Larry Derfner
The Jerusalem Post
November 19, 2010 - 1:00am

By pure coincidence, the main opposing forces in Safed’s latest anti-Arab flare-up are next-door neighbors. One is Eli Zvieli, 89, who became a target of threats and public denunciations after he rented an apartment to three Beduin college students last month. The other is Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliahu, who vehemently repeated his decade-old call on Jews to refuse to rent to Arabs. They live in adjoining stone houses in the heart of the Old City and even share a rooftop balcony, divided by a low gate.

Eliahu, who moved into his house about 15 years ago, says the two have always enjoyed peaceful neighborly relations and, on a personal level, “have complete respect for each other.”

Zvieli, who’s lived for nearly 60 years in his house on Kikar Hameginim (Defenders’ Square), says he has a bone or two to pick with Eliahu over the rooftop and other neighborly matters. But after learning from one of his Beduin renters that Eliahu had gone to their apartment – in a wing of Zvieli’s large, two-story house – to offer them money to move out, he plans to file a police complaint against the rabbi for trespassing. The students, however, say they let Eliahu in.

Sitting in his courtyard beneath pergolas and vines, Zvieli says the rabbi had made an earlier visit in his living room to try to persuade him – again, with money – to throw the Beduin students out. “He said to me, ‘I can’t bear to look at Arabs.’ I had to hold myself back from telling him, ‘So get yourself a pair of dark sunglasses,’” says Zvieli, a slightly bent-over happy warrior in cap and sandals.

SITTING ON HIS terrace, a year-round succa with a slatted, thatched roof, Eliahu says, “I don’t remember saying that. I didn’t say that. Maybe he heard that sentence from someone else.”

Still, without being asked, Eliahu confirms that he offered the Beduin students money to move out. “We are in a war for the Jewish character of this country, a war to be fought not with guns but with money and good sense,” says the genial rabbi, 54, broad-shouldered in white shirt, black pants and knitted kippa.

His father, Mordechai, who died in June, was the country’s Sephardi chief rabbi, a spiritual leader to radical religious settlers, a proponent of ruthless tactics against Palestinians and a eulogizer at Meir Kahane’s funeral. The younger Eliahu says Jewish law forbids Jews from selling or renting property in Israel to gentiles, and insists that all Arabs who “do not accept that they are guests in a Jewish country” be expelled.

Deriding Arabs as violent predators who start up with Jewish women and deny ancient Jewish history in this land, he says, “They live in a fantasy world. They’re donkeys. Don’t write that I said that, but that’s what they are.”

The younger Eliahu says that when he tried to convince the Beduin students to move out, “their leader, Nimran, told me, ‘I know you don’t want Arabs in Safed, but we are going to take over this city again and there’s nothing you can do about it.’”

By telephone, Nimran Grifat, 19, the first of the three Beduin to rent the apartment, says the rabbi twisted his words. “I never said that Arabs are going to take over the city; I said we’re going to come here and study [at Safed Academic College] for three years and then go home to our villages.”

A resident of Zarzir, he says he’s studying nursing on an IDF scholarship. “After I get my degree, I go into the army for six years.” He adds that his father, a former paratrooper and Border Police officer, and all four of his brothers are IDF veterans.

Up a steep column of stairs from the Old City, on a statue commemorating the city’s liberation in the War of Independence, the inscription begins: “Arabs lived side by side with Jews in the city of Safed.” The Arabs, who made up 90 percent of the population, lost the battle for Safed and fled (including the family of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas).

Until a couple of decades ago, this hillside Galilee city was known for its kabbalistic heritage and holy sites, scenic views and artists’ colony. It is still known for all that, but also as a magnet for particularly extreme hozrim b’tshuva, newly-religious Jews (many of them “Anglos”), and as a hotbed of anti-Arab racism.

ELIAHU TRACES the city’s dissension to the influx of Arab students to the college, where they now make up about 40% of the 2,200 students. But veteran residents, those whose families came here before 1948, are more likely to blame the influx of extreme rightwing Chabad, Breslav and other haredi sects – and the arrival of Eliahu, who became chief rabbi some 20 years ago.

The population of 35,000 is a mix of haredim, “hippie”-garbed hozrim b’tshuva, Sephardi and Russian lower-middle class and oldtimers both Sephardi and Ashkenazi. There are also more than 100 families of South Lebanon Army veterans, mainly Maronite Christians, while down the hill and across the highway, an enclave of more than 200 Arab families, Akhbara, was annexed some years ago.

The current outbreak of anti-Arab enmity was sparked on October 10, when Zvieli rented the apartment – which stands at the epicenter of the haredi and hozrim b’tshuva community – to Grifat.

“I began getting angry telephone calls without end,” recalls the retired probation officer, who spent two years in a pro-Nazi Hungarian labor camp and four years in a Soviet POW camp before coming here in 1950. “One guy told me, ‘We’re going to burn your house down.’”

After that arson threat, he went to the police to file a complaint, and upon returning found a poster taped to his front door. He tore it down, but soon copies were pasted all around the Old City. “My neighbors took the others down,” he says, showing me the remains of one. It reads: “War of Independence fighter Zvieli brings Arabs back to Safed!! Shame and disgrace upon us!!!” (The authors may have erred about Zvieli’s military background because of the plaque over his front door, which commemorates his late wife, Ayala, the “secretary of the Hagana in 1948, [and] the first woman soldier in Safed.”)

Shortly after the Beduin moved in next door, Eliahu called an “emergency meeting” in the city’s main community center to warn against the Arab “threat,” reiterating his call on Jews not to rent to them. Some 400 people attended, including Kach leader Baruch Marzel, and 18 rabbis, mainly from Safed, signed the declaration.

Then, on Friday night, October 22, some 30 local Jewish youths attacked a group of Arab students living in town. A teenage boy was charged with throwing stones while yelling “death to the Arabs” and “stinking Muslims.”

A border policeman gave his rifle to one of the rioters, who fired it in the air; both have been charged.

ANOTHER FOCUS of local Jewish antagonism is the city’s planned medical school, which would naturally attract many Galilee Arab students. Fliers began appearing recently accusing Mayor Ilan Shohat, who supports the project, of bringing in “a refugee camp and shelter for sadistic, deranged Arabs.”

Of the nearly 1,000 Arabs who come from surrounding villages to study at Safed Academic College, a large percentage are Beduin, Druse and Circassians, who serve in the IDF, says a veteran resident connected to the school. With very few exceptions, they go home for the weekends.

In Kikar Hameginim, a British immigrant working at one of the eateries says, “We had a couple of Arab students in our building, and in the two years they were there, I think they stayed over on Shabbat once. They rent in town because it’s more convenient and probably no more expensive for them than commuting from the villages.”

The very few Arab students to be found in town over the weekends, says a college official, “are mainly those who work at the Rimonim Inn, the Canaan Spa or the old-age homes as shabbes goyim.”

During the interview on his terrace, Eliahu notes with approval: “Jews in this city don’t rent to Arabs. Maybe a handful do, but no more. When one Arab moves in, the Jews run. It seems they don’t like to live around the Arabs.”

I ask him about this seeming contradiction – if there’s an effective boycott against renting or selling to Arabs, how do they even establish themselves in Safed to the point where they’re a “threat” to local Jews?

“They don’t establish themselves in Safed,” the rabbi replies, laughing lightly with satisfaction. “We’re doing everything we can so that we don’t become like Acre. It turns out we have good Jews in this city.”

This is a point he comes back to again and again – that by largely preempting Arabs from moving into the city, local property owners have so far prevented it from becoming “like Acre,” a northern coastal town that is economically and demographically much like Safed except for its sizable Arab minority.

“It’s already too late to save Acre,” says Eliahu, who also uses crime-ridden, bankrupt Lod as an example of what Safed will become if the citizenry doesn’t remain steadfast.

Because of the Arab “threat,” he is wary about the planned medical school, saying it will have a “destructive” effect on the city unless prospective Arab students are required to take a loyalty test.

“Whoever accepts that this is a Jewish state and that he is here as a guest, welcome. If not, good-bye,” Eliahu says. “It’s stupid to invite people here who want to destroy us.”

I ask him about the recent attacks on Arabs in town.

“What attacks?” he replies.

The Friday night riot, the shooting in the air.

“I don’t know anything about that,” he says, “but I’m against any use of violence. We have to act wisely.”

What about the posters denouncing Zvieli for renting to Arabs? “That’s legitimate. People have the right to express their opinions about what he did.”

And the phone calls to his home? “Also legitimate.”

And the phone threat to burn down his house?

“I’m against threats,” he says. “But all expressions of opinion are legitimate.”

Four years ago, attorney-general Menahem Mazuz charged Eliahu with incitement to racism after he said publicly that Arabs should not be allowed to rent or study in the city. The charges, however, were dropped after Eliahu agreed to soften his words.

IN KIKAR HAMEGINIM, a circle of little religious girls are playing jump rope, while bearded men wearing a wide range of kippot and clothing sit in front of the shops. Around here, it’s not hard to find people who agree that Arabs don’t fit in.

“No one really likes Arabs in their neighborhood. It’s hard enough having secular Jews, let alone Arabs,” says Avi, a young American immigrant at the nearby Chabad center. “Arabs are a threat to the community. According to Jewish law, you’re not supposed to give Jewish land to gentiles. It shakes up the community, it changes the energy.”

The British immigrant behind the counter in Kikar Hameginim says that “rightly or wrongly, Arabs living here provoke fear in some of the people who have little children, who have daughters.”

But when recalling the Arab students who lived in her building, she says, “They didn’t bother anyone, except sometimes they’d sit outside smoking nargilas until 2 a.m., but I suppose that doesn’t make them anymore irritating than Israeli students.”

Among Safed veterans, one is more likely to hear complaints about the haredim and hozrim b’tshuva than about Arab students.

“I’ve never heard of an Arab bothering anybody here on Shabbat, but I’ve heard of haredim doing it. They’ve yelled out ‘Shabbes’ at me when I drove down the wrong street,” says the native-born owner of a local guest house. “What’s happening in Safed with this big hoo-ha over the Arabs is basically the same thing that’s been happening all over the country lately. The only difference is that here it’s a little more primitive.”

THE HOUSE Eli Zvieli lives in belonged to his wife’s family, the Barshas, who were true pillars of the community. Inside, the house looks unchanged since it was built in 1934, with old wooden cabinets lined with trinkets, cushiony furniture and landscape paintings on the walls.

He notes that his father-in-law, Osher Barsha, donated considerable sums to maintain the historic Ha’ari synagogue and mikve.

“I’m not religious, but I still go to synagogue Friday night and Saturday morning,” he says. “In the old days, the pious and the not-so-pious lived together happily in Safed. But now these fanatics, these hozrim b’tshuva, they have no respect for this place. The Breslavers paint their ‘na, nah’ everywhere.”

We’re sitting in his courtyard on Thursday afternoon when one of his tenants, Muhammad Akariya, a nursing student at the college, comes in to get some things out of his apartment before going home to his village for the weekend. Zvieli tells him I’m doing a story about the trouble in town, and Akariya says that Eliahu was at their place the previous afternoon. This is news to Zvieli, and he does not take it well.

“How dare he come in my house without my permission! I was out volunteering at the old-age home – I feed some of the people who can’t feed themselves – and he comes in to their apartment? I’m going to complain to the police about this. That’s trespassing.”

Looking collegiate with his sparse beard, Tshirt and shorts, Akariya, 21, says he wants to stay in the apartment, noting that it’s “two minutes from the college,” but that all this antagonism has him a little spooked. “I don’t know whether to stay or leave. My mother’s worried,” he says.

“Don’t you get cold feet,” Zvieli tells him. “You can live wherever you want to live.”

When Eliahu appealed to him to evict the three Beduin students, offering to cover any costs incurred, Zvieli says he told him: “If I’d known it was going to cause such a reaction, maybe I would have found different tenants. But now I have an agreement with them, and I have to stand by it. I’m responsible to them.”

He gets a call from his daughter. “I’m doing all right,” he tells her. “I can’t say it’s been pleasant, but I’m holding up.”

THESE EVENTS have put Safed in the news and Zvieli has been interviewed by several Israeli media. While showing me the rooftop he shares with Eliahu, he got a call from a Der Spiegel reporter and agreed to meet her, too.

He’s gotten phone calls of support from MKs Tzipi Livni and Avishay Braverman, a Tel Aviv city councilman and “a religious family from Jerusalem,” he notes.

At 89, Zvieli has become a public enemy to some, a hero to others. “I didn’t go looking for a fight, but that’s what I got, and now I have to stand up to it,” he says.

I tell him there aren’t many people around like him. “There are, there are, you just don’t hear about them,” he insists. “I’ve always minded my own business, but I believe in one simple thing. It’s a saying by Hillel: ‘Where there are no men, be a man.’”


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