HAIFA — This northern port city is known to charm tourists. It’s bordered by sea and hills, divided into neighborhoods that are lived in by all types of residents, secular and religious, Arab and Jewish, Russian, Ethiopian, even Baha’i.
But, they don’t mix it up all that much.
“Haifa residents don’t travel into other neighborhoods that aren’t theirs,” said Hila Goshen, who runs cultural events at Beit Hagefen, the Arab Jewish cultural center in Haifa.
That separation is the raison d’être behind the Haifa Story Festival, an annual five-day event run by Beit Hagefen, honing in this year on the subject of identity and activism.
The festival, running November 1-5, is funded by the Ministry of the Development of the Negev and the Galilee, which is generally geared toward work in Israel’s periphery. These particular neighborhoods of Haifa, said Goshen, can be considered a peripheral area as well, even if they’re smack in the middle of a city.
“This event isn’t in the cool lower city of Haifa, or up in the Carmel, but is in the peripheral neighborhoods of Haifa,” said Goshen. “This is about the locals, we go to them, we go to the non-obvious places, because there are such stories in these neighborhoods.”
In the past, there have been conversations in Haredi synagogues and meet-ups in the homes of Ethiopian immigrants. This year’s festival includes lectures, screenings, tastings, tours and panels. An added element will look at the stories of Haifa’s neighbors through a prism of identity activism, viewing whether that brings people together, or pushes them farther apart.
Activism has always been a mainstay of Haifa, beginning from its days as a port city, when stevedores and port workers were organized by early labor organizations, said Dotan Brom, a guide who specializes in gay pride and communist tours of the city that he adopted as his hometown a few years ago.
Brom, who will be offering several tours during the festival, gave me an abbreviated tour about Haifa’s gay history, with a look at the city’s port, which was first expanded during the time of the British Mandate, part of their route for the planned Haifa-Mosul pipeline.
At the time, Haifa was a city of Arabs and Ottoman Jews, who moved there during the days of the Ottoman Empire. Jews from other lands, newly arrived in pre-state Palestine, came to the city later on to work at the port, the nearby oil refinery and other local plants.
They were the ones who built up the Hadar neighborhood in the 1940s, Haifa’s first Jewish Zionist enclave, mostly because the land was vacant and available, said Brom.
Hadar is now a busier, more bustling neighborhood than it was for some time, when many Haifa residents left and moved to Tel Aviv in the 1980s, or stayed in the city but moved up the hill to the Carmel neighborhood, leaving Hadar vacant and crime-ridden.
It’s where Brom lives now, as part of an urban commune. For Brom, a researcher and member of the Haifa Queer History Project, Hadar represents the heart of gay Haifa, both historically and allegorically.
The city’s early, secretive gay life began, in many ways, in Gan Hazikaron, or Garden of Remembrance, just across from City Hall, the eclectic architectural styled building designed by Benjamin Chaikin and built in 1942, with a mix of Eastern and Western elements, symbols of the developing city.
This open, grassy park overlooking the bay and port was where gay men would head at night, to meet and rendezvous with others behind the thick shrubbery and lower areas of the park.
It was where local police trolled for suspects during a spate of murders of gay men in the 1990s, taking men’s identity card numbers and calling them at work or home, often outing them to their families and workplaces.
The park is also where Haifa’s early transgender community first hung out. The city was home to the late actress-singer Gila Goldstein, considered Israel’s first transgender woman, as well as Zalman Shoshi, who always described himself as Israel’s first transvestite.
The more hidden paths and corners of the park are still used by deeply closeted gay men, often from Haredi or Arab backgrounds, said Brom, but it’s also widely used by others, including a weekly cricket game of Sri Lankan foreign workers.
Gay life has changed considerably in the last decades, and Brom doesn’t want Haifa to be considered second tier to Tel Aviv, the queen of the gay scene. The city has its own Gay Pride parade each June, and Haifa’s new LGBTQ center, Communities’ House for Pride and Tolerance on Masada Street in Hadar, is where the annual Queer History Festival is held.
It’s a city that accepts people for who they are, he said.
“Haifa’s vibe is you do what you do,” he said.
It’s that vein of identity — and activism — that will be showcased during this week’s Haifa Story Festival. The event will also include a tour about street graffiti as a symbol of rejected social communities.
Brom will be guiding two tours, one on Friday, November 2 at 10:30 a.m. about the gay community in Haifa, which requires pre-registration. He also has a tour about communist Haifa on Saturday at 10:30 a.m.
For more information and pre-registration for other events during the festival, head to the Haifa Story Festival site.