'What you're seeing here can only happen here'

In mixed, tolerant Haifa, Christians are discovering the benefits of Ramadan

Muslims, Christians and Jews are building interfaith bridges amid rising tensions fueled by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Women prepare dishes for iftar at Ahva primary school in Haifa, on April 13, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Women prepare dishes for iftar at Ahva primary school in Haifa, on April 13, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Like many of Haifa’s Muslims, Haula Hashiboon swears by the benefits of fasting on Ramadan, both spiritually and health-wise.

“Islam is a true reflection of Arab culture, and Ramadan is the truest reflection of Islam, so this is something very deep. Plus, I like the energy and alertness that daytime fasting will give you,” Hashiboon, a program manager of a local nonprofit organization, told The Times of Israel.

Hashiboon was attending a community event put on for the holy month, which ended Thursday and gave way to Eid al-Fitr, the holiday celebrating the end of the dawn-to-sunset fasting month for Muslims.

But Hashiboon is not Muslim. She belongs to Haifa’s Christian minority, which accounts for about half of the approximately 35,000 Arabs who live in this predominantly Jewish port city of roughly 285,000 residents.

Her participation in Ramadan activities is part of a little-known but growing religious cross-fertilization that is occurring between Muslims and Christians in Haifa. While those relations are sometimes tense, they are nonetheless an unusual testament to tolerance in a city that also prides itself on the largely peaceful coexistence between its Arabs and Jews.

“Haifa is truly a mixed city, and not just in the sense that it has Jews and Arabs living together,” said Hashiboon, who works at the Ahva Community Center. “At Christmas, some of my Muslim neighbors celebrate it with me. There’s a lot of crossovers that may look religious, but really is just spontaneous, cultural, and neighborly in essence.”

That phenomenon was on full display during the final communal iftar, the break fast meal held at sundown on each day of Ramadan, when devout Muslims refrain from eating or drinking during the day.

Christians were a sizeable presence at the event, which Ahva holds at least once each year for hundreds of guests.

Usually held outdoors on the street near the community center’s offices, this year weather forced the event inside the nearby Ahva school. Though the center and the school share a name and cooperate on projects like the iftar dinners, they are separate institutions.

Musicians play traditional Arab music at an iftar at Ahva primary school in Haifa, on April 13, 2023 (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

At the event, a live band played traditional Arab music as about a dozen volunteers, nearly all of them women, arranged on brass platters signature dishes — stuffed vine leaves and zucchinis with lemon sauce and cinnamon-flavored rice with a cumin-rich beef stew — that they had cooked. Waiters, all of them men, placed the platters on rows of tables flanked by chairs populated by hungry people.

Outside the dining hall, children and some adults stared at tables set up on the school’s soccer field that were laden with sweets, including cheese-filled slices of knafeh cake and pieces of baklava swimming in syrup, alongside healthier alternatives like sliced watermelon and whole apples.

As the sun began setting, the guests listened politely to a speech by a local imam, who delivered a perfectly timed, Arab-language sermon about devotion, community, and family as positive abstracts, ending just at nightfall when the guests began eating in a restrained yet determined manner. Half an hour later, most were mingling in the schoolyard, a paper plate full of knafeh in hand, as a waiter carrying a two-foot teapot on his back like a rucksack moved between guests, bending to pour the hot liquid into small glass cups.

“What you’re seeing here can only happen in Haifa, and specifically in Wadi Nisnas,” said Mohammed Abbasi, a 73-year-old Muslim actor, musician and longtime resident of the hilly and quiet neighborhood where the school is situated. Predominantly Arab, it regularly features interfaith Christmas-Hanukkah and Easter-Passover events.

Like Hanukkah candle lightings and Passover meals, iftar meals are commonly family affairs, though communal meals are often held in mosques or community facilities. Participation at Ahva’s annual iftars is free and open to all.

Iftar meals with interfaith or cross-cultural aspects have grown in popularity in recent years, the festive event offering an opportunity for understanding and engagement between groups that may be beset by tensions at other times. Earlier this month, a group fostering ties between Israeli settlers and Palestinians held a kosher iftar meal in the West Bank.

A waiter pours tea and coffee at an iftar at Ahva primary school in Haifa, on April 13, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Abbasi, a performer who travels often to Arab towns and cities across the country, said other places have a different Ramadan vibe. “Ramadan here is much more open and diverse, just like the city itself,” he said.

But it’s not all knafeh and baklava.

“Of course there are tensions,” said Mary Sa’ada, the principal at the Ahva school, who is a Christian. “We are all biased. I don’t want my kids to become Muslim. Or Jewish.” Sa’ada, who has two children, recently received a complaint from a Muslim parent over the school’s hosting of an Easter celebration that featured a costume party.

“He was livid, demanding to know why we’re teaching his children Christian worship,” Sa’ada recalled. She advised that he simply not allow his children to participate in the dressing up.

“There will always be complaints in this kind of multifaith situation. I engage the parents, listen to their concerns. but I don’t shy away from the events because it’s my job to educate the children about a huge part of society – the religion of others,” added Sa’ada, who regularly attends — and enjoys — iftars organized by the Ahva community center.

Despite the tensions, Christians and Muslims in Haifa have grown closer. “Schools with many Muslim and many Christian students were a rarity, and now they are becoming more common,” Sa’ada said. “There is growing interaction and mutual involvement.”

Mary Sa’ada and Aadle Khlaile at the Ahva elementary school in Haifa, on April 13, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

In 2016, Sa’ada revolutionized what was then called religion class at Ahva school, with Christian and Muslim students studying their respective religions in segregated classes. Sa’ada instead instituted a religion class in which all the students learn together about the three major Abrahamic faiths.

“We live among Jews, yet so many of us don’t know a thing about Judaism. What is Yom Kippur? To many Arab kids it’s just ‘bicycle day,’” Sa’ada said, referencing how many children use the near total halt in vehicular traffic to cycle on empty streets during the Jewish day of atonement.

Jews also have “huge ignorance” about Islam, noted Sa’ada, whose accent-free Hebrew is on a par with her native Arabic. “In the Hebrew-language Israeli media, Ramadan’s a looming security threat. Will the Muslims riot on Ramadan, won’t they? For 99% of Arabs, it’s just a religious holiday.”

High school students attend iftar at the Ahva primary school in Haifa, on April 13, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Why, then, not invite Jews to participate in the iftar or subsequent Eid feasts, as some other interfaith promoters have done this year and in previous ones?

“We talked about it. But the people here aren’t ready yet,” Sa’ada said. “The Christian-Muslim action going on here is already a significant step. Maybe next year we will take another.”

Several Jews were present at the event, including Assaf Ron, CEO of Beit HaGefen, the Arab-Jewish cultural center, but few if any Jewish families came.

There were also symbols on display that are objectionable to many Jewish Israelis.

Hanging in the courtyard of Ahva, an elementary school whose name in Hebrew means “fraternity,” are multiple portraits of the late Mahmoud Darwish, a poet widely considered the Palestinian national bard. Whereas some of his poems celebrate coexistence with Jews, critics interpret others as a call for ethnic cleansing and violence, including one in which he wrote he would like to “eat the flesh of the occupier.”

Sa’ada dismissed the portraits as apolitical when asked about their significance. “These don’t mean anything, they were part of art class where the students were asked to draw writers using verses from their prose,” she said.

Portraits of Palestinian national bard Mahmoud Darwish hang at the Ahva school in Haifa, Israel on April 13, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

But Wadi Nisnas features multiple nationalist Palestinian symbols, including a prominent display on the school’s street of a car-sized metal statue of Handala, an iconic cartoon of a child that’s the official symbol of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. The statue is writing “return first” on the wall against which it stands, in reference to the desire — which many call a right — to bring into Israel large numbers of Palestinians. Many Israelis believe this is shorthand for ending Israel’s existence as a Jewish state by dramatically shifting the country’s demography.

Another symbol featured in statues and murals across Wadi Nisnas and Haifa is keys, the most common graphic representation of the so-called right of return. Popular graffiti in Haifa comprises of the digits 048, a reference to 1948, the year that Israel was founded and which many Palestinians call the “Nakba,” or “catastrophe.”

A car-sized, metal statue of Handala, the mascot of the movement to boycott Israel, in Haifa on April 13, 2023. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

Those symbols, which are a new development in Haifa, are worrying many Jews and moderate Arabs, particularly after the eruption of riots in Haifa during a major outbreak of violence in 2021. The unrest, in which several people were wounded and dozens were arrested for burning tires and hurling objects at police, was part of a nationwide wave of internecine tensions that accompanied fighting in the Gaza Strip between Israel and the Hamas terror group.

But the violence was particularly traumatic in Haifa, which many had believed was immune to such hostilities. The causes of the riots have stumped even a Haifa University researcher who last year wrote a comprehensive report on them based on 45 interviews.

“I don’t know if there’s a conclusive answer to what caused the May 2021 events,” she said at a conference last year. “It’s part of a process, fueled by nationalistic and socioeconomic tensions in a broader conflict, which manifested also in Haifa.”

Some nationalist Arab leaders who use divisive rhetoric vis-à-vis the Jewish majority are simultaneously building bridges between Christians and Muslims.

On the same street as Ahva is an office of MK Ayman Odeh, the leader of the predominantly Arab Hadash-Ta’al political alliance. His family is Muslim, but he attended a Christian school in the 1980s when multifaith Arab schools and community centers were rare. Odeh, who has called Palestinian terrorists “martyrs” and urged Arab policemen and soldiers to quit in solidarity with Palestinians and protest of Israeli policies, describes himself as having transcended the confines of ethnicity and religion that divide Palestinians both in Israel and abroad.

Abbasi sees “mounting anger” among some Arabs over what they and he perceive as new expressions of deep-seated racism toward Arabs in Israel, which he said is manifested in the recent electoral gains by Otzma Yehudit, a far-right party led by National Security Minister Itamat Ben Gvir that is part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Sa’ada said she has observed anger, not fear, in her students and community. “We’re afraid, like many Jews, of where this government is taking Israeli society and its minorities,” she said, referencing the government’s judicial overhaul, which some fear will harm minorities.

“The only way to guarantee our rights is if we work together – among Arabs and with Jewish allies,” said Sa’ada. “We’re not there yet, not by a long shot. But at least now more of us are on the right path.”

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