I was surprised that Yesh Atid did so well in the recent Israeli election, but I shouldn’t have been. Anyone who visits Israel and spends time with the people that actually live there will recognize that most of the population is not made up of the radical settler movement that is often given far too much attention in the international press than it warrants in Israeli society. That isn’t to say that I am not afraid of Naftali Bennett and the slavish, nearly Ayatollah like admiration some of the ultra-orthodox parties have in Israel. They are a direct challenge to Israel’s liberal, secular, and socialist roots and they will need to be combated politically to keep Israel on the right side of history.
But during my time in Israel with the IDF, I was more interested in the other end of the radical political spectrum. I cut my teeth in left wing radical groups, and Israel has its fair share of them (both past and current). For a weekend, I traveled to Nazareth, hometown of Jesus but also the epicenter of Arab communism in Israel.
“The Democratic Front led by Zayyad, with the backing of his new city council, revolutionized city politics and the city administration, and was reelected by a landslide in 1979. At that time, Ramiz Jeraisi, a young (27), educated engineer and a Christian, was elected deputy mayor and would become the actual city manager while his boss was engaged in national politics as head of the Hadash party in the Knesset. The charismatic Zayyad became, in effect, the "foreign minister" of Nazareth, lobbying government offices and negotiating with other parties and government ministers on behalf of the city's interests as well as those of all Arabs in Israel. During the nearly two decades that Zayyad served as a powerful spokesman for Nazareth and the Arabs in Israel (until his tragic death in a car accident in 1994), his loyal and devoted deputy, Jeraisi, took care of the affairs of the city.
A Christian praying at Mary's well at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation
Zayyad was easily reelected in 1983 and Hadash held a majority in the city council (11 out of 17 seats). Just before the elections, the party journal, Al-Ittihad, published his powerful poem lauding the "Great Egyptian Crossing" in the 1973 war, a demonstration of Arab nationalism for which the Arab voters rewarded him. Zayyad's success in local politics spilled over into national politics when, in the general elections of 1984, more than half the Arab population of Israel voted for Hadash, and the new Committee of Heads of Arab Councils (CHAC) practically adopted the Communist platform at Zayyad's instigation.
Zayyad was also the engine behind the organization of annual summer camps used to mobilize Arab youth for the party. Each year thousands of volunteers, including some from the West Bank and Gaza and even from abroad, would participate in maintenance work throughout the city, mending fences, paving roads, and refurbishing schools, mosques, and cemeteries. Local contractors, as well as the city, donated machinery and materials as well as skilled labor. After the day's work, the participants were given lectures that stressed the importance of volunteer work for the Arabs and for strengthening the links among the Palestinian people. The local Arab press reported extensively on the camps, emphasizing the point that despite discrimination suffered by the Arab towns and villages in terms of state government funding, Hadash was there to compensate for this with its spirit and organizational abilities.”
The Communist Party still is a draw with some in Nazareth. Communist graffiti and a rather large complex at the center of Christian Nazareth are still in existence. When I dropped by at 2 pm on a Thursday, a local punk band was practicing, and advertisements for summer camps were posted around the building.
Yet, the political epicenter of Arab politics has changed since the fall of the Soviet Union and the advancement of political Islam.
The streets of Christian Nazareth
Communism, alive and well in Nazareth.
Not the mural expected by most American Christians arriving in the home of Jesus
Summer Communist fun!
Again, I take from Raphael liberally.
“Already by the municipal elections of 1989 it had become evident that the nascent Islamic movement in Israel had turned its focus from the religio-cultural pursuit of "born again" Muslims into a religio-political organization intent on seeking power as a way to implement its program. Five Islamist mayors were elected, including Sheikh Ra'id Salah as the mayor of Umm al-Fahm, the largest Muslim town in Israel. Forty-five Islamic movement councilmen were also elected to various town councils, including Nazareth.
This shift in Arab politics also affected Nazareth quite deeply. Even though the Islamist candidate for mayor, 'Umar Shararah, was defeated by Zayyad, Shararah succeeded nevertheless in gaining a majority of the votes in the Muslim neighborhoods. Zayyad was reelected only due to his personal popularity and the rallying of the Christians in town around the communist Democratic Front in an effort to block the rise of the Muslim fundamentalists.
The national elections of 1992 saw a sharp decline in support for the communists throughout the country. Since the Islamists did not participate in the vote, and the voter turnout among Arabs shrunk from about 73 percent in 1988 to about 70 percent, it is assumed that the Islamists, who shunned the general elections for ideological reasons, continued to abstain from voting. Zayyad was reelected to the Knesset at the head of Hadash, which still received close to 50 percent of the vote in Nazareth, despite the general losses of the party in the city and countrywide. In the local elections of 1993, voter turnout jumped to 90 percent as compared with 70 percent in the national elections a year earlier. This is seen as evidence of the Arab view of local authorities as arenas in which they can vent their political concerns. The Hadash party continued to dominate local Arab politics despite its sharp losses in the national elections. In 1993 the party won 12 mayoralties, down from 15 in 1989, but in Nazareth it registered gains, mainly due to Zayyad's stature. At the same time, the Islamic Movement maintained its strength with 5 mayoralties and 50 local councilmen.”
In a neighborhood that houses a majority Christian population and many key Christian landmarks like the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, a church that sits over the well Mary is said to have gathered water daily, one could find ominous signs posted by the Muslim community in the city. Here is one posted near the church.
Politics in Israel is often represented as a battle between secular and religious Jews, but the Arab community has experienced a similar struggle in the last 30 years.
Having said all that, Nazareth is a lovely city with some of the best food I had while in Israel. As much as I enjoy kosher cuisine, it was nice to have meals that mixed meat and dairy. I sat in a wonderful old restaurant in an old Arab neighborhood, sipping wine while minimalist Christian Arabic music played around me, as the streets filled with locals happily enjoying a peaceful summer evening.
Roasted lamb with goat cheese.