Hakai Magazine

The 37-story Sail Tower overlooks the harbor in Haifa, Israel, and casts a shadow on Wadi Salib, an old Arab neighborhood battling the forces of gentrification. Photo by Sharon Yanai
The 37-story Sail Tower overlooks the harbor in Haifa, Israel, and casts a shadow on Wadi Salib, an old Arab neighborhood battling the forces of gentrification. Photo by Sharon Yanai

Will Clashing Visions End the Harmony in Haifa, Israel?

How redeveloping neighborhoods in Haifa threatens its unique reputation for tolerance in a divisive country.

Authored by

by Josie Glausiusz

Article body copy

To stand on a hilltop in the old, crumbling neighborhood of Wadi Salib in the Israeli coastal city of Haifa, is to witness the clash of ancient and modern. Derelict stone houses jostle with the gleaming plate glass of a modern courthouse; just beyond the courthouse rises the 37-story Sail Tower, a circular skyscraper with a facade that seems to billow. In the distance, the blue of the Mediterranean Sea is partially obscured by towering cranes and shipping containers stacked in the Haifa port. A train on the coastal railway line speeds past the minaret of Al-Istiqlal Mosque, built in the 1920s and now Haifa’s largest and most active place of Muslim worship.

Translated as the Valley of the Cross, Wadi Salib was once home to the city’s bustling Arab community and later to Mizrachi (Middle Eastern) Jewish immigrants. Walk Wadi Salib’s streets and you’ll see that the walls of the beautiful old houses, built in late-Ottoman style, are graffiti daubed, their windows bricked up. As backhoes shovel rubble from recently demolished buildings, workers repurpose the stones to construct the walls of a new municipal park. A billboard—now painted over—advertises a gaudy new development called Sally Valley. Gentrification—the upscale sort, devoid of true revitalization—has arrived in Wadi Salib. And it symbolizes an existential threat to Haifa itself.

Ancient and modern clash in Wadi Salib, a neighborhood once home to a bustling Arab community and later to Middle Eastern Jewish immigrants. Here, Haifa’s modern courthouse is on the right across from old, derelict houses. Photo by Sharon Yanai

Haifa is one of Israel’s five “mixed” Arab-Jewish cities, with a population that is about 10 percent Arab. For the past half century or so, its harmonious vibe has reverberated in this contentious corner of the world, where strife and intolerance are firmly entrenched.

Haifa-born Einat Kalisch Rotem, the leader of the opposition on the Haifa City Council, describes her city as “the sanest place in Israel,” where the political climate is balanced between right and left. Haifa, she says, “is a secular city that is very lucky not to have too many religious or historical sites.” Aside from the magnificent Baha’i shrine on Mount Carmel—the headquarters of the peace-loving Baha’i Faith—there is no sacred stone for people to fight over.

But Haifa does have a metaphorical “sacred stone,” the same one dividing many coastal cities—land. And it’s not so much the land itself, but how to use it.

There are few sacred sites in Haifa to squabble over, save the Baha’i shrine on Mount Carmel, the headquarters of the peace-loving Baha’i Faith. Photo by Richard T. Nowitz/Corbis

Coastal cities around the world have their own stories of gentrification, and this is Haifa’s. It’s been an oasis of calm in a divided region: a relatively tolerant city where differences are a way of life and diversity is its strength. In this age of property lust, will Haifa’s vibrant history be quashed by the insipid visions of outside entrepreneurs?

Built on the slopes of Mount Carmel overlooking a bay on the northern coast of Israel, Haifa is the third-largest city in the country, which has a population of eight million. Eighty percent of the city’s inhabitants are Jewish, ranging in observance from Orthodox to secular; the 10 percent Arab population is both Christian and Muslim; Druze, Baha’i and non-religious people make up the other 10 percent. Like Tel Aviv, another mostly secular coastal city 95 kilometers south of Haifa, the city also has a thriving gay community, both Arab and Jewish. This may not count as diverse outside of Israel’s borders, but here it’s progressive.

By the mid-19th century, Haifa was the most important port in the region. Today, the port extends over 69 city blocks and handles all sorts of cargo, including grain, cars and trucks, hazardous chemicals, and oils. Photo by Richard Cummins/Corbis

Haifa’s history as a community is deep and varied. The city dates to 3,500 years ago, when it was a small fishing village. Over the centuries, under the changing rules of Canaanites, Phoenicians, Israelites, Romans, and others, Haifa grew into a well-fortified city, until a Crusader siege in 1100 CE and subsequent invasions left it deserted by the time of the Ottoman conquest in 1516. Its fortunes were revived in the 1760s, when Dahir al-‘Umar—the Arab governor of Northern Palestine, and by all reports a tolerant ruler who embraced diversity—took control of the city, demolished the ancient town, and moved it three kilometers to the southeast. This new, walled city was very close to the location of today’s Wadi Salib.

For the moment, any hint of Wadi Salib’s illustrious past remains hidden. And threats from developments like Sally Valley may entirely subsume its history. Haifa’s Downtown Administration, a city agency, describes Sally Valley on its website as “a dynamic complex incorporating both businesses and residences.” The brainchild of Tel Aviv real estate developer Joseph and His Brothers, the glitzy glass edifice, according to the company’s director, is designed to honor Wadi Salib’s past (it is also named in homage to his long-time housekeeper, a woman named Sally).

Residents are feeling the pinch from developers. Hadar, a neighborhood close to what traditionally has been the most expensive real estate—Mount Carmel, with it expansive water views of Haifa Bay and the Galilee (a mountainous region in Israel’s north)—has seen apartment prices increase 220 percent in the past eight years. Predictably, developers have turned their gazes to the older, rundown parts of the city, the downtown and port area, with neighborhoods like Wadi Salib.

Amram Alperovitch, who runs a small grocery store in downtown Haifa, wears a pistol over his shoulder following a spate of stabbings in other Israeli cities. “If you want peace, you must prepare for war,” he says. Photo by Sharon Yanai

Kalisch Rotem, the chair of the Chaim b’Haifa (Living in Haifa) political party, wants to put the brakes on Sally Valley and other developments that focus less on revitalizing communities and more on profit. An architect and urban planner by profession, she supports urban regeneration: indeed, she has a fierce attachment to the city and its future. Born in Haifa, she is also the proud daughter and granddaughter of Polish immigrants. “My father came as a baby from Europe after ’48, barely survived the Holocaust,” she writes via email.

The vision of the city as just one big Sally Valley has aroused the ire of other long-time Haifa residents equally invested in the city’s history, including Jafar Farah, the director of the Mossawa Center, the Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel. “There is no will in the planning authorities and the political authorities in Haifa City to renovate and to keep the landscape and architecture of the Arab neighborhoods,” Farah says.

Wadi Salib, Kalisch Rotem says, is “the wound of the city.”

The past—whether 500 or 50 years ago, Arab or Jewish—is a vital part of Farah’s and Kalisch Rotem’s Haifa.

Like many coastal cities, Haifa’s waterfront neighborhoods became undesirable with the encroachment of industry and commerce as they expanded in the 20th century. Gil Meller, media spokesperson for the Downtown Administration, which is overseeing the redevelopment of the port area, including Wadi Salib, puts it this way: “Pubs, hookers—this is the reason why people went from here [the downtown core, next to the port]. They didn’t want to live where there are drugs and whores.” Just three to five years ago, he says, “if you would ask someone to come and live here, they would look at you as if you were crazy.” Meller is certain that in the next five years or so, Wadi Salib will be a new neighborhood. “Most of the buildings were bought by several entrepreneurs, and every one of them has their own plans to build new buildings there.”

Haifa’s neighborhoods are undergoing radical change. Photo by Sharon Yanai

This new transformation echoes an earlier change to Arab neighborhoods, one that dates to the years following the Second World War. In 1948, Arabs in the city of Haifa faced Israel’s joyful declaration of an independent state, which came to be known in Arabic as al-Nakba, which means “catastrophe.” In that year, following the defeat of the city by Jewish forces, about 70,000 of Haifa’s Palestinian Arabs (slightly less than half the city’s population) fled, leaving only 5,000 remaining—among them Farah’s father and grandparents.

Today, the trend is reversing: while many young Jewish professionals are leaving for jobs in Tel Aviv, thousands of young educated Arabs—doctors, lawyers, engineers—are moving into Haifa from small villages in the Galilee region. They are drawn by Haifa’s superior services and its reputation for tolerance: 14 percent of the medical students at Haifa’s renowned Technion Israel Institute of Technology, and 25 percent of students at the University of Haifa are Arab-Israelis—proportions far higher than at other Israeli institutions of higher learning.

On the surface, it looks as if Haifa is embracing this influx and increased diversity. But, as Farah notes, there is still almost total separation in grade school and in other spheres as well; in addition, there is not a single museum or archive in Haifa devoted to the history of the Arab community. The picture is more nuanced, he says. Sitting in the Mossawa Center’s offices in a restored limestone 1915 mansion that graces a narrow street in the heart of another of Haifa’s old Arab neighborhoods, Wadi Nisnas, Farah explains that there is almost no consultation by city planners with the Arab community. Both he and Kalisch Rotem, he says, envision a future where Haifa is an example for coexistence. But currently, it falls short. “I call it more normal than other cities in Israel; she calls it sane,” Farah says, later adding via email: “Haifa has less confrontations, more mixed spaces, less tension, hate speech, and fear, where people meet, work, and study together.” Haifa is more normal than Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but it’s not yet a city known for the kind of tolerance found in Amsterdam, Montevideo, or Toronto. It could be better, and that’s what Farah hopes comes from revitalization.

The Haifa neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas comes alive during the holidays for a festive market. Photo by PhotoStock-Israel/Alamy Stock Photo

On a drive around the city, Farah points out other neighborhoods, such as Wadi el Siyah, once a small Arab village, bordering a lovely old orchard. The owners of the houses here, members of the peaceful Muslim Ahmadiyya clan, are facing eviction following a court battle. Neve David is a poor neighborhood that became a refuge for Mizrachi Jews evacuated from Wadi Salib in the 1950s and 1960s following violent clashes between non-European and European Jewish (Ashkenazi) police officers—an early Mizrachi protest against discrimination by Ashkenazi elites. Today, the neighborhood is overshadowed by the massive new towers of Ramat HaNasi, which offers 1,000 apartments and, according to the developer, “sprawling green spaces, preschools … and a modern commercial center … just a short distance from Haifa’s magnificent beaches.” Closer to the port is Khayfa al-Atika (Ancient Haifa) a neighborhood with roots dating back to a second-century fishing, farming, and trading village, and currently home to about 50 Arab families. The rubbish-strewn neighborhood is also slated for redevelopment.

For true revitalization to happen in Haifa, “we need to go through a process of reconciliation and recognition of the historical rights of the Arab community,” Farah says. Further, the same Arab community should be involved in the planning processes, he says, which means that the city should also be promoting meetings and talks between Arabs and Jews, young and old.

Meller, however, insists the redevelopments can be a force for good.

On a walk around the port area—not far from the wharf where hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Europe and North Africa disembarked in 1948, including Meller’s grandmother in 1949 as a refugee from Romania—Meller says he’s pleased with the changes rolling through the neighborhoods.

Ten years ago, most of the buildings surrounding the Downtown Administration’s airy, open-plan office “looked like junk,” Meller says, adding that some of them were infested with pigeons from the nearby grain silos. He points with pride at the colorful facade of the new Carmel Academic Center. Portraits of famous Jewish-Israeli writers, poets, and artists (notably absent are any Arab or Baha’i individuals) are displayed on the institution’s walls, though it grants degrees in the more pragmatic disciplines of law and business. There is a hipster vibe here. Next door to the center is an old nightclub, festooned with lurid graffiti—including a masked man with hairy arms and a raised, bloody saber—spray-painted by Haifa’s Broken Fingaz collective, an internationally recognized team of four anonymous graffiti virtuosos. Old municipal buildings nearby have been converted into student dormitories for the academic center and a neighboring graphic design school. A public square, shaded by palm trees and served by chic restaurants and trendy microbrewery LiBira, is the site of a summer film festival.

Graffiti by the Broken Fingaz collective, an internationally recognized team of four anonymous artists, covers an old nightclub in the port area of Haifa. Photo by Josie Glausiusz

Back in his office, Meller unveils plans for three new upscale apartment buildings that will be built in Wadi Salib. The bland, balconied blocks are, in the words of the property developer, “close to the port of Haifa and its bustling business heart.” (Not that accessing the water is an option. Of 17 kilometers of coastline in Haifa, only 2.7 are accessible for public recreational purposes, according to the Haifa Statistical Yearbook.)

As the neighborhood transforms, some of the old houses in Wadi Salib will be preserved, Meller vows—those that are not in an irredeemable state of collapse. Wadi Salib, he adds, “is not like a modern neighborhood. The combination of old and new is very strong there.”

The revitalization efforts are under the helm of Yona Yahav, mayor of Haifa since 2003. Kalisch Rotem intends to become Haifa’s next mayor in 2018, and she has big plans for change. On a similar walk as the one Meller took me on through downtown, Kalisch Rotem offers a very different assessment of recent developments.

The would-be mayor points to the empty storefronts, the branch of the chain restaurant Burgerim that opened and closed within months (Meller explained the police allege that the manager “didn’t sell only burgers”), and the broken windows on buildings on Derech Ha’Atzmaut (Independence Street), which runs parallel to the port and was, says Kalisch Rotem, “once considered the most beautiful street in the Mediterranean.” Today, the street is lined with empty storefronts, cheap clothing stores, bric-a-brac shops selling souvenirs and seashells, and a crammed secondhand bookshop, BookSefer, whose owner conducts most of his business over the internet.

Similar scenes—hip cafes and bars alongside shops selling plastic novelties—dot the rejuvenated Turkish Market, which was the city’s commercial center during the Ottoman reign. From 2012 to 2014, the city offered two-year rent-free leases to artists and designers, but Kalisch Rotem describes it as “a very exclusive shopping mall, which died.”

Despite the growing population of young Arab-Israelis and the recent activity by outside developers, Haifa has been experiencing stagnation in population growth at best over the past two decades, says University of Haifa geographer Igal Charney. Its population remains more or less steady at about 270,000 people, and that stasis, says Kalisch Rotem, is in part due to the leadership of Haifa. “They don’t understand urban processes; they have no clue how to revive the city and strengthen its economic climate.” A successful city embraces diversity—cultural and economic. Kalisch Rotem cites what she calls the “geranium test,” as a way to gauge the health of neighborhoods like the port area. “I always say when I see people growing flowers in the windows, I will know that people see it as their home.”

The windows of many of Wadi Salib’s old buildings, built in original late-Ottoman style, are bricked up. Photo by Sharon Yanai

And this is why it’s important for Kalisch Rotem and Farah that Sally Valley never rises from the remnants of Wadi Salib. The developer claims that he is merely waiting for a permit from the Haifa municipality to start building.

“They wanted to brand this place [with] a new name. This place has history. Who are you to change its name?” Kalisch Rotem says. “Look at the potential.” Ideally, adds Farah, the city should “respect the history of all peoples living in this neighborhood, recognize the multilinguistic and multicultural landscape in this neighborhood—and in this I mean also the Mizrachi community.”

While Haifa is no utopia, it still retains a sense of a place that’s slightly out of step with the rest of Israel. That diversity and acceptance gives the city its strength—and offers glimmers of what the future might hold, if such tolerance is nurtured and not jeopardized by gentrification. Kalisch Rotem believes that Haifa could serve as a model for the rest of Israel: “It’s something we have to cherish,” she says. “There are so many changes in history, and cities grow, and decline, and flourish. I think we are now at a crossroads. If there won’t be a change, we are going to lose this beautiful city.”

Both Kalisch Rotem and Farah envision real, “normal,” neighborhoods, where Jews, Arabs, Baha’i, Druze—whoever—coexist and interact. Perhaps then, Haifa’s sacred stone is not so much the land, but its neighborhoods, a diverse collection of old and new, secular and religious, wealthy and modest. A city that is sane and almost normal.