ACRE, Israel — In my early 50s, nearly 30 years after I moved to Israel from Ohio, I bought the home of no one’s dreams: a dilapidated 300-year-old Ottoman ruin in the ancient Mediterrean city of Acre filled with an entire neighborhood’s junk and two live horses. My sons looked at one another and said, “Well, there goes our inheritance.”
I was buoyed by the extraordinary outpouring of support and love and encouragement from around the world and — most notably — from my Arab friends and neighbors.
Those Ottomans knew something about building and something about beauty, however, and in just 20 months’ time I was able to turn the pile of rocks into a tiny, exquisite palace. Twenty months and lots of money — more than I had. Thus my plans for a home and a studio turned into a mini boutique hotel and artists’ residency, called Arabesque, that would bring in enough to pay the bank for my folly.
In truth, I did not think much about the fact that I am Jewish and my neighbors are Arab Muslims and Christians; I assumed that if I were a good neighbor, I would receive good neighborliness in return. And so I did, after some initial and fully understandable suspicions.
Arabesque blossomed. My older son, Micha, became its manager, and he expanded the hotel to include properties owned by others — Jews and Arabs — when demand grew. We became part of the community in the town’s Old City, attending weddings and funerals and iftar after-the-fast meals during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Our guests invariably marveled at the welcome of our staff (2/3 Arab, 1/3 Jewish, all citizens of Israel) and of virtually everyone else in town, from restaurant owners to shopkeepers in our centuries-old market to passersby who delivered them back to us when they got lost in the maze of stone alleyways that stand in for streets. I crowed incessantly about the beauty of our lives in Acre and eventually made it my only home, even though I teach at a university in metropolitan Tel Aviv, two hours south by train and bus.
My students there are Jews, Muslims and Christians from around the country, though for many of them the workshop style in our classroom is the first time they interact so directly with “the other.” Language and culture deviously keep the populations apart; with only a handful of mixed cities and bilingual schools in Israel, it is easy to live life in one sector or the other.
On the night of May 11, I decided to sleep in Tel Aviv instead of commuting to my class from Acre early the next morning, and was treated to a full barrage of missiles sent by the Palestinian militant group Hamas from Gaza into densely populated areas of Israel. The sight was riveting from the seventh-floor balcony of friends, a spray of missiles and counterstrikes from Iron Dome interceptors worthy of a Fourth of July fireworks display.
In those same wee hours of the night, Micha phoned to say Acre was under attack by an angry Arab mob. Men and women in our neighborhood managed to keep the marauders at bay the whole night, but when they returned the following evening — abetted by a puzzling decision not to send the police or fire departments into the Old City — the mob could not be contained. Slightly after midnight, the great, heavy front doors of Arabesque were breached.
Other than my neighbors, I was the first to see the damage the next morning. Every piece of glass, ceramic or porcelain that could be broken was smashed, furniture was dismantled, mirrors shattered, televisions and air conditioners ripped to pieces. My 95-year-old grand piano was turned on its side. Enormous potted trees in the courtyard were broken, the soil beneath them scattered. Sinks were cut in half, electrical appliances in the kitchen bashed in, art on the walls flung in every direction. Oddly, my shelves and shelves of books were left almost untouched, still arranged in the order I determined for them; I suppose there was little point to tossing them about since they make too little noise and do not break effectively.
That next morning, neighbors stopped in or passed by, shaking their heads in disbelief. A few cried, some told stories of their own, and everyone lamented the violence of the youths who had perpetrated such a crime, with fingers pointed in a variety of directions. It felt like the Jewish tradition of shiva, seven days of mourning supported by loved ones and friends before the inevitable return to life and all the decisions and actions associated with it.
I insisted on leaving the door open to all passersby, taking a page from Emmett Till’s mother and her bold, startling decision to leave her son’s casket open to display his mutilated body. I wanted people to see and acknowledge, I wanted us all to imagine what it must have been like while it was happening, and mostly I wanted something to snap in people, to make them want to act so that such a thing would not, could not, happen again. Not to me, but to our society, to what had been, until this week, Israel’s most successfully mixed city.
Acre is lucky among the cities where riots took place: As a major tourist destination and U.N. World Heritage Site, there is a disproportionate focus on rehabilitation. A stormy meeting this Sunday morning between the police, the mayor, officials from the Tourism Ministry and the owners of destroyed businesses made it clear that all steps will be taken to set the city back on course as swiftly and thoroughly as possible; maybe they will even solve the parking problem, which was once our biggest worry and now seems like a minor blemish.
But what about the larger problems that brought about the unrest that rocked the country and left all its citizens jittery and unsettled? To name a few: the poor and unmotivated Arab and Jewish youth whose frustration and anger periodically erupt against one another when given the chance; crime in the Arab sector left unchecked by a political system run by the Jewish population, which too often prefers to look the other way; an underlying lack of acknowledgment for the differing narratives of differing populations, with language, culture and history used to keep them apart.
During my days of mourning, I did not see how it would be possible to revive Arabesque under the shadow of such anger and hatred. And why bother, if this could happen again? But also during those days, I was buoyed by the extraordinary outpouring of support and love and encouragement from around the world and — most notably — from my Arab friends and neighbors.
From everywhere, my son and I hear the same messages: We will clean up with you. We will donate. We will stay in the hotel when you reopen. For so many people, the death of Arabesque means admitting Jews and Arabs cannot live together. For so many people, including us, that is not a possibility.