Earlier this week I attended a staff day in Acre with The Abraham Initiatives as part of my internship program. The Abraham Initiatives strives for equal political and social rights for Jewish and Arab citizens, aiming to turn mixed societies into shared societies. They do this by implementing programs and presenting their results to the government to create lasting policy change. I was picked up in Rishon LiZion by fellow staff members. The atmosphere was comfortable, as if it were four friends just going for a drive. During the ride, I tried to decipher the little Hebrew I know with translations along the way. The consensus was: everyone wanted hummus and coffee. Sitting with these four women, I did not initially know that everyone had a different background: Russian, Arab Christian, Arab Muslim and Ashkenazi. I have only been in Israel for five weeks and have quickly learned that this could be a rarity. We drove past the border between Israel and the West Bank and several separated Jewish and Arab communities along the way. These varied facades beg you to dig deeper into the history – only beginning to tell the story of this place.
Before coming to Israel, I had little knowledge of what a mixed city is and the complexities that exist. At first look, it appears as if society is shared – Arabs and Jews are working together in the local bakery, sitting across from one another on the bus and rushing to the same market before Shabbat. Then I began to learn about the separate school systems, community centers and government programing. This felt overtly alarming through my American lens, but when two groups of people do not share their language, culture or religion, separate systems start to appear as leverage. Still, there is discrimination towards the Arab community that remains to hinder their growth socially, politically and economically.
Acre is known to be one of the more successful mixed cities in Israel based on the demographics and Arab representation in the local government. I am currently living in the mixed city of Lod, which faces less success and I am eager to learn the differences. The majority of our day consisted of touring the Old City of Acre led by Maher Zahra, who is part of the young entrepreneur movement in Israel. Most old cities in Israel have a similar ambiance – the building walls and floors are lined with tan porous brick, there are clothes hanging on lines outside the windows and modern businesses fill the old entry ways. You can’t help and wonder what was there before, and how this place changed over time while the structure remained the same. All the doors were painted turquoise or blue, batting away the evil spirits that could evade the quiet stone walls. I was shocked upon arrival of this old city because it hardly resembles the one in Lod. It is hard to appreciate its antiquity when garbage liters the ancient buildings that are now home to the stray cats and overgrown shrubs. It feels as if the old word has been forgotten, with asphalt streets and modern buildings dispersed in between – that there is no time for preservation of the past when you can barely preserve the present.
The majority of the population in the Old City of Acre is Arab, who are originally from there or displaced. The majority of the Jewish population lives outside the old walls. There are thriving businesses although many are owned by people who do not live in the city – taking their profits elsewhere. There are people who own property but also do not live there – creating many vacant residences. Although Acre’s tourism is rising, it seems it has not reached it potential – the grave silence of the old city on a Monday midday, mirrors the absence of economic growth for the people living there.
The Old City of Lod differs in that Jewish people make up a larger percentage of the population. A large increase of Jewish people began moving there in the early 2000s, creating a new set of challenges for this place. There is now less focus on preserving and more on integrating. Among the tension, the old city is loud and vibrant on weekdays, you can hear different languages being spoken and in one corner there is a mosque, church and synagogue sitting together. There is a restaurant open on Shabbat with Arab and Jewish workers where I am hoping to one day claim my status as a regular. This is not a place familiar with tourism as the businesses and the people who frequent them are locals. The residences are full and it is the only area in Lod where Jewish and Arab people live in the same building. This is something that is becoming more common in the country but still considered unique.
The community centers in both cities are an example of the separate systems that also have some overlap. Upon arriving to Israel, I was shocked at how many community centers exist in these areas and what a vital role they play, especially in the lives of the children who live there. A common misconception is that Arabs have a higher quality of living in mixed cities when in fact they are more vulnerable and often come from lower socio-economic backgrounds along with the Jewish residents. The community centers are there for these families and children – to provide a second home and reinforce education, safety and community. In Acre, the Jewish and Arab centers are separate but actually run under the same leadership. In Lod, there is one community center that caters to both populations. The programs within the center are mostly separate but they work under one roof.
Walking through the old city, I left feeling we barely touched the surface – there are many histories I don’t know and personal stories that need to be sought out. We walked along the water which was blocked by an old brick wall. Earlier in the day, we learned about how Acre was continually reconquered by different empires and I wondered how this wall used to protect the city. It gave off the same feeling that there is something that needs to be preserved here. We passed houses that were falling apart, the old stone not withstanding the weight. The old city is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s a challenge for homeowners to make repairs. There was talk among staff about the uniqueness of the old city comprising of mostly Arab residents and if Jewish people will move in over time. What will be preserved if that happens and what will evolve? It reminds me of Lod, of what could be but also the problems and tensions that were brought with this change. Even in this mixed society, is the old city of Acre meant to be shared or preserved?