“Pogrom!” roared the old man. “Do you know what a pogrom is?!” We were standing in front of a makolet — a neighborhood grocery — on Ben-Shushan Street in Akko (also known as Acre).
This was in the eastern part of the city, not the scenic old town by the sea where tourists visit Crusader ruins. It’s a working-class neighborhood, populated mainly by Jews but some Arabs, too.
Akko is a “mixed city,” one where Arab and Jewish citizens live side-by-side, almost always peacefully. This past Yom Kippur was a rare and violent exception. On Kol Nidre night, an Arab man drove down a Jewish street and was pelted with stones. It’s an unwritten rule that nobody drives on Yom Kippur in Jewish parts of Israel, so what he did was construed — or misconstrued — as a deliberate provocation.
A false rumor quickly spread among Akko Arabs that the guy had been lynched. A mob of young Arab men stormed Ben-Shushan Street, smashing windshields, puncturing tires, throwing rocks and shouting Islamic nationalist slogans.
“They had axes!” cried the old man, tears welling in his eyes. He and his wife cowered in their home, he said, fearing for their lives. The Arabs mocked them, shouting, in Hebrew, “barvazim!” — literally, “ducks,” but slang for “cowards.”
He was 74, born in Turkey, and had come here at age 12. “Sixty years we lived as good neighbors! How can it be?” he mused.
We heard that refrain over and over on that sunny Sukkot day when a writer friend and I had traveled here to grasp the aftermath.
Across the street, at an Arab house torched in reprisal by Jews — one of several –– were police guarding it from further damage or looting. Inside, the living room was a sooty mess of burned furniture.
This is normally peak season for the shopkeepers and restaurateurs in the old city, the great majority of them Arab. This year the mayor has called off a popular festival. I asked a store owner on Ben-Ami Street whether holding the fair would have been good to get things back to normal. He and his wife have many Arab customers, and even friends, and few extremists on either side cannot win the day, he said. But no, he added, there should be no festival. Holding it would give the Arabs a “prize” for what they had done. This shopkeeper even had seen to it that the glaziers who replaced the windows were Jews, not Arabs, lest “they” reap benefit from the damage.
He hadn’t seemed to be the kind of guy who believed in collective punishment, and I told him that. He hadn’t thought of it that way, he said after a moment, but yes, this is the way he feels. When things fall apart, even liberals become chauvinists.
In the old city, we met an Arab shopkeeper who sells a stunning variety of wares — Christian souvenirs, kippot and shofars, Israeli jewelry by high-end designers. Business, usually hopping now, was nil. But she, too, thought it best to cancel the festival. Why, she said, throw the annual party with oppressive, stepped-up security on every corner? She seemed sad, not angry. Which is how I, a fellow Israeli, felt.
Akko has been multi-cultural forever. It is mentioned in the Bible. Herod built a Roman gymnasium there. The Muslims ruled from the seventh century till 1104, when Acre was conquered by the Crusaders. The Muslim warrior Saladin retook it in 1187; it was reconquered for the Christians a few years later by Richard the Lionheart.
The Ottomans conquered it in the 16th century, building upon the Crusader fortifications so sturdily that Napoleon could not take the walled city in 1799. Several centuries later, the British jailed Jewish fighters in that very citadel. Jewish Irgun and radical Stern gang members engineered a massive prison break in May 1947 — in which, by the way, some 180 Arab prisoners also escaped.
One great Jewish sage luminary who spent his last years in Akko was Moshe Haim Luzzatto (1707-1746), the Ramhal, an Italian-born prodigy who ran afoul of Padua’s rabbinic authorities owing to his exuberant messianic mysticism.
In 1743, Ramhal founded a synagogue in Akko. Not long after his death, it was destroyed by the Muslim authorities and replaced by a mosque; Jews were granted a small building nearby for a synagogue that stands to this day, bearing the Ramhal’s name. Inside is a Torah scroll on dark parchment, said to have been ritually inscribed by Ramhal himself.
We learned that the synagogue, now guarded by soldiers as several days earlier Arab youths had tried to set it on fire, was saved by an Arab man who lives across the tiny narrow street. He had doused the flame. We saw him, tried to chat him up. He didn’t want to talk about it. Best to keep silent, and hope for better days.