As long as I am mayor, an Arab school will not be built in Upper Nazareth.” These are the words of Upper Nazareth mayor Shimon Gapso from last week and which he has uttered on many occasions, in apparent disregard of the fact that he is mayor of a city with 14,000 Arab residents, approximately 25% of the city population, including well over 2000 school-age Arab children. He has also issued similar public refusals to establish a mosque in the city, despite the ongoing requests from the Muslim residents. Although Gapso has been espousing such racist views for years, the issue hit the media last Wednesday when Education Minister Shay Piron issued a clear directive to establish an Arabic-speaking school in Upper Nazareth.

This news undoubtedly brought encouragement to, among others, the strong group of residents who had been organized by Shatil, the New Israel Fund’s Imitative for Social Change, and who had also received professional legal and advocacy guidance from ACRI and Mossawa. These residents, many of them parents of school-age children, have been vocally advocating for their rights in a clear and rational manner and it was enormously gratifying to see their hard efforts bearing fruit.

Upper Nazareth is not one of Israel’s officially designated “mixed cities” – as are Ramle, Lod, Acco, Haifa and Yaffo.  Mayor Gapso justifies his policy by citing the fact that Upper Nazareth is adjacent to Nazareth, where Arab children can go to school and Muslim families can go to pray.  He insists that Upper Nazareth is and shall forever remain a Jewish city. Yet the proximity of an Arab city should not require local residents to travel unreasonable distances (that is, more than Jewish residents must travel) for education or religion.

Gapso’s views were not born in a vacuum. In fact, Upper Nazareth, like the towns of Karmiel and Misgav, was part of an explicit government policy to increase the Jewish population of the Galilee and strengthen its “Jewish character.” In that respect, Gapso is right when he says that the drive for an Arab school is part of a concerted social movement against prevailing policy. However, it is not an Arab “takeover” as he claims, but rather a struggle to account for the changing reality and to ensure that Israel lives up to its self-image as a modern, democratic state.

It is flawed to claim that only those cities defined as “mixed cities” in the early years of the State are entitled to equal services within the municipality, and it is unrealistic to assume that the population patterns of 65 years ago should determine people’s choice of where to live today.

In Israel, as in any open society, people move around. This is their right. Arabs now live in many “Jewish” cities in Israel aside from Upper Nazareth, such as Karmiel  and  Beer Sheva. All cities should be open and available for all of Israel’s residents. It is unacceptable to insist that any particular city be preserved as exclusively or “purely” Jewish, and it is just as unacceptable to insist on purely Arab cities from which Jews are barred. That is not how democracy works.

Israel is a country with a majority of Jews, but also a significant minority of Arabs – Muslim and Christian – as well as refugees from Africa and other scattered countries.  Although many Arabs may prefer to live in neighborhoods, towns and cities where they are the majority, there are many reasons – employment, housing opportunities, transportation, standard of  living – that require some to move to cities and live amidst a Jewish majority. Some Jews may want to live in a diverse community.  Some Arabs may choose to go to a Jewish school, but others will prefer an Arab school where they feel more comfortable with the language and the relevant curriculum. Such schools cannot of course be provided for a very small number of residents, due to economies of scale. However, if their numbers increase to a certain level —and it is the task of policy-making bodies to set those levels realistically — the municipality must provide appropriate services as it does for all citizens. A minority’s status in any community should not per se exclude it from culturally appropriate public services.

In a multicultural society — which is, after all, what Israel is — we have to devise new models for neighborhoods incorporating different ethnic communities. One idea, which would both promote inter-ethnic tolerance and understanding and use resources more efficiently, is to establish adjacent schools, Jewish and Arab, in which the schoolchildren would study most subjects in their separate curricula but mingle in such activities as sports and actually study certain subjects, such as English and math, together. This model can not only save money but also help to build the kind of Jewish-Arab understanding and tolerance that are generally so lacking in our society.

That is a vision for the (hopefully very near) future. More immediately, the narrow definition of “mixed city”, entitling all residents to public services, is far too restrictive, and perhaps should be abolished altogether and replaced with the principle of providing services on an equal basis to all Israeli citizens, no matter their place of residence. Populations, especially in vigorous democracies, are mobile. Israel should not be in the business of placing “No Entry” signs in its towns and cities. Rather, mayors have to lead the way in showing how cities can accommodate the needs of all their residents so that they are in fact shared cities.

Mayor Gaspo stated that he wants to “stop the demographic deterioration of the city”.  Just imagine the Jewish reaction to such a statement if it related to Jewish movement to cities in the Diaspora. In the modern state of Israel, any city can become a “mixed city”, and even better – a shared city. This is not something to block, but to embrace.