Gary Gilbert

What Acre can teach US student protesters

Though I was within easy range of Hezbollah rockets, I felt less under attack in the mixed Arab-Jewish city than on my American college campus
People in the Old City of Acre, Northern Israel, July 6, 2022. Photo by Shir Torem/Flash90
People in the Old City of Acre, Northern Israel, July 6, 2022. Photo by Shir Torem/Flash90

As an academic, I spend my summers conducting research and relaxing from the hectic academic year that just passed. This year, the need for relief was particularly acute after nearly eight months of a flurry of emotions.

I was deeply saddened at the horrific attack in Israel on October 7th. My pain extended to the hundreds of persons taken hostage and to the Gazan civilians decimated by a war instigated by Hamas, but conducted by Israel with catastrophic results. I was bewildered and angry at some of the reactions on my campus and around the United States that sanctioned Hamas’ actions. I was frustrated with the protests that demonized Zionists and disrupted campus activities. I was exhausted.

This summer I found relief in possibly one of the most unlikely of places: Israel. For the last 15 years, have been coming to Israel as part of an archaeological team excavating and researching the site of Tel Akko (better known to locals as Tel Napoleon). Some people summer in the Hamptons. Others retreat to Martha’s Vineyard. I summer in Akko (Acre).

Akko is a fascinating city. For centuries, Akko has been home to a wide variety of peoples, including Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Arabs, Crusaders, Turks, Druze, and Bahai. Today, Akko is one of the half-dozen mixed cities in Israel, meaning that Akko possesses a Jewish majority and a large Arab-Palestinian minority.

Over the years, I have come to know and appreciate the city and its diverse communities and cultures. My circle of acquaintances and friends has grown to include Jews and Arabs, both Muslim and Christian. For most of my years in Akko I have witnessed a city that embodies the principles of toleration. This does not mean that everyone extends a welcoming hand to one another, but the residents of the city have figured out a way to live side-by-side.

In May 2021, this co-existence was ruptured by paroxysm of intra-communal violence. Prompted by fighting between Israel and Hamas, gangs of Arabs attacked Jews and some of the city’s most conspicuous Jewish-owned institutions, including the famed Uri Buri restaurant. Those events were a sad reminder that even in the appearance of tranquility, tension and hostility lurk just beneath the surface. The city has largely recovered from those tumultuous days, although some scars can still be seen on the urban landscape.

This summer was different. While I was there and for the entire time since October 7th, the city has been quiet. Too quiet for the merchants who livelihood has been upended by the dearth of customers, but quiet in the way that both Jews and Arabs have come to express a shared understanding of their condition during wartime.

This year I stayed in the Old City of Akko, whose residents are almost exclusively Arab-Palestinians and where one can hear the mellifluous call to prayer five times a day. In speaking to friends, shopkeepers, restaurant servers, both Jewish and Arab, the most common word used by all was exhaustion. They were exhausted living under the threat of war for the past nine months. They were exhausted from not knowing when the next rocket fired by Hezbollah would hit. They were exhausted from the strain brought about by the precipitous decline in economic activity. And they were exhausted from the feckless decision makers in Israel, Hamas, and Hezbollah for prolonging the conflict. To a person, they wanted peace and a return of the hostages taken by Hamas.

What is more, no one I spoke with in Akko, Jewish or Arab-Palestinian, described Hamas’ attack on October 7th as an act of liberation. Nowhere in Akko, including among Arab-Palestinians residents, could one find people chanting “from the river to the sea” or “free Palestine.” There were no tent encampments. No one occupied the mayor’s office. Israeli Jews could be seen walking through the Arab suk and eating at Humus Sayyed without being reviled for being a Zionist. The only keffiyeh I saw was folded neatly on a back shelf in a souvenir shop.

The attitude of the Arab-Palestinians I encountered in Akko stands in sharp contrast to the students, supported by some of my faculty colleagues, who engaged repeatedly in these activities. I would also note that the absence of these types of activities in Akko was not because the people feared retribution from governmental authorities or their neighbors. Rather, these were not the type of activities that they thought appropriate under the circumstances or helpful.

I do not want to downplay the real threat facing Israelis, particularly in the northern part of the county. And yet, even though I was only 20 kilometers from the border with Lebanon, and thus within easy range of Hezbollah rockets, I felt less under attack in Akko than I did in the previous eight months on my American campus. There I was attacked for being a Zionist, had protesters advocate that students boycott my classes, had my work in Israel described as “apartheid tourism,” and counseled students whose lives were thrown into even greater turmoil, a few even deciding to leave the college.

While sharing a cup of coffee with a local Arab merchant and longtime friend, I imagined what might have happened if those who engaged in the campus protests had joined me in Akko. I think if they put down their megaphones and sat down with the people I know and experienced life amid this Israeli Arab-Palestinian community they would have seen a different perspective.

They would have been able to observe how being Zionist and Palestinian do not necessarily stand in opposition, and how Arab-Palestinians can regard the State of Israel as their home. They could have witnessed how criticizing Israel’s actions in Gaza and wanting to support the victims of the war can take place without demonizing an entire country and the people who identify with it. I do not think it likely that at the end of our time together they would have come to support Israel. That would not have been my goal. Rather, experiencing life in Akko could show anyone that differences in political positions can be expressed without resort to tactics and slogans that devolve into derision and division.

Akko is a wonderful city. It does not represent a panacea for the difficult political conflicts facing Israel and Palestinians. It is, however, a reminder of how one can understand those conflicts with a recognition of and a willingness to engage the other with toleration and with sense of shared purpose. That is the Akko that I know, and the Akko that I wish those on my campus could see.

About the Author
Gary Gilbert is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Jewish Studies Sequence at Claremont McKenna College. His research and teaching engage with various area of Jewish Studies, but particularly Jewish communities in the Greek and Roman periods. He is author numerous articles on Jews and Jewish communities in the Roman world, particularly on the community in Aphrodisias. Professor Gilbert received his bachelors in Classical Studies from Haverford College and his doctorate from Columbia University, with additional studies in Jewish history at The Jewish Theological Seminary and early Christianity at Union Theological Seminary. Professor Gilbert serves on the staff of the Tel Akko archaeological excavations in Israel, and is assisting with the publication of those materials. Professor Gilbert has held visiting positions at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and the University of Warsaw.