Searching for Common Ground in Acre

by Ben Mollov
05 August 2010
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JERUSALEM - Recently a joint Jewish-Arab youth delegation from Acre, a Northern Israeli town, visited Poland and Holocaust sites. Such joint endeavours have taken place in Israel, at times even initiated by Arab educators. However this particular effort is significant in that it was undertaken as part of attempts to mend relationships in this mixed Jewish-Arab city that has experienced high levels of intra-communal conflict in recent years, culminating in the clashes on the eve of Yom Kippur 2008. While there was an immediate chain of events which sparked this violent episode, the explosion was the result of long simmering tensions between the Jewish and Arab communities in the city.

The tensions in Acre are in many ways a microcosm of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel as a whole and highlight the very difficult demands each side is making of the other. While day-to-day living and interactions between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs are generally peaceful, these communities are divided by a variety of fundamental issues that go back to the roots of the conflict and the differing narratives concerning the very establishment and significance of Israel as a Jewish state. One of the longest standing Arab grievances has been that state resources are not fairly allocated to their community.

As a reflection of these divisions, public discourse in Israel has focused on the demands of many in the Jewish sector that unity in Israel must be achieved through a reassertion of the “melting pot model.” According to this view, the Arab sector must explicitly conform to the Jewish-Zionist vision of a renewed Jewish homeland in the land of Israel. On the other hand, many within the Arab sector demand that Israel surrender its essential character as a Jewish state and declare itself a “state of all its citizens” or a bi-national state even if a Palestinian state is established.

Can common ground be found between these differing agendas and visions in Israel in general and in Acre in particular? A seminar course held in the city, sponsored by the Konrad-AdenauerStiftung, (a prominent German international foundation) which is part of a unique conflict management course at Bar-Ilan University, attempted to come up with constructive ideas. Central to the conflict management perspective which guided the course was the concept of “federalism” which, according to its main advocate Professor Daniel Elazar, has been based upon the Jewish Biblical idea of “Brit” or covenant and envisions unity within diversity (or as he put it “thinking federally”). This approach emphasises the importance of interactions between different communities as a basis for social peace as opposed to requiring agreement on common definitions, which are frequently absent.

One of the speakers in the seminar, the city’s deputy mayor Adham Jemayel, represents the Arab sector. Although actively affiliated with the Islamic party of Israel which formally opposes the Jewish character of Israel, Mr. Jemayal stressed the importance of practical cooperation between the different groups for the betterment of Acre. He provided the example of his work with the other deputy mayor of the city, Zev Neuman who represents the city’s sizable Russian speaking population and is affiliated with the Israel Beitenu party headed by Avigdor Lieberman.

While background tensions continue to exist in Acre, other initiatives continue to be advanced. These include intercultural mediation on the neighourhood level during times of crisis when misunderstandings caused by different cultural backgrounds can lead to clashing perspectives and conflict. There have even been channels of communication between Jewish and Muslim religious leaders.

Moreover, cooperation to promote the welfare of all communities across the Jewish-Arab divide is being advanced by relevant bodies such as the municipality and NGOs. There is also a dedicated core of young Jewish activists who have formed an “urban kibbutz” (organic community run on collective principles) to promote the welfare and educational achievement of both Arab and Jewish youth in Acre.

Some commentators, including students at the abovementioned course, say that Israel is already a “multicultural society” and that a view of Israel as a Jewish and multicultural society has strong potential to serve as a new paradigm for Israel, in contrast to the earlier melting pot model. This will however, require a certain change of mindset in Israel in favour of “thinking federally". Other mixed Jewish-Arab cities in Israel might also find useful elements in this model to promote stability and social cohesion.

While relations remain complex in Acre and there is no guarantee that tensions will not escalate once again, the efforts of many who try to strengthen centrifugal forces in the city leave hope that common ground can be found.

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* Dr. Ben Mollov teaches political science and conflict management at Bar-Ilan University, Israel and runs the University’s Project for the Study of Religion, Culture and Peace.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 05 August 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
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