Growing Apart: Israel's Arabs and Jews

The Mediterranean port of Acre has long attracted men with violent ambitions. Alexander the Great arrived in the fourth century B.C., followed by conquerors from Egypt, Arabia and Europe. The crusader Frederick of Hohenstaufen showed up in 1228 and was eventually drummed out of town by Acre's townspeople, who pelted him with tripe as he fled. Napoleon spent two months trying to breach Acre's ramparts—unsuccessfully. In recent years the city had become a rare oasis of calm in the Holy Land, where Arabs and Jews lived relatively peacefully in close quarters. But all that changed last October, when a local Arab man drove his car into a predominantly Jewish neighborhood on Yom Kippur. Tradition forbids driving on the Day of Atonement, and a mob of angry Jews chased the man down, pelting him with stones and shouting "Death to the Arabs!"

The ensuing riots, which lasted four days, were a harbinger. In Israel's elections this month the big winner turned out to be ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman, who considers Israel's Arabs a dangerous fifth column and favors separating Arab and Jewish populations. Doves dismiss his plans as racist, but according to one recent poll, a solid majority of Israelis—60 percent—now favor "encouraging" Arabs to leave the country. Lieberman's plan to make Arabs sign a loyalty oath to the Jewish state, while unlikely to become law, also enjoys wide support. According to Ahmad Shaban, a retired electrician in Acre, Israel's Arabs and Jews are entering "the last act in our theater of coexistence."

On the day the riots broke out, Shaban's was one of a handful of Arab families living in Burla, a predominantly Jewish enclave of palm-lined streets and red-roofed bungalows in eastern Acre. Earlier that afternoon, he had been sitting on his porch smoking a sheesha—a Middle Eastern water pipe—with a couple of Jewish friends. But when he heard the commotion in the parking lot below, Shaban gathered his daughters and fled. By the time the clashes finally subsided, looters had robbed and burned his apartment.

The Shabans ended up swapping apartments with a Jewish family, the Levys, who had been living across town in the majority Arab section of north Acre. Danny Levy's parents had emigrated from Turkey after World War II, and the stone cutter had spent the better part of the last 50 years living side by side with Arabs. He says he always got along well with his neighbors, until recently. Now he votes Likud and favors expelling Israel's Arab population. "If you ask me, I would send them back to their own countries—Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon," Levy says. "It would be much better if there were no Arabs."

Such hard-line views are polarizing the community. In past elections Israel's Arabs often voted for Zionist parties, which sometimes offered patronage jobs in exchange for support. Yet in this contest some 90 percent of Acre's Arabs voted for exclusively Arab parties, according to local officials—even though there's next to no chance they will be invited into any coalition government. "This is new," says Abbas Zakkur, a popular local politician and former imam whose campaign posters are stuck to every fixed surface in Acre's Old City. "Twenty years ago it was exactly the opposite." Shaban's 28-year-old daughter, Hiba, says Islamic leaders were the only local figures to come to their aid after the looting. Zakkur, who ran in this election on the nationalist Balad ticket, arrived at the Shabans' home 15 minutes after the violence erupted. Another Islamic leader, Raed Salah, wrote the family a check for $4,000 to replace their damaged furniture. The Shabans are secular; Ahmad's outspoken daughters keep their hair uncovered and flaunt their cleavage. Yet they now say Zakkur and Salah have their support. "I don't care about religion," Hiba says. "But I'll vote for whoever helps me."

In Acre's Jewish neighborhoods the conflict has also taken on an increasingly religious cast. The Shabans blame an influx of former settlers from Gaza and the West Bank for stoking passions. Boaz Amir, a spokesman for the Hesder Yeshiva in Burla, says his community is growing rapidly—including roughly 10 new families who arrived from Gaza and the West Bank after Israel's "disengagement" in 2005. "We don't have enough room," he says, adding that the yeshiva is expanding to a new campus near the Shabans' former apartment. (Amir denies that the new arrivals were involved in the October violence.)

Acre's mayor, Shimon Lankri, insists the city is not splintering into homogenous ethnic enclaves. "Some left, it's true," he says. Yet the larger principle of separation propounded by Lieberman is simply not realistic. "The Arabs have deep roots here," the mayor says. "They will not leave." Acre's townspeople—like the citizens of Acre's past—will remain on guard against the violent ambitions of outsiders. But they'll also be casting a wary eye within.