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Speaking Tachles in Haifa

How a Jewish-Arab Culture Center is building bridges in Israel

The port city of Haifa is located in the north of Israel. With an Arab population of more than ten percent, it is one of the so-called mixed cities. Living together is both complicated and multi-layered. Supported by forumZFD, “Beit Hagefen” brings Israelis and Palestinians together – for this work the culture center has repeatedly faced criticism. In view of the tense political situation, however, such initiatives are more important than ever.
Costume contest at Beit Hagafen
© forumZFD

In the album “Better than Berlin”, pianist Faraj Suleiman and writer Majd Kayyal describe the bittersweet feeling of leaving Haifa. The song “Questions on my mind” has become popular among Arab youth across countries – be it Palestinians in Jordan, or Syrians in the diaspora – for it captures so well the longing for home. The song’s narrator is full of mixed feelings: while Berlin is beautiful and full of people, the neighborhood gossip back home is simply more interesting. At the same time, he also expresses a built-up resentment against the reality of his home town, when asking a friend back there:

“Does the police still harass the Arab kids every night? (…)
Are we still eaten up with anger? (…)
Do they still drive you mad talking about politics?”

Asaf Ron knows such negative perceptions of Haifa all too well. He is the CEO of Beit Hagefen, a Jewish-Arab culture center in Haifa, and longtime partner of forumZFD. “My fellow Jewish citizens often tell me how surprised they are that Palestinians are angry here. They say that Haifa is a liberal city, so why should they be angry? But I respond, as a Jew: ‘Why are you so surprised? Where can people voice their opinion if not in a liberal city? Because Palestinians here in Haifa have at least some space to voice their opinion, we hear more of their anger freely. It should not go to violence, of course, and it mostly doesn’t.”

A city with a complex social fabric

Known in Israel as the ’co-existence’ city, Haifa is a beautiful coastal town in the Mediterranean with a population of around 284,000 people. The vast majority are Jewish Israelis, but there is also a minority of roughly 33,000 Palestinians. Given that more than 10% of its population is Arab, Haifa is considered a ‘mixed city’.

When the State of Israel was created in 1948, around 65.000 Palestinians were forced to leave Haifa, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced across the country. They recall this tragic event as the “Nakba”, which means “catastrophe” in Arabic. Jewish Israelis, by contrast, consider this event as their “independence”. Most of the displaced Palestinians were not allowed to return later, which led to a drastic change in the social fabric of places like Haifa. Before that, Haifa was a place of trade and pluralism, a modern city built by native Arabs alongside the new-coming Jewish migrants. Today, the Arab population in the city is the minority, with half of it being Christian and the other half Muslim. Palestinians occupy distinguished positions and work as doctors, accountants, and artists. While there are certainly Arab families living in poverty, the overall poverty level in Haifa is lower than the national average.

Moreover, there are complex issues underneath the layer of perceived stability in Haifa. Beit Hagefen was founded in 1963 to promote dialogue in the city and bridge communities. Visitors can tour the “Museum Without Walls” in Wadi Nisnas, an Arab neighborhood where Beit Hagefen has placed thought provoking street art. The center has a library to serve the Arabic speaking community in Haifa and supports local writers of children’s books. A leading theater, Al Karama, with repertoire in Arabic, is also part of Beit Hagefen.

Their work has always faced criticism and hostilities, but recently these challenges have been of a different proportion. In 2022, dozens of right-wing activists disturbed an event about Palestinian culture. “The shouting and bullying… it’s far from being the first time. The volume though, has never been like that”, affirms Asaf Ron.

The situation in Israel is more than tense at the moment. The country is facing a massive wave of protests against the government led by Benjamin Netanyahu and his extremist right-wing allies. Activists and minorities are bracing for non-democratic changes such as the overhaul of the judicial system and impacts on freedom of speech. There are concerns that initiatives like Beit Hagefen may not be able to address certain topics in public in fear of backlash. “I don't want to get into self-censorship, but hopefully we can stand it. It will be hard. Our purpose was never to be provocative; it is to be useful for society. As the Jews are entering in self-censorship now, the Arabs have been in self-censorship for 70 years”, says Ron.

Looking underneath the surface

Asaf Ron has been leading Beit Hagefen for 10 years now. The center is partially funded by the municipality and also part of the educational system: Students can partake in activities as part of the extra-curricular load needed to complete secondary school.  Asaf Ron says that many people advise him to turn the institute into a completely non-governmental organization, separated from the municipality. He insists though, that more than funding, the state should also be responsible for initiatives of the kind. “We count on donors to help fundraise activities, but the salaries, the infrastructure and the base must be funded by state money. It must be sustainable. Just the fact that we exist contributes to peacebuilding here. The fact that people know that we have support from the municipality. Not only regarding money, but also regarding public endorsement”.

The team of Beit Hagefen works closely with educators and artists. Anyone who visits the center is immediately struck by the many works of art that can be seen throughout the building. Sarki Golani, Beit Hagefen’s Director of content development and training, points to a large picture of an iceberg in the water. The work by Palestinian artist Ashraf Fawakhry is a hologram, she explains: It changes according to the viewer’s perspective. In this way, what was previously hidden beneath the surface of the water becomes visible. A fitting metaphor for Beit Hagefen's work, says Golani: “We are trying to lower the level of water. This way, you learn to appreciate someone for whom you did not have appreciation before.”

How the water level can be ‘lowered’ is shown by the project “The Third Space”, which is supported by forumZFD. The title literally refers to the first floor of a building which belongs to the cultural center. When you walk up the stairs, a video projected on the wall poses the first question “What happens when you take the inside out?”; then we see the guest lounge designed with Middle Eastern hospitality traditions. A collection of various art and cultural objects is displayed in several rooms. You can also find demographic information about Haifa, which is presented in a playful way. Last year alone, the Third Space received around 7,500 visitors, including many school classes. The groups meet for dialogue and reflection sessions on topics such as culture and identity. “Everybody is welcome with their stories”, emphasizes Sarki Golani.

This work is not always easy. Golani recalls a group visit to the “Third Space” when a participant from the Haredi Jewish community was distant and disengaged. “You could tell that he was uncomfortable. Then I was talking about the objects that we have here, and asked if anybody knew what this is.” She points to a very small plastic object, that would go unnoticed to many people who do not share the same faith. It is a Tzitzit laundry protector, which prevents the fringes of the prayer shawl from being stuck with the laundry.  “The participant was very surprised to see this object here”, Golani goes on. “When he found himself acknowledged, he joined the group and learned about other stories too.”

Wall with objects at The Third Space

“The conflict here feels very existential.”

Another flagship activity by Beit Hagefen is their youth group called ‘Tachles’. Tachles is a word taken from Yiddish and means something like straightforward or cut to the chase. A spot-on name for an initiative that aims to bring Jewish and Arab youth together and discussing topics that are important to them. Asaf Ron, however, is clear about the need for a previous foundation before getting the youngsters – or any group – together: “Encounters which are not planned professionally only make more harm than good. The conflict here feels very existential: If you are not right, you won’t be. So you don't have time to listen. You have to be right. And when you are right, it's only because the other is wrong.” In order to change that, activities need to be carefully planned and accompanied, says Ron.

He admits that it has been increasingly more difficult to get Jewish kids to join the youth club. He and other Beit Hagefen staff read the challenge as a result of the political changes in the country, but not only. “Jewish students generally have more options of extra-curricular activities. They also need to come from further places in the city. So that makes it more difficult for us to get them here”, says Shani Goldman, coordinator of the youth group.

This is the case even though Beit Hagefen has a lot to offer young people – including international exchanges. Last year, around 15 Jewish and Palestinian teenagers were hosted for a week in Hungary by the same youth group that was now visiting them in Israel. Such activities are the best way to create a sense of unity among the young participants – because suddenly they found themselves in the role of hosts for their peers from Hungary. They had a lot of fun showing them their city and the local culture.

Visits to an Imam and a Rabbanit

Among other things, the program included a visit to the al-Jarina mosque in the morning, where imam Rashad Abu el Hajj explained the history of the place, which was built in the 18th century, and talked about the principles of Islam. He also emphasized his connection with other religious leaders, especially during holidays. For example, once the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha happened to be on the same day as Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish holiday. In such cases, there should be a dialogue between the different communities, said Rashad Abu el Hajj. After all, Eid al-Adha is a festive celebration for Muslims, while Yom Kippur is a day of repent and abstinence for Jews. To avoid conflict, rabbis talked to their congregations about the joyous aspect of Eid al-Adha, and Muslim leaders discussed with their communities’ alternative routes to be taken on that day. A practical example of how to balance the needs of different religious communities.

The next stop was the House of Grace, a rehabilitation facility for prisoners that operates inside a church. “We don’t do missionary work. We respect each other as a human being”, says Jamal Shehade, current director of the NGO. Shehade told the youth the inspiring story of how his parents created the House of Grace, and emphasized the importance of developing work that’s important for the community. Many questions arose from this speech, and some young people were very interested in learning how they can also be part of any positive change in their contexts.

“We have a mosque in my town, so it was not the first time I visit one. But it is the first time I hear about youth in a church. It was interesting because usually at the church they tell us what not to do, but here we were talking about what we should do as young people”, says V., a Palestinian participant of Tachles. “I am not very religious and usually don’t go to worship places. I am more interested in supporting organisations that work for LGBT rights, but it was anyway interesting to hear all of this today”, adds M., a Jewish Israeli.

In the afternoon, it was time for a provocative conversation with rabbanit Noa Mazor (rabbanit is the term in Hebrew for a female rabbi). Mazor started the conversation asking the youth questions about change: “What did we not have 30 years ago?” She received amusing answers: cars? Telephones? Air conditioning? “Well, we had all that, but they were different! They changed over time. What happens when things change?”. Participants responded well to the thought-provoking session and had a lively discussion. In the end, they concluded: When changes happen, people may adapt, or perhaps resist and confront such events.

“I wanted to know more about the religions, what they need to do. It was interesting to learn that Jews and Arabs can live together. At least in Haifa. I did not see other places, but in other cities it is different”, said Lili, a 19-year-old from Hungary.  “I think that after this experience I will appreciate life more, and be more open-minded. We talked about identity a lot, so I think I will be a little different and not judge people for differences or religion. It’s just something you are born into, or you choose.”

The key to success

After this food for thought, there was time to relax in the evening. The visit of the group from Hungary happened to be during Purim, a festive Jewish holiday when many people wear costumes to celebrate. So the evening was the perfect time for a Purim party, with snacks, music and a costume contest. Here it became particularly clear how much the young people had in common, despite their diverse backgrounds: Like teenagers anywhere in the world, they were concerned over their outfits, hairstyles or how to be the center of attention at the party.

For Asaf Ron these occasions of relaxed get-together are the key to success: “In the youth club, we want the participants to get to know each other. And then when something happens, they are talking about it. We are not trying to get them into any agreement. They need to listen. Because they understand who the others are, their inspiration and motivations. You do have to understand each one's position and stands, and pain, and fears. That's changing the world. Not because they are agreeing about the border tomorrow.”

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