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Haifa’s Happy Holidays: Three religions, one giant block party

Why We Wrote This

When the Oslo Accords were signed 25 years ago, it seemed Israelis and Palestinians might be headed toward peace. Haifa’s December festival began that year too, a reminder of a time of hope. 

Beit HaGefen Arab-Jewish Culture Center
Revelers throng the streets under billowing lights at the Holiday of Holidays festival, a yearly event that celebrates cultural and religious diversity in Haifa, Israel. This December marks the festival’s 25th anniversary.

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A rare celebration of religious and cultural diversity in the fractious Middle East, the Holiday of Holidays is the only event of its kind in Israel. The festival honors Christmas, Hanukkah, and Muslim traditions over three weekends in December for a part-block party, part-intercultural artistic extravaganza. It draws as many as 70,000 people a day to Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city. Haifa likes to bill itself the country’s capital of coexistence. Its lack of significant sites tied to the region’s three main monotheistic religions has contributed to its more tolerant ethos. “It’s more normal than other cities in Israel because Moses wasn’t here, Jesus wasn’t here, and Muhammad wasn’t here,” jokes Maher Mahamid of Beit HaGefen, the cultural center responsible for organizing the festival. Hila Goshen of Beit HaGefen says the example of the gathering, brief as it is, shows a concept of shared society, a place where Arabs and Jews can live together and lead equal lives. “I know all our issues are not being solved in this festival,” Ms. Goshen says. “But even having this kind of exposure to thinking a little bit differently is a seed we have to plant.” 

It’s rush hour and news blares from car radios across Israel’s traffic-clogged roads about one overarching story of the day: Hamas militants in Gaza have fired 400 rockets into southern Israel over the past 24 hours. About 100 miles north up the coast, in the port city of Haifa, two young art curators, one Jewish and one a Palestinian citizen of Israel, are dealing with something decidedly less fraught: They are planning the logistics of an art installation that will include 88 pounds of white pepper, za’atar, sumac, and ginger. 

The piece is an exploration of what notions of “home” mean, a loaded concept in a land claimed by two peoples. It is planned as a centerpiece of a new art exhibition for the Holiday of Holidays, the only event of its kind in Israel and a rare celebration of religious and cultural diversity in the fractious Middle East. The festival honors Christmas, Hanukkah, and Muslim traditions over three weekends in December in a gathering that is part block party, part intercultural artistic extravaganza. It draws as many as 70,000 people a day. This year will mark the 25th anniversary of the festival. 

Dina Kraft
Haneen Abed and Yael Messer (r.), curators at the Beit HaGefen Art Gallery, select artists and works for the Holiday of Holidays festival.

Every year there is a different theme and this one is “the third dimension,” an invitation to look at what happens when different cultures and identities influence each other to create something new – a hybrid space – as Yael Messer describes it. Ms. Messer is curator of the art gallery run by the Beit HaGefen Arab-Jewish Cultural Center. Messer, who is Jewish, is going over plans with Haneen Abed, her deputy, a Palestinian Israeli, in their shared office. The staff of the center is made up of both Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel. 

The story of the Holiday of Holidays is also the story of Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city. Haifa likes to bill itself – though not without criticism – as the country’s capital of coexistence, a place where Jewish and Arab residents live more integrated lives. 

Across the country, most Jews and Arabs live separately even in so-called mixed towns and cities, such as Haifa, where the two groups usually inhabit different neighborhoods. Social interaction is especially rare.

But the festival brings together people from both sides of the demographic divide to dance to music performed on outdoor stages, on streets festooned with holiday lights. Arabs and Jews together follow the path of food and literary tours through the alleyways and streets of the mostly Arab neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas, eating local offerings like hummus and baklava at food stalls and attending concerts of liturgical music at churches. The massive undertaking is organized by Beit HaGefen and funded by the city of Haifa.

Upstairs from Messer and Ms. Abed, their colleague Hila Goshen, the cultural director of Beit HaGefen, has her laptop open to a color-coded schedule of the festival’s events. 

Beit HaGefen Arab-Jewish Cultural Center
People dance in the streets of the mostly Arab neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas in Haifa, Israel.

“It seems like every year there is some war, or military operation, or suicide bombing that happens [during the planning season] and we ask, ‘What are we doing, bringing people together to hear music and hear each other?’ ” says Ms. Goshen. “And then the festival happens and this place looks like the most normal place on earth. The magic happens.”

***

Every December the festival spills out from underneath a Haifa landmark, the Bahai Gardens, a series of lush terraces built into a slope of Mount Carmel. A Christmas tree, a menorah in the shape of the Star of David, and an Islamic crescent are placed together at the foot of the mountain to convey a message of unity.

The talk on this particular morning of possible war between Israel and Hamas feels strangely removed from the calm and – compared to the rest of Israel – integrated lives of Arabs and Jews here. But it’s also an unbearably familiar tension, says Abed. “What is awful about this [fighting] is that it has become normal in some way. Despite all the associated pain, it’s almost routine,” says Abed, who moved to Haifa from Nazareth, Israel. She’s part of a trend of young, liberal Palestinian Israelis who are forging a cultural and political home in the city. Many of them have moved here from more religiously and politically conservative towns and villages across the country. 

Messer is also a transplant to Haifa. Like Abed, she was attracted to the more tolerant atmosphere here. It’s a city they both refer to as a bubble, one whose long history of overall good relations between Arabs and Jews has endured. 

Yet even here, they’re quick to point out, some very real divides still exist. “There’s a tendency to forget within the 1948 borders,” Messer says, referring to the borders of Israel proper, not the Palestinian areas of West Bank and Gaza, “that we don’t live in a normal place, and unfortunately it has to come to a very kind of severe situation in other places in our area for us to remember that.” 

Abed and Messer share a sunny office in the downstairs of Beit HaGefen’s main building, a large limestone structure built at the end of the 19th century. Both have thick wavy hair they often wear pulled up into buns and on this day they are both in jeans. They joke that they often wear the same colors to work without planning to. But if anyone might mistake them for sisters, Messer teases it’s clear they are not – Abed is “much” taller, she says. 

Messer also doesn’t give much thought to the fact that, like the rest of the Beit HaGefen staff, they represent an Arab and Jewish work team. They both describe feeling as if they are creating what Messer calls a “mini-cosmos” through the gallery. “What is nice about this work is that we feel like we are doing it together,” says Messer. “We’re still very much connected to Beit HaGefen and the festival but also of creating something of our own within what is taking place.” 

Dina Kraft
A painting of a woman wearing a hijab covers a doorway in an Arab neighborhood of Haifa. An artist created the public work for the yearly festival that draws as many as 70,000 people a day.

***

The idea for the Holiday of Holidays began with a quirk of the calendar. A group of artists and activists in the city realized one year that Christmas, Hanukkah, and Ramadan would all be overlapping that December. So they decided to seize on the rare alignment and create a new tradition, a festival honoring the major religions represented in the city – and the country.

It was December 1993. The Oslo Accords had been signed on the White House lawn just three months earlier, consummated by the historic handshake of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat. A few months later the Nobel Committee would award the two of them, along with Shimon Peres, the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to ease hostilities in the region. It seemed Israelis and Palestinians might finally be heading toward peace after a century of conflict. 

Today the promise of Oslo – two peaceful coexisting states, one Israeli and one Palestinian – seems a distant dream, even among those who once championed the accord. 

In some ways the Holiday of Holidays is a relic of that period of hope. Its organizers and supporters say that Haifa is a model for the rest of the country’s relations between its Jewish majority and Arab minority even as the larger political situation remains stubbornly stagnant. 

When the festival was conceived, it was decided that Wadi Nisnas, a working-class Arab neighborhood on the doorstep of Beit HaGefen, would be the focus of the activities. Local artists, both Jewish and Arab, were recruited to create art installations in coordination with others in the community to hang on the homes and walls of its winding alleyways. 

“It was a time of great freedom for the artists who involved the community in this vision of creating a new shared holiday,” says Dan Chamizer, one of the original artists to work on the festival. “We set out to do what seemed at first impossible: to create a new tradition by getting to know each other’s cultures. We were Jews and Arabs working together and not shying away from talking about what was painful.” 

Beit HaGefen Arab-Jewish Cultural Center
A member of a traveling circus performs in a park-like area as part of the Holiday of Holidays festival entertainment.

Mr. Chamizer points to the work of one artist at the time who painted over the boarded-up windows of a home in Wadi Nisnas. The house was owned by an Arab family that had left Haifa amid the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1948, the year of Israel’s birth, and never returned. It was one of many Arab-owned properties in the city that the newly formed state labeled “abandoned” and in some cases left empty. The artist found black-and-white photographs of the original owners of the house and pasted them over the windows. 

After the war, Israel didn’t allow most Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, dramatically shifting the demographics of Haifa. At the end of 1947, the city had a split population of some 70,000 Jewish residents and 70,000 Palestinians. Just a few months later, in April 1948, only 4,000 Palestinians remained. Today about 10 percent of Haifa’s 280,000 residents are Arab citizens. 

Beit HaGefen Arab-Jewish Cultural Center
Red-bereted members of the Haifa Scouts march in a parade at the Holiday of Holidays event that celebrates cultural and religious diversity.

***

Haifa’s unusual mixed culture today is partly a function of its past. Nestled between the slopes of Mount Carmel and the Mediterranean Sea, it started out as a small port city in the Bronze Age. Haifa was ruled by some of the world’s dominant empires and peoples – from the Canaanites, Romans, and Crusaders to the Ottomans and British. 

Its lack of significant sites tied to the region’s three main monotheistic religions has contributed to its more tolerant ethos. “It’s more normal than other cities in Israel because Moses wasn’t here, Jesus wasn’t here, and Muhammad wasn’t here,” jokes Maher Mahamid, who is director of Beit HaGefen’s library and in charge of the Holiday of Holidays programming for children. 

The lack of religious connections, which has fueled political tension in Jerusalem, allows Haifa to do what it seems to do best: simply go about its business. An old Israeli saying goes, “In Jerusalem they pray, in Tel Aviv they party, in Haifa they work.” 

“There’s no magic here, just that economic considerations have always come first over political considerations,” says Mr. Mahamid. 

Modern Haifa cannot be understood fully without looking back to its time under British rule from 1918 to 1948, according to Motti Golani, a professor of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University. In other cities of that period Arabs and Jews lived near each other, but not usually in the same neighborhoods as they did in Haifa. Jews here often understood or spoke Arabic and Arabs often spoke Hebrew or even Yiddish. 

Both Arabs and Jews held prominent positions in the municipality and the public workforce was mixed, which set a tone of cooperation.

The British transformed what was just a town under Ottoman rule into a modern metropolis, envisioning it as the most important crossroads in the Middle East. They built the large, deep-water port that Israel still uses today as its main outlet to the sea, as well as a railway spur to Baghdad and oil pipeline to Mosul. 

“The British made Haifa a real city,” says Dr. Golani. Although Jews arriving from Europe tended to live on Mount Carmel and the Arabs near the sea, the British built up an area in between where both groups worked and some settled. 

A key to the economic success and political stability of the city was that there was a strong liberal middle class and a strong working class among both Arabs and Jews. The diversity of the community was so striking that it prompted the British High Commissioner for Palestine to pay a visit in 1946 to see what could be learned from Haifa’s example. 

But as the 1948 war played out, so did a mass exodus of Palestinians from the city. The Arabs assumed they would return when the fighting ended. According to Golani, Haifa’s Jews wanted their Palestinian neighbors to return, too, but the new government ministers of Israel decided otherwise. 

Beit HaGefen Arab-Jewish Cultural Center
Festival goers listen to a music concert, one of many held in churches during the Holiday of Holidays event that runs over three weekends in December.

Those Arabs who did resettle in Haifa were mostly refugees displaced from towns and villages in Galilee. And the first and second generation tended to focus on making a living over politics. But the current younger generation in their 20s and 30s, who came of age during the second intifada, more openly identify with being Palestinian. They feel that they cannot rely on Israel to protect their rights, but have to claim them for themselves. They have been leaving an indelible mark on Haifa culturally and politically.

A growing number of cafes, galleries, and event spaces have opened in the city owned and frequented by young, liberal Palestinian Israelis. Some of the young people come from Haifa, and others, like Abed, were drawn here at first to study – about 40 percent of the University of Haifa is made up of Arab students – but have decided to stay.

“There is an ease of being here; it feels like a place one can start something new,” says Abed.

One often hears more Arabic emanating from the city’s spots that cater to Palestinian Israeli customers, but young Jews frequent the new venues, too. “It’s amazing to be there,” Abed says of Fattoush Bar and Gallery,  an industrial space in the style of New York’s Brooklyn borough, with a restaurant, long bar, and long lines to get in. “It’s like having another home in the city.”

While Arabs and Jews may mingle more easily here than in other Israeli cities, tensions do exist. Amjad Iraqi, who moved to Haifa for its liberalism and tolerance four years ago, faults the city for its neglect of poorer Arab neighborhoods and for attempts by authorities to muzzle those who assert their Palestinian identity too overtly. 

A Gaza solidarity demonstration in Haifa last May, which sparked clashes between police and protesters, was a reminder that relations can still be fragile. “There is an idea of coexistence here that means you are to silence your Palestinian identity, become Arab Israeli and not Palestinian,” says an Iraqi who is a contributing editor for +972 Magazine, an online publication that analyzes events in Israel and the Palestinian areas. 

***

Organizers of the Holiday of Holidays are well aware of the strains in the city. Asaf Ron, the director of Beit HaGefen, acknowledges that some Palestinian Israeli artists have chosen not to participate in the event. He understands, he says, why some would not want to be associated with a gathering they feel is linked to a state that discriminates against them.

The longtime educator, who has close-cropped silver hair and a ready smile, took the job at Beit HaGefen eight years ago. He grew up in Haifa, in a Jewish neighborhood where he did not have Arab friends. One of his first memories is as a first-grader placing sandbags and blackening out windows during the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967. 

“The third generation [of Palestinian Israelis] after 1948 is going through a process of becoming more nationalist,” says Mr. Ron. “It’s not unlike the first two generations after the Holocaust. The first did not talk, the second did not know, and the third speaks out. These were two very different events, but the process is similar.” 

Outside his open window bells toll from neighboring churches. 

“The state tries to squash and forbid a Palestinian identity here because it threatens us,” he goes on. “But I say, on the contrary, the only way we can have a strong identity is to live with one another. Otherwise we keep on playing this zero-sum game.” 

Among the new art installations he is especially excited for visitors to experience is Emi Sfard’s “Cinderella” digital art series. It tells four different versions of the Cinderella story, each from the 19th century and each representing a different community in Israel, in this case Moroccan, Russian, Palestinian, and French.

“In the end it shows the beauty of each culture and how we can see them in an equal way,” says Ms. Sfard.

Ron sees the job of the center, and its flagship event, the Holiday of Holidays, as laying the infrastructure for Arabs and Jews to understand each other better, to listen and make room for both people’s historical narratives even as they debate and disagree. 

Goshen, the cultural director of Beit HaGefen, echoes that point. She says the example of the gathering, brief as it is, shows this concept of shared society, a place where Arabs and Jews can live together and lead equal lives. 

“I know all our issues are not being solved in this festival,” she says. “But even having this kind of exposure to thinking a little bit differently is a seed we have to plant.” 

Some critics believe this is gauzy naiveté. They argue that people really come to the festival for the food, not the message of unity. But Ron disagrees. 

“I don’t think people come for the hummus or the knafeh,” he says. “I think they come for the hope.”

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