I am a proud native of Jerusalem, the fifth generation of a Jewish family that came to that illustrious city in the middle of the 19th century. Nevertheless, after the Six-Day War of 1967, my wife and I made the conscious choice to leave Jerusalem—not to move to Tel Aviv, like so many of our friends, but rather to go farther north to the port city of Haifa. Nearly 45 years later we still congratulate ourselves on this wise decision, not only because religious and political divisions have altered the character of Jerusalem—and undermined its sanity—but also because of Haifa’s unique qualities, which become clearer as time passes.
If I had to define Haifa in a single phrase, it would be this: the well-tempered city. This seaside city offers an ideal blend of various elements, which, in other parts of Israel, give rise to disharmony and conflict.
People often speak of Haifa as a place where the mountain meets the sea, but it is more than that. It is a constant merger of the two. In Tel Aviv a walker may be near the sea but unaware of its presence until he reaches the beach. But because of the topography of Haifa and its bay, the sea is a permanent fixture, even from distant windows. And someone strolling on the beach, or splashing in the surf, can cast her eyes at the distant green gullies winding between the houses.
This topographic blend is an apt setting for the sorts of social harmony that grace the city. First and foremost is the coexistence of the Jewish majority and the Arab minority, Christian and Muslim. Even in the difficult days of the Palestinian intifada, the two communities in Haifa remained on friendly terms. The reason stems from the 1948 War of Independence, when Jews and Arabs clashed all over Israel. Whereas in Haifa, even as the Jews took control of the city, they asked the Arab residents not to flee and seek refuge in Lebanon. Many of the Arabs of Haifa stayed, trusting the Jews’ assurance that they would not be mistreated in the new state, and in the 63 years since, this agreement among neighbors has formed the basis of a respectful relationship.
A good number of streets in Haifa are named for Arab mayors and intellectuals of the pre-state period. Our street signs are bilingual. The churches and mosques, as well as the gold-domed Bahai shrine and its stunning gardens, are pilgrimage sites for visitors from around the world, all under the protection of the Jews.
Indeed, the city’s greatest Jewish virtue is its secular pluralistic spirit. Haifa is a city that will not succumb to any religious coercion, least of all Jewish. Decades ago, when public transportation on the Sabbath and holidays was banned throughout the country, our fiercely socialist mayor insisted on maintaining it, not only to respect the rights of the city’s non-Jews, but also to enable residents without private cars to go to the beach or visit relatives on Shabbat. Haifa’s secular transportation policy remains a symbol of its socialist, egalitarian values—the city has long been nicknamed “Red Haifa”—which endure in the face of Israel’s strong rightward tendencies, both religious and political. At the same time, the city government takes care not to affront its religious population. In Orthodox neighborhoods, streets are closed to traffic on Saturdays, and secular residents do not complain as they do in other cities. For if your needs are respected, you are considerate of the values and feelings of others.
Best of all, Haifa enjoys all the advantages of a big city. Yet, unlike Tel Aviv, it is a short ride away from some of the loveliest rural landscapes in the land: the Galilee, the Carmel Ridge, the Jezreel Valley. I sometimes think that if Jerusalem continues to embroil us in its escalating nationalist and religious conflicts, and Tel Aviv ramps up its radical hedonism, we ought to build a little barricade south of town at Zikhron Yaakov, and establish an autonomous Haifaite republic—friendly to the rest of Israel, but unique and independent. After all, it is no coincidence that in 1902, in his wonderful utopian novel Old New Land, the Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl singled out Haifa as the model city of the future Jewish state.
Yehoshua is the author, most recently, of Friendly Fire. (This column is translated from the Hebrew by Stuart Schoffman.)