“Over the past few years, well-to-do Arab Israelis, both Muslim and Christian, have been driving their minivans 10 minutes up the hill from the ancient, overcrowded nearly all-Arab city of Nazareth and snapping up sweet but pricey five-bedroom, four-bath houses.
Many of the homes are worth a half-million dollars or more, and Arab citizens of Israel count for 18 percent of the 50,000 residents in “Upper Nazareth,” as it is translated in English.
They are welcome here, the mayor says, as long as they remember one very important rule.
“This is a Jewish city,” said Shimon Gafsou of his adopted home town, “now and forever.”
To be more specific: “I would rather cut off my right arm than build an Arab school,” the mayor said in an interview on his terrace at city hall.
Ditto mosques. “No, no, no. No mosques, ever,” Gafsou said. No churches. Or Ramadan lanterns or manger scenes. “And no Christmas trees,” said the mayor of a town that abuts the largest Arab city in Israel, celebrated as the childhood home of Jesus.
“Everyone can live here, that is the law, as long as they understand this is a Jewish city,” Gafsou said. “And in that way we are a microcosm of the state of Israel.”
He said that “95 percent of Jewish mayors think the same thing. They’re just afraid to say so out loud.”
The situation here in Nazareth Illit may be a bit stark, even a little cartoonish, according to some critics of the colorful mayor, who is up for reelection next month. He has been temporarily sidelined from office after being indicted Tuesday by the Israeli courts for allegedly accepting bribes, a charge he denies and says is politically motivated.
No matter, because he still appears to be the front-runner. And his town does reflect a central tension in Israeli society. In the current round of peace talks brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demands is that Palestinians not only accept Israel’s right to exist, but also recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
The parallel challenge is determining what Israel should do for the 21 percent of its citizens who are Arab, and what the Arab Israelis should do for Israel.
Arabs comprise large minorities in Jerusalem and in the southern Negev desert. Here in the northern district, not including the coastal metropolis of Haifa, there are more Arabs than Jews.
Israel guarantees its Arab citizens full and equal rights. But report after report documents the fact that spending for Arab citizens is lower, on average, in education, housing, business development and other areas.
Nazareth Illit is a classic Israeli “development,” or new town, built with government support starting in the 1950s as a home for Jews on expropriated lands, according to historians.
But now, as elderly Jews die and young Jews move to Tel Aviv and its environs, the annual growth of the Jewish population in northern Israel has slowed to just 3 percent, according to the government’s 2010 census reports. At the same time, the Arab Israeli population was climbing 11 percent annually in the north.”
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