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In Acre, known for Arab-Jewish coexistence, residents grapple with recent unrest

Following a week of chaos and destruction of Jewish-owned businesses, locals regroup and try to move forward

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Tina (far right), an Arab resident of Acre, with some of her neighbors. She tried to protect the Jewish-owned gallery where she worked during the recent unrest in the mixed city, and is asking how and why this happened in her city (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Tina (far right), an Arab resident of Acre, with some of her neighbors. She tried to protect the Jewish-owned gallery where she worked during the recent unrest in the mixed city, and is asking how and why this happened in her city (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

It was a quiet Monday along Acre’s Old City alleyways, as residents and shopkeepers slowly returned to normalcy following the chaos, rioting and destruction two weeks ago of more than a dozen Jewish-owned businesses in this historic seaside city.

Proprietors were clearing up the debris, sweeping up broken glass, scrubbing off burn marks and filing insurance claims.

They’re also asking how this happened in Acre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site city that was a magnet for tourists with boutique hotels, chef restaurants and reputation of coexistence between its Arabs and Jews.

There isn’t one answer, but locals have their thoughts.

They point fingers at Acre’s known drug problem, which afflicts young Arab men in their late teens and early twenties; at the Acre police who didn’t enter the Old City at all during the week of violence; and at an educational system that doesn’t offer enough options for young Arabs.

The shattered windows at the JNF center in Acre, when the building was burned and wrecked by local gangs (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

“Acre isn’t Savyon,” said Judith Bar Or, manager of the Jewish National Fund tourist center in the Old City, which suffered tremendous damage in the disturbances. She was referring to an upscale suburb outside Tel Aviv. “There are lots of criminals here. The root of the problem is criminal and that’s a greater influence than coexistence.”

Acre, which is home to 50,000 people, nearly 32% of whom are Arab, has undergone a major transformation in the last decade, becoming what many hoped was an example of what a mixed city could look like.

New Acre has the apartment buildings, schools and shopping malls typical of any Israeli city, and is home to different slices of Israeli demographics, including the original Mizrahi population and Russian Israelis who immigrated in the 1990s.

It is Old Acre, however — set along the curved shoreline of the Mediterranean and with parts that date back to Byzantine times, and a hefty dose of Crusader-era history followed by the elegant touches of the Turkish Ottoman period — that draws most of the visitors.

Some 95% of Old City residents are Arab. In recent years, its winding alleyways and historic buildings were discovered by a number of Jewish Israeli entrepreneurs who bought properties and turned them into boutique hotels and tzimmers, the Israeli term for guesthouses.

Uri Jeremias, the beloved proprietor of fish restaurant Uri Buri in Acre, which was torched by mobs on May 11, 2021 during a night of violence in the northern city (Courtesy Uri Buri Facebook page)

These Jewish-owned businesses were targeted in the recent spate of violence, including the famed Uri Buri fish restaurant on the harbor owned by Uri Jeremias, as well as Effendi, his meticulously renovated boutique hotel inside the Old City, both of which were firebombed.

In the past, Acre Mayor Shimon Lankri, who was re-elected in 2018 with 85% of the vote, has credited the Old City’s revitalization to local proprietors like Jeremias.

“I’m ashamed to look Uri in the eye,” said Abdu Matta, a local tour guide and conservationist who grew up and lives in the Old City with his family. “The locals tried to protect the Jewish businesses but were told to move aside. We never expected these levels of violence.”

Arabesque, a meticulously renovated, Ottoman-era tzimmer owned by writer Evan Fallenberg, was wrecked, with windows smashed, furniture and dishes broken and doors and mattresses charred.

Writer Evan Fallenberg in Arabesque, his Acre bed-and-breakfast that was wrecked during the recent unrest in the mixed city (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Ditto for Duck You Akko, a Jewish-owned shop duck concept store; an art gallery in the Turkish Bazaar; the JNF center; the local Tourism Ministry office; the Jewish-Arab Acco Theater; and even Flooka, a fish restaurant owned by Arab chef Saed Shami, who worked at Uri Buri for many years before opening his own seafood restaurant.

“I have no anger; anger isn’t what I feel,” said Fallenberg. “I feel deep sadness about what caused this. We have to see what our role is in all this. Jews need to figure out all the discrimination but Arabs need to clean house, too.”

At the Jewish-Arab Acco Theater, run by Jewish director Moni Yosef and Arab artistic director Khaled Abu Ali, Yosef described a feeling of betrayal for the city, because “someone stupid did this.” Still, they’re determined that theater season will start on June 10, as planned.

“None of our people were involved and that’s our success,” said Yosef.

The theater, which stages plays in Arabic and in Hebrew, prides itself on a strong sense of community among its employees and actors.

“If we can’t do our work, that’s the failure,” said Abu Ali. “What we have here in the Acco Theater has to be everywhere.”

At the same time, none of it is all that surprising, said Yosef.

“There’s an Arab population here and they’re sensitive to all of this, to Sheikh Jarrah, to Al Aqsa,” he said, referring to a series of events in Jerusalem that preceded the recent escalation in Gaza. “They don’t feel part of Israeli society, they have family in the territories — that’s all there under the surface. There’s complicated things here.”

Khalid Abu-Ali (left) and Mony Yosef, the co-directors of the Jewish-Arab Acco Theater (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Fallenberg, who bought the house that became Arabesque eight years ago, noted that some of his Arab tzimmer-owning neighbors have become close friends, and tried to keep the mob from wrecking the guesthouse during the week of unrest.

“I don’t want to renovate [Arabesque] so it will be good for tourists,” said Fallenberg, who calls himself an unexpected hotelier. “I want it to be good for residents and from there it will draw tourists.”

Shelley-Anne Peleg, an archaeologist and passionate Acre conservationist who guided a group of Acre residents, activists and organizers around the Old City on Monday, commented that many local Arab families are focused on putting food on the table every day, with different concerns than those of entrepreneurs looking for a great investment.

“Tourism is the engine for these families, it’s important,” she said.

Albee with Roi Samogara and Michal Katz, neighbors and proprietors in Acre’s Old City; Samogara and Katz’s store was destroyed during the recent spate of violence (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

“You can’t make the city super deluxe and not invest in the people,” said Tina, a local resident who works in a Jewish-owned gallery that was destroyed during the recent unrest.

It took time for the Arab residents of Acre’s Old City to develop their own tourist businesses, said Daniel Arama, head of Acre’s tourism department, but once they joined the trend, they understood its potential.

“Ten years ago there wasn’t one tzimmer in the Old City, and now there’s almost 100,” said Arama, sitting in the municipality’s seafront Old City offices that were ransacked during the week of chaos. “We lived in euphoria. Acre was an example for other cities.”

Still, he believes that tourism will return, first by Israelis, who see the seaside city as an easy day trip.

“Memories are short,” said Arama.

There is already discussion of a tourist police force to secure the area of Old Acre. Education was also mentioned repeatedly on Monday’s tour, with discussions about Arab-Jewish kindergartens, programs in Arab and Jewish schools that will teach tolerance, and the vital need for practical vocational programs in the Arab schools where most students don’t attend college.

Shami, the Flooka chef and owner, spoke about the cooking school program he began in one of the Arab high schools with just three students and that now numbers more than 100. Besides gaining serious cooking skills, the budding chefs learn the Jewish laws about keeping kosher in order to make them more employable in Israel’s mostly kosher hotel kitchens.

“The kids who did this don’t know anything about politics,” he said. “We have to find a way so that it doesn’t happen again.”

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