely Jewish 10 years ago,” said Taysir Khatib, a local activist and doctoral candidate in anthropology at Haifa University, while driving through the Mandatory neighborhoods flanking the old city. “Today it’s 95 percent Arab.”

Lankry’s election in 2000 coincided with this gathering groundswell, and in retrospect, many locals trace what happened in October back to the revanchist politics that has become a hallmark of his administration. Not incidentally, this politics was initially crafted around a symbolic “reclaiming” of Acre as an exclusive Jewish space, through mobilization of religious sensibilities. As Mandatory Acre was becoming increasingly Arab, Lankry pushed through new city ordinances requiring all shops, irrespective of their owners’ religion, to shut down on Saturday, the Jewish day of rest. In parallel, the city began writing out the Hebrew name for Acre -- Akko -- even in the Arabic script that is used on mixed-language street signage. Most ominously, Lankry also began encouraging religious and ultra-nationalist Jews to migrate to the city, supported by institutions catering to their needs. The closing line of the right-wing mailer shown to Levy after the riots echoed well the kind of sentiments propelling both this migration, and Lankry’s ascendancy: “Arabs of Acre, go find your place in the villages.”

Hummus vs. Demography

The Kafkaesque overtones of this exhortation, addressed as it was to people who live in Acre precisely because their own villages were destroyed by the state, captured the tenor of Israel’s wider debate about the unfinished business of 1948. This debate also critically magnified the stakes of the municipal turf war waged in Acre. As even half-attentive followers of Israeli politics would know, the demographic return of Arabs in Acre reflects a national trend. In 1948, there were 150,000 Arabs in Israel and around 650,000 Jews. The relative size of the Arab minority was subsequently reduced through massive Jewish immigration, largely from elsewhere in the Middle East. Lately, however, Israel’s Arab population has grown to 1.2 million, nearly one fifth of the country, and is particularly strongly represented in the Negev and the Galilee. In the northern region they are now, again, a majority of the population.

The threat that this resurgent demographic poses to Israel’s self-styled status as a “Jewish and democratic state” informed the promulgation of a 2002 emergency amendment to the national Citizenship Law, which prohibits Palestinian citizens from marrying Arabs from outside Israel. Though justified on security grounds, the law is widely understood as a means of further restricting the growth of the Arab sector. It was this demographic threat that drove the 2005 founding of the ruling Kadima party, and its recognition that Israel cannot digest its Arab minority while also absorbing the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories. Smaller political parties like Israel Our Home, whose chief platform is the “voluntary” expulsion of Israel’s remaining Arabs, euphemistically couched in the term “transfer,” tout similar conclusions, if also starker remedies.

A sense that Acre had come to mark the front line in this national confrontation infused right-wing responses to the riots and played on anxieties about the growing political assertiveness of the Arab minority. Writing in Yediot Aharonot, Hebrew University professor Shaul Rosenfeld belittled attempts to establish who had done what on October 8, veering straight at the real issue. The riots, he argued, were a “symbol of Arab animosity…. This symptom is an Arab minority that includes those who have recognized the weakness and helplessness of Israel’s government arms. This minority rushes to challenge ‘its own state,’ is not afraid to identify with its bitterest enemies and at times even rises up against it during war.” [9]

Rosenfeld’s last sentence was a direct reference to the events of October 2000, when the inhabitants of a number of Arab communities in Israel came out to demonstrate the army’s response to the second intifada, with some of them throwing stones at passing cars, and were met by police sniper units. Thirteen demonstrators (one a Palestinian from Gaza) were killed, some at point-blank range. In the Israeli media, however, the events were cast as a dangerous mini-rebellion by the Arab minority, and yet another sign that the Jewish state was losing its grip on things. After becoming prime minister five months later, Ariel Sharon made good on repeated promises to better “control the terrain” in Israel’s interior. [10] Three years after the October 2000 events, notes journalist Jonathan Cook, Sharon’s government approved 14 “settlements” in the Negev and Galilee, to be funded by the World Zionist Organization, “the first time the body has worked on settlements within Israel rather than in the occupied territories.” [11] As the colonizing division of the Israeli army “went back to its roots,” [12] the Jewish Agency pledged to bring 350,000 Jews and a “Zionist majority” to these areas by 2010. [13]

These Judaization plans worried not only the lead author of Israel’s 2020 National Master Plan, who prophetically warned that they “will heighten the conflict between Jews and Arabs over who will take the next hill, until we come to the last hill.” [14] Having in fact taken very few hills since 1948, and lost nearly every open one in sight, Palestinian citizens of Israel were forced into a deeper debate about the terms of their cohabitation with the state. Taysir is among those who feel the present situation is untenable. On his arms he still bears teenage scars from a stabbing by a gang of Jewish youths from the other side of Acre, and though he once claims to have believed in coexistence, he now feels it is an empty concept. Married to a Palestinian from the West Bank, he has only recently succeeded in obtaining a temporary permit, renewable every two months, allowing her to stay with him and their two children. “What we have is economic coexistence,” he frowns, “hummus coexistence.”

Such feelings finally crystallized into a political manifesto issued on December 2006 by the Higher Follow-Up Committee, an association of Arab members of Knesset, community leaders and mayors from inside Israel. Entitled the “Future Vision for the Palestinian Arabs in Israel,” it called for a complete overhaul of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, beginning with the fundamental definition of Israel as a state of the Jews, as opposed to its actual citizens, Jews as well as Arabs. The declaration was soon followed by a proposal for a new democratic constitution, authored by Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel; a proposal to establish a separate parliament for Palestinian citizens of Israel, propounded by the Ibn Khaldun center; and the “Haifa Declaration,” issued in 2007 by a group of 50 Arab intellectuals and community leaders. Not surprisingly, these demarches were met with near unanimous condemnation by Israel’s main political parties and most of its media.

It was against this double backdrop of local tension and national anxiety that most Israeli Jews came to believe that Tawfiq Jamal had been bent on provocation on October 8, playing loud music on his radio, as the BBC hastily reported on the day, and the Associated Press steadfastly maintained thereafter, notwithstanding the increasingly dubious attribution -- “many witnesses reported…according to the police.” It was also thus that a smaller number of Israelis came to feel that no matter what had happened, something must be done.

Bringing Back the Frontier

Among the groups that picked up on the government’s 2001 exhortation to “Judaize” the Galilee was a right-wing movement known as Seeds of Courage, founded in the Hebron settler enclave in the West Bank. Part of the Lankry-era migration of religious and nationalist citizens to Acre, they also evince a broader reflux of settlers into “strategic” areas of the country that are either thinly populated, such as the countryside around the southwestern edge of the West Bank, or substantially populated by Arabs. The movement found a home in the Spirit of the North, a new local yeshiva of the hesder variety, which combines religious study and army service, and attracts some of Israel’s most adamantine ideologues. Added to the mix, according to local Arabs, were an unspecified number of Israelis relocated to areas around Acre from the hard-right Gaza settlements evacuated in 2005. The importation of this frontier breed lent new teeth to the municipality’s demographic rearguard action.

Flush against a small police post, the hesder yeshiva is strategically located in a neighborhood of Acre that has turned overwhelmingly Arab over the past decades. It is widely told on this street that the yeshiva students have a way of acting out their military role in the neighborhood, demonstratively unlatching the safety catches on their machine guns in front of Arab residents, for instance, and, on at least one occasion, firing shots in the air. During Ramadan, the students would take this show into Acre’s old city, reprising the routine of settlers in the H2 section of Hebron, where some 800 settlers have planted themselves, under protection of the Israeli army, among 35,000 Palestinians. As the local Arab underworld sprang into action, the social utility of thugs was impressed on Acre’s Palestinians. “It only calmed down a bit when some our boys showed them that they also have guns,” related Taysir.

That things finally erupted, when they erupted, surprised possibly only the press. As noted by the ‘Akka Residents’ Coalition, an Arab member of Knesset named ‘Abbas Zakour had on October 7 written a letter to Israel’s minister of public security, Avi Dichter, warning of previous violence in Acre on Yom Kippur, “demanding that the police place mobile patrols in Arab and Jewish friction areas in ‘Akka.” Nor was it difficult to predict where early sparks might eventually like to travel. All of the Arab houses and apartments burnt during the riots were located in predominantly Jewish areas where the influx of Arabs was still relatively minor, and where they were most vulnerable, unable to rely on their own ethnic muscle to protect them.

In part, this was because many of these areas straddled Acre’s more expensive neighborhoods, some manifestly so. To visit one of these was to meet not the wretched of the earth of Levy’s narrative, but middle-class people, if not always of the most glossy kind, with small gardens, nice playgrounds and grand views of Haifa Bay. Though well-fed, however, these parts had long been something other than easygoing. Sitting in her sukkah under the burned-out windows of her erstwhile second-floor neighbor, a middle-aged woman who would give her name only as Eliza shrugged her shoulders when asked who had lived there. “I am a Jew and she was an Arab; we did not speak,” she replied. In the theater, back in the old city, Hanna Sa‘idi, a Palestinian who felt she had very good relations with most of her neighbors, related how one of them approached her later, after the riots, and expressed his condolences. “But I had seen him outside the house, shouting, ‘Death to the Arabs,’” she said.

Though Levy had contended that “Acre went up in flames all at once,” such stories pointed to a more persistent burn. As the Associated Press reported, Wala’ Ramal and her family “had spent six years as one of three Arab families in the apartment building where Jamal stopped to pick up his daughter…. In that time, her sister’s car had been burned once and someone set fire to their apartment door three times.” One of the torched Arab houses had suffered similar treatment, all the more ironically because the head of the family was a civil servant in the government, and was known in the community as an Arab with a license to carry a gun, a man who believed in the state, or was at least playing his role faithfully. Yet being loyal to the Jewish state did not mean that he could enjoy the privileges of its first citizens. When one police officer afterwards told an Arab housewife “to learn her lesson,” as she related at the Arab residents’ press conference, he made it clear that it was the families themselves who were at fault. Their crime was who they were, where they were: Arabs who had forgotten their place.

By this account, the pathology of Acre is not that of a “little Bosnia,” but some variation on Los Angeles of the late 1940s, as gangs of white youth patrolled the expanding boundaries of Central Avenue’s black ghetto, acting as the shock troops of municipal efforts to maintain effective segregation of white middle-class Los Angeles, at the very least, white Los Angeles, through zoning, deed registration and racially denominated block restrictions. [15] In this vein, it was telling that according to the most aggrieved members of Acre’s put-upon majority, the main target of the city’s creeping mongrelization was its women. Any black South African alive before 1994, any African-American reared below the Mason-Dixon line, would know the meaning of “They are taking all our girls,” as one Jewish housewife complained to Levy, shouting out of her window on Burla Street. A trawl through the Ha’aretz archives would show that Jewish religious figures in Acre had repeatedly, over the past year, touted such concerns. [16] Yet this political resonance slid like water off a tarpaulin in the Ha’aretz newsroom, and for that matter, in the Israeli media at large.

To American readers, meanwhile, the Associated Press offered only watered-down bromides. “The Acre riots showed how quickly tensions between Jews and Arabs in ethnically mixed towns can erupt, at a time when such mixing is growing in a number of Israeli cities,” read a final analysis. Decoded, it might otherwise be understood as follows. “The Acre riots showed what happens when people who were once kicked out of their homes because of their ethnicity start moving back into the neighborhood.” As such, it was Rabbi Yosef Stern who best articulated the awakening spirit of Israel’s north. “Coexistence is a slogan,” he told the settler-friendly Arutz Sheva news organization. “Ultimately, Akko is a town like Raanana, Kfar Saba or Haifa, and must safeguard its Jewish identity. I think everyone would agree that Akko is the capital city of Galilee, of thousands of years of Jewish history. We are here to preserve that Jewish identity and to reinforce that spirit, to stand for our nation’s honor.” And so it was that while the Israeli police went on a much publicized hunt for an unidentified Palestinian man, wanted for warning of Arab casualties on a mosque loudspeaker on October 8, others placed the blame elsewhere. Two weeks after the riots the hesder yeshiva was fire-bombed. [17]

Pass the Hummus?

What future, after such damage? Even for those Palestinian citizens of Israel who would try to work within the existing circuits of power in Acre, the sensitivies that flared up on Yom Kippur seemed impossible to placate. “They are two thirds of the population -- what more do they want?” asked Ahmad ‘Awda, a local communist politician who is running in the city’s upcoming municipal elections and spent a goodly portion of the Sukkot holidays receiving visiting Arab dignitaries from around the Galilee, come to demonstrate their solidarity with Acre’s Arabs. Earlier, ‘Awda had pointedly refused to join in the community’s self-condemnation, firmly placing the shoe on the other foot. “I ask the Israeli government, municipality, police and religious authorities to apologize to the Arab families,” he said. He also demanded that a commission of inquiry be appointed to investigate what had happened, and that unlike the Or commission, established to investigate the fallout from the October 2000 disturbances, it be genuinely independent. ‘Awda struck a lonely chord in the media’s echo chamber, however, where the dicussion had long ago skipped ahead from What Had Happened.

In this context, the response of Israel’s center-left consciences was in many respects more revealing than that of its right-wing spokespeople, with their predictable, if also perhaps more internally coherent, conclusions. Similarly preoccupied with the latent danger posed by country’s Arab minority, Ha’aretz found renewed urgency in the theme of the “war of the poor.” Pointing to the situation in other “mixed cities” like Jaffa (Yafo), Lydd (Lod) and Ramle (Ramla), where ghettoized Palestinians live if not side by side than at least in enclaved proximity to marginal Mizrahi, Russian and Ethiopian immigrants, it gestured toward the need for socio-economic bandages. “The situation is explosive,” Aviv Wasserman, director of an organization called the Lod Foundation, told the paper. “Things could be much worse than the Acre riots…. Too many people are sitting on the fence. This is the time to act -- for both government and social organizations. We must invest in the mixed cities.” [18] Minor disturbances reported in the coming weeks, in Ramle and Jerusalem, seemed to bear him out.

While implicitly parking state racism with the Jewish underclass, however, such recommendations were also perceived darkly through the Arab looking glass. Similar calls had been made after October 2000, and never translated into money. Read in conjunction with the state’s parallel interest in strengthening the Jewish presence in the Galilee, they also pointed to how differently Jews and Arabs understand the meaning of development in Israel. On one side of this lens was Levy, who, with the best intentions in the world, bemoaned the wasted potential that is Acre. “A city that could have been a tourist attraction was instead the most miserable in Israel.” On the other was the awareness of Acre’s Arabs that in Israel, there are still more miserable cities than theirs.

Here, local residents repeatedly worried that their city is already on the way to becoming “like Jaffa,” once the metropolitan heart of Arab Palestine, which was emptied of 90 percent of its residents in 1948 and thereafter largely razed. Over the past two decades, its remaining Arab neighborhoods, gripped by poverty, alcoholism and growing drug abuse, have been rehabilitated as a picturesque tourist annex to Tel Aviv. The areas are currently in the grip of a massive real-estate rush, driven by upscale Israelis and American investors with a taste for ocean views and Oriental atmosphere, sans Orientals. Concomitantly, Jaffa has become ground zero for the final dismantling of Arab society inside Israel. Some 4,000 people who were evicted from their own homes in 1948, and have since been living in rented Amidar property seized from other Palestinians, are currently facing eviction for a second time. The lesson is readily absorbed in Acre: In Israel, development is code for developing Arabs off their land and out of their houses.

No one knows this better than Uri Jeremias. The jovial, generously bearded owner of Helena Restaurant in Caesarea has for four years also run a fish restaurant inside the old city of Acre, called Uri Buri. Jeremias is the only Jewish entrepreneur in the casbah, but not for much longer. Stopping many times to shake hands with his constituents, Ahmad ‘Awda led a brief walking tour of Acre’s Ottoman-era khan, a vast, enclosed courtyard crowned by a clock tower, which has recently been acquired by a Jewish investor for conversion into a Hilton hotel. According to ‘Awda, over a dozen Arab families who rent houses around the khan will have to be evicted once the renovations begin. “They are planning to build a Jewish neighborhood here,” he said. Jeremias has himself acquired an old Arab “palace” at a bargain-basement price from a government agency named the Akko Development Corporation, which he is renovating into a boutique hotel. He pooh-poohs concerns about the families who stand to be evicted by the Hilton venture. “It is not even their houses,” he said, before returning to the topic of his own hotel. Acre has a bright future, he thinks. “This place is not 10 percent of what it could be.”

While Acre’s Arabs struggle to escape the feeling that they are, in Taysir Khatib’s words “reliving the nakba [the catastrophe of 1948] every day,” there is little sign that a conversation about the enduring legacy of this history, and the attitudes that perpetuate it, could be had even with professedly sympathetic Israelis. As Itai sketched out a path back from the brink, he was asked why Acre’s main avenue is named Ben Ami Street. “It was the operation that conquered Akko,” he said, nonplussed. What else did it do? He paused for a long time. “Listen, I am not here to talk about what the Haganah did 60 years ago. I was not born then.” He was hurriedly assured that it was just a question about social symbols. Could a first step entail renaming the street? “No, no you don’t know the Jews. This is very sensitive,” he replied with new urgency. “If we start talking about the issues that are very, very difficult to resolve, that is not going to get us somewhere.” It did not matter to Itai that it might be sensitive to someone else, too. In the end it was not possible to talk about symbols; it was not possible to talk about real issues. What was left to talk about? “We have to start going to each other’s restaurants and theaters and shops,” said Itai, “and feeling safe again…. That’s how you live together.” Feeling that he might not have been sufficiently convincing, he tried to put things in perspective. “They make a choice to be a national minority. If they want to live in this country and stay here we have to find out how to live together…. To be a national minority in any country is never easy.”

An Argument Between Jews and Jews

On the generous side of the prevailing political mood in Israel, Itai’s parting paternalism would slot his country into a liberal democratic continuum including the United States and the countries of Europe. Of course, minorities face difficulties in Israel. But do they not face them everywhere? In a country seemingly resigned to fill its yawning political gaps with little more than hummus, however, this narrative bucks one additional distinction. It is not possible for American politicians of any stripe to tell Native Americans, or African-Americans, that they made a choice to be a national minority, nor to insinuate that if they cannot live with their situation, they have the option of leaving. That it is possible in Israel points to a basic agreement between its right and all but the farthest-flung archipelagoes of its left. From one of these remote islets, poet and political commentator Yitzhak Laor honed in on the point of convergence: “According to the Israeli way of thinking, this place belongs to the Jews. The Arabs are strangers. Part of them thinks that we have to be nice to the strangers; part thinks that the strangers have to be expelled. That’s the situation.” [19]

It is as such that one can understand the reluctance of the Israeli left to tie the events in Acre together too tightly. When in the West Bank, this media rarely so condescends to either Palestinians, or for that matter Israeli settlers, some of whom are not well-off, that it ultimately blames what they do on poverty and neglect. This portion of the media knows that in the final analysis it is a political logic that conditions reality in the Occupied Territories, and that extremists and socio-economic frustrations ultimately must find their space within that logic. In the end, settlers do what they do because the state permits them to do it. As such, the left-wing media also understands that as long as that logic prevails, nothing will be solved. Yet when these consciences cross the Green Line back into Israel, something curious happens. The blame settles on poverty, neglect, extremists, everything but the state and its ideology.

This peculiar warp in the national imaginary explains how Acre could be consecrated as a “symbol of shining coexistence” by Ehud Olmert, who, it was less often noted by the media, has also acknowledged that the Arabs of the city, like those of the country at large, suffer discrimination. What appears to be a contradiction in reality is not: By Olmert’s way of thinking, a situation in which Arabs live at a different material and political level from their Jewish neighbors is coexistence. This is also why it was not a riot when Tawfiq Jamal was chased by the mob in Acre. A riot connotes the breakdown of a larger socio-legal order, and in Israel, Jews beating up an Arab is not a breakdown of the larger order. It is that order writ small and rendered physical, distilled into its fundamental metonymic dynamic. If the sight was unpleasant to some it was precisely because it made visible that larger scheme of things.

In a Yediot Aharonot article titled “Mahmoud, Have You Bought a Lulav Already?” a commentator named Yael Michaly improvised on the “Question of Equality” that Amir Hetsroni had posed in the same paper. What happened in Acre touched on a tension about the place of the religion in Israeli Jewish society, she argued. This was a debate in which it was accordingly unfair to entangle the country’s Arabs; after all, it was “an argument between Jews and Jews.” [20] Though vaulting over everything else that had happened, Michaly was in this last sense right. In the end the question of What Should Be Done after the Acre riots reflected internal Jewish Israeli anxieties about the growing Arab minority in Israel. In the case of the left, this anxiety was diverted into concern about marginal populations in the country, including marginal Jewish groups, and allowed the furthering of progressive social gesturing that nevertheless not only stayed firmly within the ideological red lines of the state, but further obscured their role in structuring social inequalities. In the case of the right it was further proof of the implacable hostility of the Arab minority, and the need to deal with this sub-population in ways only darkly hinted at, but widely understood. Neither of these two debates addressed What Had Happened in Acre, or what is happening in Israel at large.

This is the everyday theater of Acre, one that grows more threadbare by the day. Two weeks after the riots, a clutch of right-wing Jewish groups vowed to stage a demonstrative march and conference in Acre. Its spokespeople, among them retired generals like Uzi Dayan and former Chief of Staff Moshe “Boogie” Yaalon, are determined to confront “demands by the Arabs to change the anthem and the flag,” while driving “renewal in the Galilee and the Negev.” Having no place in this debate, meanwhile, some of Acre’s Arabs see the writing on the wall all the more clearly. For Ahmed ‘Awda, it signaled a new awakening. “I think what happened is good for the Arabs. We learn to not be dependent on the Jews, but to rely on each other,” he said. For Amal Shaaban, whose house was the first to be besieged, it translated into a more succinct feeling. “From today I am not Israeli, I am a Palestinian,” she declared in the al-Laz theater. Itai may be disheartened by such talk, but it is not clear what the Arabs’ response should otherwise be. Trust in the state? Appeal to the media? Call the police?

Author’s Note: Thanks to Taysir Khatib, Jonathan Cook and Kamal Al Jafari for their help with this article.

Endnotes

[1]Gideon Levy, “Acre Jews Warn: Arabs Will Kill You with Knives,” Ha’aretz, October 12, 2008.
[2] Yigal Sarna, “Akko’s War of the Poor,” Ynet, October 12, 2008.
[3] Associated Press, October 24, 2008.
[4] New York Times, October 12, 2008.
[5] Ynet, October 19, 2008.
[6] Ynet, October 15, 2008.
[7] As noted by Uri Avnery in “Taking the Hint from the Acre Blowout,” Gulf News, October 20, 2008. According to Avnery, there is therefore a debate among Jewish religious scholars about whether the city should be considered part of Eretz Israel under religious law.
[8] Rebecca L. Stein, Itineraries of Conflict: Israelis, Palestinians and the Political Lives of Tourism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), ch. 2.
[9] Shaul Rosenfeld, “Enmity and Weakness in Akko,” Ynet, October 13, 2008.
[10] Esther Zandberg, “The Worst-Laid Plans,” Ha’aretz, November 4, 2001.
[11] Jonathan Cook, “Crossing Which Borders?” Opinion, January 2-8, 2003.
[12] David Ratner, “Nahal Goes Back to Its Roots in Wadi Ara,” Ha’aretz, July 6, 2003.
[13] Cook, op cit.
[14] Zandberg, op cit.
[15] As chronicled, inter alia, by Mike Davis in his classic City of Quartz (New York: Vintage, 1992).
[16] Similar concerns have prompted the police and local activists in the Israeli city of Kiryat Gat to stage “rescues” of Jewish girls led astray by Bedouin men. Ynet, July 17, 2007.
[17] On November 10, the state prosecutor indicted Ibrahim Bayouni, 29, Khalid Shaaban, 20, and Salah Titti, 20, on the charge of torching the building. “The act, said the prosecution, was motivated by revenge for the way the Jewish residents of Akko conducted themselves during the riots.” Ynet, November 11, 2008.
[18] Ha’aretz, October 12, 2008.
[19] Yitzhak Laor, “The Response of ‘the Collective’,” Ha’aretz, October 19, 2008. [Hebrew]
[20] Yael Michaly, “Mahmoud, Have You Bought a Lulav Already?” Ynet, October 12, 2008. [Hebrew] A lulav is a palm frond used in morning prayer services during Sukkot.

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