Facing an auditorium full of fidgeting junior high school students, the odd couple offered the traditional Jewish High Holy Day blessing that the students be “inscribed in the book of life” for the coming year.
“You should have an easy fast,” said Sheikh Samir Assi, chief Imam of the Al Jazaaar mosque in Acre’s Old City, who was preparing this week for Eid al-Adha. This year the Muslim festival starts at the same time as the fasting day of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.
The sheikh had been preceded by a sermon on forgiveness and spiritual stock-taking by Yosef Yashar, the chief rabbi of this ancient Mediterranean port in northern Israel called Akko in Hebrew and Akka in Arabic.
The clerics’ joint appearance was arranged because the rare serendipity of spiritual cycles is putting the civic fabric of Acre and other mixed Jewish-Arab cities in Israel – already strained by the conflict in the Gaza Strip this summer – to the test over the coming day.
Starting Friday evening, Jews will mark the holiest day of the year with prayer and abstinence while their Muslim neighbors will be doing the exact opposite with Eid al-Adha’s custom of feasts and family visits.
Rabbi Yashar and Sheikh Assi have been visiting both Arab and Jewish school groups this past week with an earnest appeal for religious tolerance and mutual respect. The ecumenical outreach is part of a preemptive city-wide campaign aimed at avoiding a recurrence of Acre’s troubled recent past.
In 2008, tensions during the solemn Yom Kippur observance sparked a week of rioting between Jews and Arabs. Fearing that the once-in-30-years syncing of sacred holidays could spur a repeat, Acre officials embarked on a multi-pronged campaign of informational outreach, sermons, and security deployments.
“At the time that Jews should be in synagogue and praying, they [Muslims] are celebrating. [The holidays] are totally opposite,’’ said Ohad Segev, director general of the Acre Municipality, which counts 28 percent of the city’s population as Arab. “The whole big deal is 25 hours that we need to keep things quiet.”
On Yom Kippur, a day of prayer, introspection, and asking for forgiveness, most residents of Jewish towns don’t drive and shops are shuttered, and the religiously observant fast for just over a full day. During the four-day festival of Eid al-Adha, or Feast of the Sacrifice – marking Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son – traditions involve family visiting and holiday barbecues.
“Just the smell of barbecue is enough to drive you crazy,’’ says Yossi Aboutbul, who lives in a mixed neighborhood of villas that was engulfed by fighting six years ago.
Threat to city's image, and to tourism
Accounts differ about just what started the 2008 riots, but what everyone here seems to agree on is that a group of Jews first attacked an Arab who had driven into their neighborhood. Arab family members came within hours and attacked Jewish cars.
There’s a lot at stake for Acre: Beyond any further damage to the image of coexistence it wants to project to the country, ethnic violence would jeopardize tourism and an annual fall theater festival that draws thousands of Israelis to the city and is itself a symbol of that coexistence.
Though it’s been calm since the 2008 riots, relations between Arabs and Jews in Israel have been soured by the Gaza war and the murder of a Palestinian teen from Jerusalem, an act of vigilante revenge for the killing of three Jewish teens in the West Bank.
“The scars [from 2008] still exist. The war that we experienced moved relations between Arabs and Jews onto a lower plane,” said Zoheir Baloul, an Arab-Israeli soccer sportscaster who lives in the city and is active in multi-faith dialogue. “No one has an interest in fanning the fires.… I would request that if Jews see some celebration, hear music, or see someone happy, they have to understand this is the spirit of the holiday.”
The municipality wants to untangle and separate between the solemn and the festive as much as possible. Roads will be designated for Arabs and revelers will be encouraged to hold barbecues in predominantly Arab areas rather than Jewish neighborhoods. Police will be deployed throughout the city with the goal of nipping any friction in the bud.
Sermons on tolerance
East Jerusalem, always a potential flashpoint, will see a special deployment, and security forces will be on alert in other mixed cities in Israel, said a police spokesperson. Tel Aviv authorities say they have reached out to religious leaders in the mixed district of Jaffa and asked for tolerance.
Just as important, say officials in Acre, has been the outreach campaign. Muslim and Jewish clerics have been giving sermons on tolerance in mosques and synagogues, and the city distributed fliers calling on residents to respect each other’s holidays.
Back at the school auditorium of Jewish students, Rabbi Yashar spoke about the need to focus on personal introspection on Yom Kippur, and said Jews shouldn’t be angered by Muslim neighbors who are liable to be doing something different.
“They are different in opinion, beliefs and customs. Great. That’s beautiful. What unites all is that we’re all human beings,” he said.
“We respect everyone who is different that us. So if it’s Yom Kippur for me, and Eid al-Adha for my neighbor, he observes this and I observe differently, we are still brothers. Even if we see someone who doesn’t behave like we do, we forgive. We don’t get angry.”
Sheikh Assi told the students he often spoke with pride about the coexistence in Acre during drips to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He urged the students to preserve that.
“We have a life and a future, but sometimes there is a small minority that waits for the moment to wreck it all. Don’t let them,’’ he said. “Don’t let anyone from the Jewish side or the Arab side dirty the beautiful picture of Acre.”
Doves on fliers
Though the students looked slightly bored and emerged from the auditorium snapping selfies, one group of girls said they got the message. They too remember the riots, and don’t want a recurrence.
In Acre’s Old City, the Arab produce merchants show the dove-adorned fliers in Hebrew and Arabic from the municipality calling for calm and mutual respect. They said they plan to take special precautions not to barbecue near Jewish neighbors, or drive in cars to avoid stoking tensions.
Back at the municipality, officials are holding their breath over the next day. For all the public support for coexistence in Acre, Mr. Segev acknowledges that tension is a chronic condition.
“It’s built-in, in Israel, and our job is to take a small spark and close it down,” he said. “We are doing everything we can to avoid another Yom Kippur riot.”