You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

A Love Letter to Haifa

Lawrence Bush
May 5, 2008

by Sue Swartz
Consider this a love letter to Haifa — where the prophet Elijah is buried and Israel’s first modern university was built. City built between the mountains and the sea, Haifa of summertime air advisories and surly Russian-speaking super-market clerks, less-favored cousin of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Haifa — the “red,” city of coexistence, gateway to the Galilee. Haifa — where I have been living for six months and where, on a sunny Tuesday morning in late June, I am trying to squeeze my small car into an impossibly small space in the same spirit that I’m trying to squeeze last-minute sightseeing into the remaining days of my sabbatical.
I begin at the logical place: the air-conditioned Haifa Tourist Bureau. Yafah, the woman staffing the front desk, loads me down with pamphlets and advice. Born in Haifa, she lives a ten-minute walk away, in Kiryat Eliezer, a dense neighborhood of forty-year-old beige apartment buildings with tiny plastic-shuttered porches, home to the municipal stadium where you can catch a raucous game of soccer for the equivalent of $2.50. She loves the city and she loves the tourists, loves talking to them, “though they usually just come to see the Bahai Temple and gardens, and miss the rest.”
Opulent greenery. Seaside resort. Panoramic views. This is the Haifa of the pamphlets, but it isn’t the rest, the Haifa of day-to-day living. It isn’t the noisy market or the corner flower shop. It isn’t the Haifa of Dovid, auto parts store manager on a side street not far from the Tourist Bureau and once-fashionable German Colony. “I like it a lot less than I used to,” he tells me in response to my questioning. “It’s a dead city now. There’s no money, no tourists, no work. The bus used to go down this street, past my store, but no longer. You better go talk to someone else.”

Photo of a sculpture by Ursula Malbin, Haifa

The best thing about Haifa is the highway to Tel Aviv. That’s what Dovid’s 30-ish son tells me, smiling, in perfect English. Tel Aviv, the place to which — if they don’t leave for the U.S. — the young of Haifa aspire after graduating from the Technion or the University. Standing on the dusty sidewalk, I’m reminded of another expression I’ve heard more than once: Jerusalem prays, Tel Aviv plays, Haifa works. Haifa is the city of the practical, the ordinary, the industrious. Nothing extraordinary happens here.

It’s easy to see why the place has this reputation. You can enter Haifa from the south on Highway 4, a winding and picturesque route that takes you through heavy forest and Druze villages, or you can enter the way most people do, on congested Highway 2 — past the industrial park with its prominent, high-tech signage; past two large shopping malls; past the port with its rows of red and blue cargo containers; past the oil refinery’s twin cooling towers, symbol of Haifa since the 1930s, and the valley of petrochemical plants and railway tracks.
According to legend, sailors invented glass here on the shores of the Mediterranean. The traditional blue-purple dye needed for tzitzit came from snails just north of the city, birthing an ancient cottage industry. The German Templars of the mid-19th century introduced mechanical workshops and olive oil soap factories. The Turks built the Hejaz railway, the British the refineries. Eventually, the dockyards expanded, Jewish workers came from Europe by the thousands, and prominent Arab leaders of the Communist Party made their home here (hence, “red”). Public transportation even operates here on shabbat, a nod to Haifa’s proletarian roots.
Okay, so it isn’t as trendy as Tel Aviv or as self-important as Jerusalem, but I like it that way. Almost every week brings a themed festival or special event: flamenco dancers, children’s theater, Spring wine and cheese tasting, jazz concerts — all advertised with huge round signs plastered every few yards along the main roads. There’s salsa dancing, all-night clubs, museums, and Israel’s largest shopping mall. And then there’s the beach.
From haSheket (“Silence”) in the north to Dado (named for the military chief of staff during the Yom Kippur War) several kilometers south, the beach is the place for couples new enough to still have dates, retirees in jogging shoes, red-haired Russian women strolling arm in arm, Ethiopian teenagers, groups of young Arab men, and extended families all wearing brightly colored Crocs. One can fill up on blended fruit drinks, grilled meat or pizza, join in lively Israeli dancing complete with DJ, or swim, windsurf or play a fast-paced game of beach ping-pong (minus the table).
People are there all day, every day, with few exceptions. “You’re not going to believe this,” Yafah tells me, “but I went to the beach during the war [with Hezbollah]. I think it was the best six weeks of my life: I didn’t have to go to work and could stay home with my son, but after a while I just had to go somewhere besides the supermarket. We went to the beach. Just for a few minutes, and then we came home. My son was scared. A bomb fell on the beach just after we left.”
That bomb, or another like it, destroyed a three-story apartment building in Bat Galim (“Daughter of the Waves”), the neighborhood closest to the beach, a curious mix of abandoned almost-mansions, surfer hang-outs, and small duplexes with little gardens. A half-finished casino with a red roof overlooks the boardwalk. They’re repaving some of the side streets, adding sidewalks here and there. Considered the best windsurfing beach in Israel, it has sections named for the Machon Oceanographic Institute, the casino, and a small chapel up the road. Not long ago, there were plans for a multi-use marina, shopping and hotel district, the “Haifa Rivi-era”, but the plan was defeated by a coalition of windsurfers, residents, environmentalists, and beachgoers. The Red Bull Stormrider contest takes place here, near the natural habitat of an endangered sea turtle. The reefs will leave you bleeding if you’re careless. The milkshakes are particularly thick. Bat Galim feels like a place that’s waiting for something.

Rooftop sculpture in Wadi Nisnas

“Someone lived here once.” These words are spray painted on more than one Ottoman-era stone building in the mostly-Arab neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas (“Valley of the Nisnas,” variously defined as an Egyptian mongoose and a mythical creature), up the hill from Bat Galim. Hanging on the ornate wooden door of one building are large metal keys; a framed wedding picture hangs above the cemented windows of another. Do the keys really belong to the people who lived there? Is the picture really of the smiling bride and groom whose address this once was? Our guide from Beyt haGafen (House of the Vine), the Arab-Jewish community center, does not know.
I meet with Zahava Koronyo in Beyt haGafen before the tour. She hands me more pamphlets. “This is what Haifa really stands for,” she tells me, explaining that the problems are the same as throughout Israel — different people trying to live together — but that in Haifa, there is more acceptance. Beyt haGafen is a place for people to meet each other as neighbors. Tens of thousands of Israelis come each winter for the Center’s Festival of Festivals, a celebration of Chanukah (khanike), Christmas, and Ramadan (though the latter might fall in May or September in any particular year) consisting of a street fair of home-made food, outdoor theater, and art exhibitions. There is also a multi-language library, youth leadership groups, and Arab cultural month every Spring.
Koronyo isn’t the only one to talk to me about Haifa’s ethos of coexistence. Almost everyone I speak to mentions it. You can see it on the street in the heady mix of Jews, Arabs, Russians, Ethiopians. This is the most integrated of Israel’s cities, and its different groups are used to passing each other in the street, sharing the same workplace, even (very) occasionally living in the same neighborhood. Paula, the bleach-blond woman who cuts my hair, says that everyone leaves everyone else alone — though I watch as she tries to discourage the Ethiopians from congregating outside her shop. Them she’s not so crazy about; they leave trash lying around, she says.
Yishai, the fabulous acupuncturist recommended by a friend, wonders for a moment if the coexistence is an illusion, then decides it is genuine, a good thing. He loves working in Haifa, would live here if the apartments weren’t so ugly and the air quality so bad.
Bad air? It’s there, but I can hardly notice it with all the cigarette smoke on the patio of Fattoush, an Arab-owned restaurant. There’s no English on the menu, only Arabic and Hebrew, and no obvious tourists. A teenager is selling miscellaneous junk from a cardboard box: lighters, batteries, chewing gum. It is impossible to tell who is who here, the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael all happily eating hummus and salads, all dressed smartly, all speaking loudly against a backdrop of oud music and lush gardens. I read an advertisement for “Summer Nights 2007,” a series of upcoming video performances: Sting, Yanni, Fado music, Youssou N’Dour from Senegal, Nina Simone, electronic Cuban quartet, Chinese girls’ choir. A good thing? I would say so.
“It was very unpleasant, to use an understatement.” I’m sitting with Yair Safran at the Haifa Historical Society, getting a overview of the city’s history stretching back to the Paleolithic “Carmel Man” and up through the 20th century. Safran lived in Haifa when it was bombed by the Italians and Germans in 1941. He remembers black smoke and burning oil tanks with just a hint of fondness — after all, it was his boyhood. Last summer was far worse, very unpleasant: The siren blew and one minute later, the blast came. The rockets, he said, just dropped out of the sky.
You can see few remnants of last summer’s war in Haifa. I went looking. The railway terminal, site of eight deaths, has been rebuilt. The main post office, repaired. Ten months after the bombing, though, a building owned by al-Ittihad, the Arab-language Communist Party newspaper, is still in the early stages of scaffolding, with a quarter of its interior blown away. It is truly a shock to see how much damage one wayward and supposedly unsophisticated rocket can cause — in the case of al-Ittahad, the destruction of their archives, much from before 1948, the turning point for Haifa’s Arab citizens, when well over 90 percent left, thousands escaping to Akko and Lebanon on boats provided by the British.
Wadi Nisnas became a ghost town. As soon as the war was over, the former residents were considered by Israel to be absent from their property and not allowed to claim ownership or return. Someone lived here once. Nearby Wadi Salib experienced a similar fate. I walked through its still-standing ruins one Shabbat with my spouse and some friends. Where once stood a small Ottoman palace is now a nightclub; where Arab musicians and dancers once performed is now a home for (Jewish) veterans. Part of the Muslim cemetery was split in two for the Haifa-Nazareth highway, and empty buildings were razed to build a modern government building. Where Arab families once had homes and shops, and where Mizrakhi Jews were settled by the government in the 1950s (and where, in 1959, they rioted and set fires to protest their second-class status), are collapsed buildings, piles of trash, silence.
I google “Arab organizations Haifa” and contact, out of the blue, Ameer Makhoul, general director of the Union of Arab Community-Based Associations. He is blunt: There are two views for two peoples here. Those who live farther up Mount Carmel, i.e., the more middle-class Jewish neighborhoods, “see everything, while Wadi Nisnas sees the walls of their neighbors.” He concedes that there is more openness and acceptance in Haifa — to which the mostly Christian Arab community has come from the Galilee since 1948 -— than elsewhere in Israel, but argues that true coexistence is, as Yishai theorized, illusory. It is not enough for secular Jews to come into Wadi Nisnas on Shabbat morning to shop, says Makhoul. When the rockets started falling near the coast, and therefore near the Arab neighborhoods, the inequality became all too clear. In Wadi Nisnas, there is only one public shelter.
But this is a love letter, and so I want to end by saying that something extraordinary is happening here: ordinary life. This city is a place where you can hear Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Amharic, and English spoken in one trip to the supermarket. It is a city where people, away from the constant gaze of tourists and outsiders, are struggling with what it means to share a piece of real estate, to be a resident. Yes, the Bahai gardens are gorgeous and the beaches inviting -— but to my mind, the real sights are to be seen at a small falafel stand where the Muslim owner makes sure we have a place to sit on Friday afternoons as we bring him a small red rose from our Shabbat bouquet.

Sue Swartz is a poet who teaches social change, diversity, and labor studies at Indiana University. She serves on the national board of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and is a member of the Jewish Currents Branch, 1907, of The Workmen’s Circle.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.