Zooming In: Israel on a Municipal Level

Issues of Jewish-Arab relations in Israeli society span across diverse public policy issues, including urban design and city planning. Generally Jewish and Arab populations live in separate towns governed by separate municipalities. While some of these towns may be in close proximity to one another, their planning and budget allocation are worlds apart.

I had the opportunity to visit Nazareth on Christmas Eve with the staff of the Abraham Fund Initiatives where we learned about relations between the Christian and Muslim minorities in Nazareth and the neighboring Jewish town of Nazareth Illit. This visit aptly demonstrated the complexity of relations between the populations within Israel’s borders, and tensions that exist among the minority population itself.

Nazareth sprawls across a hillside, its neighborhoods stretching far outside of the center city. A main street divides the city of Nazareth from the more recently built, predominantly Jewish city of Nazareth Illit. These two cities are administered and governed separately. Government led polices have resulted in designation of land for many large industrial zones bordering Arab neighborhoods. Several industrial zones are located next to Nazareth, but due to government zoning policies these business parks and commercial areas are under the jurisdiction of and pay property taxes to Nazareth Illit.

View overlooking Nazareth from a hilltop. (courtesy)

Socioeconomic statuses of cities in Israel are divided into ten levels. The City of Nazareth is ranked 3/10 while Nazareth Illit is ranked 6/10. Over the past few years, the two cities have experienced higher levels of internal migration. State designation of land for Jewish neighborhoods and industrial zones adjacent to Arab towns has largely prevented these Arab cities from needed expansion to house their growing populations. As a result, there is a rising trend of Arab residents moving to Nazareth Illit in search of enhanced municipal services and more space to raise their families. This pattern is accompanied by its own set of problems, with a lack of suitable infrastructure in Nazareth Illit, such as schools and places of worship, to accommodate the growing Arab community there.

Issues concerning property tax allocation and municipality administration exist in other places across Israel where Jewish and Arab towns are located in close proximity. The Arab town of Iksal, also located close to Nazareth, is not benefiting from property tax revenue from the industrial zone that sits on its doorstop. Rather, the taxes from industrial zones in these areas benefit the local municipality of Emek Yisrael, which encompasses the generally wealthier Jewish residents living in Kibbutzim and Moshavim. Although they are neighbors, Iksal and the nearby Moshavim’s only form of economic cooperation is the sewage plant they share, again at a much closer proximity to Iksal. Unequal government investment in Arab towns has been systemic across Israel, leaving many of these towns with few resources to develop needed municipal programs and infrastructure.

The Arab population in Nazareth is diverse, with the majority Muslim and one third Christian. The presence of the Christian population was especially distinguishable on Christmas, with numerous churches and city streets elaborately decorated. Much of the land in Nazareth is owned by the churches there, and this land is officially recognized by Israel. The Christian population also tends to have a higher socioeconomic status and education level than the Muslim population. Muslim lands are all privately owned and the population tends to be less wealthy.

Greek Orthodox Church decorated for Christmas. (courtesy)

Lifestyle and cultural differences may exist within Nazareth’s population, but the two religions practice side by side. While on a tour of Nazareth’s main religious sites, we were able to observe the famous White Mosque located next to the Church of Annunciation where the Virgin Mary was believed to have resided when she was pregnant with Jesus. There are eight different sects of Christianity in Nazareth alone, evident when we visited a Greek Orthodox Church down the street. I felt transported to a different world while still inside Israel’s borders. The existence of diverse minority cities and towns in Israel make it a multicultural “melting pot,” a reality that is sometimes overlooked. Israel must learn how to respect these minority areas. The city of Nazareth, central to the beliefs of so many around the world, will continue to exist. If crucial problems such as lack of tax revenue and public land are not dealt with, movement of Arabs into towns like Nazareth Illit will only continue. Integration by economic necessity can be positive, but only if Israel is prepared to accept this new reality. Only time will tell.

About the Author
Originally from the Boston area, Rachel worked for the past two years at the Consulate General of Israel to New England as its Director of Community Relations. Rachel graduated from the University of Rochester in 2015 where she studied Political Science. She will be interning with the Abraham Fund until January.