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On Site: Akko

Chananel Shapiro

While the northern town of Akko is a social experiment by default, where Jews and Arabs live in mixed neighborhoods, it’s also a city where Torah life is on the upswing. Could this be the chareidi frontier of the future?

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

mix

Photo: Shutterstock.

The month-long Ramadan fast, which this year ended last week, was another reminder of how the Jews in Akko — an ancient port city on Israel’s northern coast — have to navigate the intricacies of living side by side their Arab neighbors. While the country — especially in the north — has many exclusively Arab towns, Akko is a rare social experiment by default, where Jews and Arabs live in mixed neighborhoods and even in integrated buildings. 

During Ramadan, loudspeakers broadcast verses of the Koran every evening toward the end of the fast, and after Jewish neighbors complained about this several years ago (it’s a violation of the city’s bylaws to broadcast religious announcements in a residential neighborhood), the municipality reached a compromise with local Arab leaders wherein the Muslim chants would be broadcast for two minutes, at less-than-maximum volume. 

This year’s Ramadan passed without incident, but Jewish residents are still reeling from the siege on the town’s hesder yeshivah a few years back, when the end of the Muslim fast days coincided with Simchas Torah. As yeshivah students were dancing in the streets with sifrei Torah, they were attacked by their Arab neighbors, and the violent gunshot-induced riot was soon pushed back to the yeshivah building, which was blockaded by Arabs as the bochurim retreated inside. There were no injuries, yet the incident still left a gaping wound on the delicate social fabric of this mixed city.


Near Miss

While calm eventually returned to Akko, the usual morning quiet was split recently by the wail of police sirens, as officers stormed Beit Knesset Ohr Torah, a Tunisian congregation and tourist attraction that boasts thousands of ancient mosaic tiles and serves hundreds of mispallelim and other visitors daily. That morning, it was nearly the location of a bloodbath. Terrorists had been carrying out surveillance of the synagogue for some time, and that morning, when they were planning their attack, the Shin Bet and other security agencies thwarted their plans. 

 

“It was more than just frightening,” recalls Mrs. Yaffa Badash, daughter of the shul’s gabbai and founder, Reb Tzion Badash z”l. “When the patrols pulled up in front of the beit knesset I was in the middle of giving a tour. We were terrified but had no idea what was going on. Only when the journalists came and started reporting live updates was it apparent that a real miracle had taken place.” 

Mrs. Badash says that after the attempted attack, the municipality promised to supply security, but so far that means only a part-time guard. 

“The truth is”, she admits, “how can a city like this ever be completely secured? In our neighborhood, 70 percent of the residents are Arabs and they can walk in whenever they want to. In a city like Akko, what kind of security can there be?”

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