The Continuing War for Safed

By Aryeh Tepper
Thursday, December 16, 2010

Safed (Hebrew: Tsfat) is a picturesque town of 32,000 souls nestled in the hills of Galilee. Already a Jewish city in talmudic times, it is celebrated as the site of a great flowering of kabbalistic thought in the 16th century. Today the city hosts an artists' quarter and an annual festival of Klezmer music.

There is also an Arab neighborhood numbering 200 families—a reminder that, since the late 12th century, Jews and Arabs lived together and enjoyed historically neighborly relations. Those relations were torn asunder during the Arab riots of 1929 when Muslims assaulted the city's Jews. With the outbreak of Israel's war of independence in May 1948, Arab forces tried to drive out the Jewish population altogether, but the tables were turned and the Arabs ending up fleeing when the city was conquered by Jewish fighters.  

Not surprisingly, most of Safed's mosques fell into disuse after '48. Recently, however, Safed's mayor invited the northern branch of Israel's Islamic Movement (a body informally divided into two geographic entities) to participate in a renovation program.  The gesture was consistent with Israel's obligation to safeguard the holy places of all faiths, but the decision to bring in the northern branch was a grave misstep. Not only does the northern branch openly identify itself with Hamas and agitate for the destruction of Israel through implementation of the Palestinian "right of return," but members of the branch have taken part in terrorist acts against Israeli civilians.

By coincidence, the branch's fiery leader, Ra'ed Salah, has just been released from prison after serving five months for assaulting an Israeli police officer. Salah is lionized in certain sectors of the Arab-Israeli community for having participated in the Gaza flotilla—where he reportedly made incendiary speeches to the passengers who later clashed with Israeli naval commandos. In a reflection of his high standing, hundreds of supporters greeted him upon his release from prison.

But surely renovating a mosque is a thoroughly innocuous form of behavior? Not to Salah, who declared on an Islamic website last May that simply asserting a Palestinian right of return does not suffice. Rather, action is needed "to protect [the refugees'] lands, homes, and holy places . . . until the right of return is realized." It should thus come as no surprise that a Palestinian flag was recently seen waving from a Safed mosque, further stoking tensions in the city.

From the perspective of the northern branch, then, the war for Safed is on—or still on. On the Jewish side, meanwhile, the vacuum created by the mayor's reckless policy has unfortunately been filled by the city's politically extremist chief rabbi, Shmuel Eliyahu.  Viewing the presence of young Arab college students in town as an aspect of the larger Jewish-Arab struggle over the land of Israel, Eliyahu issued a blanket rabbinic prohibition against renting out apartments in Safed to non-Jews. But while some students may be members of the northern branch, it's just as possible that some are not, while others may be Christians, Bedouin, and Druze. Needless to say, Eliyahu's position is a radical departure from the spirit animating classical religious Zionism, a spirit well articulated by Haim David Halevy, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, in 1988: "In the Western democratic world, to which we belong, society is founded upon equal rights for every person; there is no place in a democratic state for religious discrimination."

The absence of strong and lucid local leadership in Safed has contributed to the spread of conspiracy theories among the increasingly ultra-Orthodox Jewish population. A recent decision to open a medical school in town was met by posters claiming that the force behind the scenes was none other than Ra'ed Salah, and that the school's ultimate intention would be to serve as "a refugee camp for Arabs." Salah would certainly like to claim Safed for the Muslims—he doesn't hide his intention—but he has nothing to do with the medical school, a planned outlet of Bar-Ilan University.

While Safed's mayor continues to claim that the city is a model of co-existence and that local tensions are simply a matter of cultural insensitivity, various Israeli political figures have been hoping to ease matters by calling for Rabbi Eliyahu's removal. For her part, the eminent Israeli thinker Ruth Gavison has argued quite plausibly that the tensions in Safed are the inevitable result of two conflicting demographic developments—"the relatively rapid growth" of, on the one hand, Arab and, on the other hand, "religious and ultra-religious Jewish populations"—and that quick, effective action on a regional scale is urgently needed to reconcile the "multiplicity of identities" that live in or use the city's services.

In the meantime, the bottom line is that Ra'ed Salah is free, and the northern branch of the Islamic Movement continues to look for ways to radicalize the country's Arab population and undermine Jewish sovereignty, including by setting up shop in Safed.

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