Sunday, November 13, 2011

a weekend in haifa

The choice in Israel is frequently framed as Tel Aviv--modern, fast-paced, and at least superficially secular--against religious and traditional Jerusalem.   There is a third city, Haifa, many outsiders don't bother with.  Perhaps they should.

Haifa is a port city constructed on various levels, with the better off mostly residing on the upper levels and the lower and middle levels somewhat more seedy.   The city had a large Arab population before 1948, and even today has a visibly larger Arab presence than Tel Aviv or the western half of Jerusalem; it is not unusual to hear Arabic (or Russian) spoken in stores and restaurants and there is at least some social mixing between the two populations, which is rather rarer in other parts of the country.  Not surprisingly, foreigners like this tolerant aspect, so such tourists as come to Haifa tend to flock to the German Colony, a formerly Christian neighborhood that has been restored with a mixture of Arab and Jewish residents, or else to the gardens adjoining the Baha'i temple, yet another religion that began in Persia but has its world headquarters, somewhat improably, here.  

Although picturesque and dotted with hillside neighborhoods, Haifa is also the most industrial of Israeli cities and has housing prices barely half that of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, which somewhat gives the lie to the idea that wealth creates tolerance.   Rather, the more relaxed nature of the city appears to owe more to who lives here--an electic mix of mostly European (including many Russian) Jews and frequently Christian or Druze Arabs, most with deep roots in the area--and who doesn't: there are relatively few extremists on either side and the refugee element, which so colors relationships in the West Bank and Gaza, is largely absent here.   Interestingly, the nearby city of Akko (Acre, Akka), while also having a mixed population, appears to attract more political stridency: the town was dotted with Islamic wall posters and had more of the feeling of a conquered Arab city than an authentic melange.

Haifa is at once the least and most American of Israeli cities.  There's a good bit less English here than in the middle of the country and, allowing for the occasional cruise ship, fewer foreigners overall.   But it also has an American-like, spread out feeling--a car seems more important than in other parts of the country--and is the undisputed leader in shopping malls.   Aside from the infamous Grand Canyon (a play on "Kanyon" or shopping center in Hebrew), there are a series of malls along the highway north to the Krayot (suburbs), Akko, and Nahariya, all with American-sounding names like Gulf Center (Lev Hamifratz), Gulf Approaches (Hutzot Mamifratz), and Gulf Springs (Ein Hamifratz) and all exceptionally ugly, at least from the outside.  A burgeoning protest against offshore gas exploration in the area--"Put the gas back in the water," one sign read--gave a further American feeling, as did the obvious contradiction between expressions of environmental concern and the long lines in local parking lots.  Still, it was nice to be in a place where the biggest story wasn't ethnic or religious tension, but plain old self-centered politics.   Maybe the rest of the country should spend more time here.


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