Ali Salam — our generation’s Hasan Shukri?

Ali Salam, the mayor of Nazareth does not need me to tell him what it means to be a proud Arab citizen of Israel, nor does he need Ayman Odeh Mk, the smooth-talking Communist leader of the Joint List to tell him anything about that, as he was twice elected to be the mayor of the largest Arab city in Israel.

That said, the fact is that Odeh who pretends to be a man of peace unleashed a few hundred of his party activists to demonstrate against Salam when the mayor hosted in his office the PM of his state, who happens to be Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of Likud.

Odeh and peace is really an oxymoron, as he objects to the peace and normalization treaties with Arab countries as well as objecting to Netanyahu’s visits to Arab towns. Salam, on the other hand, wants peace and co-existence between ALL the citizens of Israel. So, for him to host the democratically-elected PM of HIS state is a matter of fact situation.

Salam has good intentions, and it remains to be seen how far he can and will go. A lot of it depends on Netanyahu who makes many promises now to Israeli Arabs, hopefully breaking the stigma, that Netanyahu and fulfilling promises are also an oxymoron. This article however is not about Salam and Netanyahu, rather it is about the great and long-forgotten mayor of Haifa, Hasan Shukri[1876-1940]. Hasan Shukri deserves much more than the dilapidated grave in a dilapidated Muslim cemetery in Haifa. He deserves state recognition as a hero of peace and understanding, a man who talked and acted for the attainment of this goal. His grave and the entire cemetery should be dealt with and immediately. This is the minimum that we can expect. I dedicate this piece to the memory of this man with the hope, that we can have today’s Hasan Shukri so that we have a more general hope, which is a better relationship between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

Shukri, a Sunni Muslim, served as mayor of Haifa between 1914-1920 and 1927-1940. These were trying years, particularly the second term, in which Arab-Jewish relations in Eretz Israel were steadily deteriorating in face of the growing Jewish aliya to the homeland at the time when the European situation worsened with the rise of Nazis and the strong reaction of local Arabs. The Arabs were helped by the states in the Middle East and led by the notorious war criminal Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al Husseini.

In these days, it was the norm among the leaders of the Arab community to compete with each other in displays of hatred towards the Jews, and as of 1936 the Arab revolt lasting until 1939, claimed hundreds of Jewish lives. On days like these, leaders show their real mantle, and Hasan Shukri showed his. He appointed Jewish members to the city council, he hired Jewish officials and experts to be employed by the council, he did all in his power to advance understanding between the two communities.

Many Arabs did not like it, and the Shabab [youth] was running in the streets of Haifa shouting ”Hasan Shukri the traitor sold his homeland for nothing”[A game of words in Arabic, my free translation-J.O].In January of 1937, there was an unsuccessful attempt on his life, by terrorists sent by the Mufti. Hasan Shukri was not deterred, and to the last day of his life, he worked hard, against all odds to advance the cause of peace. Shukri was not a Zionist, and surely he was not a traitor as was alleged by so many Arabs at the time. This very allegation may be at the very root of the conflict. The equation between a search for peace and treason. Those who cling to this false narrative, mostly Arabs, also Jews are the enemies of peace. Shukri was, therefore, a proud Muslim, an Arab patriot. He died on 29 January 1940, and his funeral became an impressive show of Arab-Jewish solidarity. Many thousands accompanied his coffin, and the eulogies by Jews and Arabs hailed the great man.

8 years later, at the height of the war over the country, when the Jews fought to claim the historic homeland, the city of Haifa became a test case for the very possibility of any form of Arab-Jewish co-existence. The Jewish leadership called upon the Arab population to stay in Haifa, guaranteeing their safety and well being. Most of the Arabs refused to heed this call for peace, rather they followed those leaders who called them to leave for a while until the invading Arab armies will do the job of exterminating the Jews and Haifa would become Judenrein. That did not happen, and Haifa did not become the model city that it could be. It is always tempting to ask the question ‘what would it be if?”, in this case, how history could have changed if there was Hasan Shukri
around in 1948. I do not think that in this case, there is even a need to speculate. Haifa today is regarded as a model of co-existence multi-communal city, and whether right or wrong I leave the final judgment to the people of Haifa., though when I read and hear Ayman Odeh, a resident of Haifa, I have reasons to believe that this may be a somewhat over-optimistic description of the real situation there.

The same goes for the people of Nazareth. They are the ones who have to pass judgment on their mayor, and time will tell. I still claim the right though to express the hope, that Ali Salam will be the real man of peace, understanding and co-existence. In other words, that Ali Salam will be the Hasan Shukri of our generation.

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina
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