Everyone Wants Safed
For the first
time, a son of Safed is prime minister. All right, so Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen)
is the Palestinian prime minister, but Israel's fate is in his hands as much as
anyone's. When he insists that peace depends on Israel recognizing the Arab right
of return, he's talking about himself and he's talking about Safed.
Abu Mazen tells it, according to a media blitz spanning every continent, he was
forced to flee Safed as a child of 13, along with 10,000 other Arabs, during the
1947-48 fighting that led to Israel's independence. Safed was a quaint agricultural
town, a donkey ride from the Syrian border. His father had a flock of sheep whose
milk was made into cheese, and the family sold nuts and vegetables from their
window. A yeshiva now stands on the ruins of his home. All he might recognize
is the old cypress tree in the yard.
Abu Mazen snuck back, incognito, in
1994 to see Safed one more time, to see his lost paradise, to see how Palestinian
homes were turned into art studios and gallery space. Friends say his sense of
loss and longing has not faded with time.
That's what Safed means to Abu
Perhaps it means something to you. Jews left as refugees, too. The
mother of Jacob Javits, the late New York senator, fled Safed as a 19-year-old
after Arab pogroms. Generations of the Javits family are buried on the hillside
cemetery, a repository of 100,000 souls whose stones read like a history primer.
Here within the borders of the Tribe of Naftali rests the Prophet Hosea; Hannah
and her seven sons from the Chanukah story; Yitzhak Luria, 16th century founder
of "modern" kabbalism; Shlomo Alkabetz, author of Lecha Dodi; Joseph
Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch code of Jewish law and ancestor of another
New Yorker, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Robert Caro; Dov Gruner and six others
of the Jewish underground hung by the British in Acre, 1947; and a Safed class
of 11th-graders who in 1974 were massacred while they slept in nearby Maalot during
a class trip.
After decades in which Jewish leaders funneled dreams of
restoration and settlement through a West Bank prism, the forthcoming Palestinian
state on the West Bank is leading the Israeli government to try and focus Jewish
spiritual and pioneering spirit elsewhere. Safed may be the winner. After all,
according to Jewish rabbinic tradition, Safed (pronounced Tzfat in Hebrew), like
Hebron, is one of Israel's four designated holy cities except, unlike Hebron,
Safed is entirely Jewish (pop. 25,000). The government has settled 6,000 emigres
from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia in Safed, and recently announced a $40
million grant, matching the $40 million committed by the nonprofit Safed Foundation,
for synagogue preservation (Safed has several of Israel's oldest synagogues in
continuous use); cemetery restoration; establishment of an international center
for kabbalah studies; revitalization of the artists colony; restoration of parks
and open spaces; and development of educational and cultural programs.
years of essentially ignoring Safed, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recently declared,
"Safed has long deserved to be at the center of promotional and development
efforts in the Galilee."
The quest to establish "facts on the
ground" has now shifted to the Galilee, where there are several districts
that already have a considerable Arab majority, according to the Israeli government.
Arabs comprise 18.6 percent of Israel's population, but 46 percent of northern
Israel, and many say a clear Galilee majority helped by 50,000 Arab "settlers,"
as some call them, from the nearby West Bank. Many predict that the Galilee Arabs
will want political autonomy of their own. By what right does a Jewish government
rule over an Arab majority in the Galilee any more than over an Arab majority
on the West Bank?
Binyamin Shalev, director of The Safed Foundation, told
The Jewish Week, "If Jews are not going to live in the Galil," the region's
Hebrew name, "then we have to visit the Galil. Spend a night here, spend
some money here, so Jews here can be employed. If we don't invest in the Galil,
we're going to lose the Galil."
In the past century, local Arabs put
up a sporadic but fierce fight for the Galilee. Jews fled by the thousands after
Arab pogroms in 1929, an Arab intifada of 1936-39 and a deadly five-month siege
of the Safed Jewish community in 1948, before the siege was fought off by Jewish
fighters, inspiring thousands of Arabs to flee in fear of Jewish retribution -
Abu Mazen's family among them.
Shalev, known also by his pre-aliyah name
of Binny Shudofsky, describes Safed as a "poor city."
is at 10 percent. There's no industry to speak of. Creating a tourism infrastructure
is in many ways the very future of this town," he said.
has become a marginal destination, with most tourism coming from other Israelis.
Without tourists, the once legendary artists colony has become dormant and neglected.
Shalev says that Safed has "an image problem."
a haredi town," with 40 percent fervently Orthodox, mostly chasidim. Some
artists, Shalev says, don't want to live in a town without cafes that are open
Friday night. "We're trying to get American investors to buy homes in the
artists colony, then making the homes available for artists-in-residence programs."
Safed has established an annual klezmer festival and weekly musical programs
on Friday afternoons to broaden then town's cultural base and associations. The
government is also establishing an educational program for Israeli soldiers there,
with a Shabbat experience and explorations into the town's military history. This
way, soldiers might have a better idea about what they are fighting for and those
who have fought before.
Those tourists who do come, as any visitor will
easily tell, discover a mountain town so hauntingly beautiful as to immediately
explain its magnetism for the great kabbalists in the 1500s. It was here where
in a burst of creativity perhaps unparalleled in Jewish history, a group of mystics
in the circle of Rabbi Luria (known as the Ari) fashioned the Friday-evening Kabbalat
Shabbat service, the Tu b'Shvat seder and Tikkun Leil Shavuot's tradition of all-night
study. The Ashkenaz-Ari synagogue is on the site where, in an open field, kabbalists
dressed in white gathered to watch the Friday sun go down over the western hills
before welcoming Shabbat with meditation, dance and song. Among this inspired
group were the authors of Lecha Dodi and Yedid Nefesh.
The reason Jews
turn to face the back of the shul at the end of Lecha Dodi, explains Shalev, came
about because in Safed all the synagogue doors face West, toward Mount Meron,
the burial place of Shimon Bar-Yochai, the mystic most associated with the Zohar.
To open the doors, says Shalev, was a way of welcoming the Messiah that Bar-Yocahi
Near these famous fields is the ethereal and medicinal mikveh
of the Ari, where he would immerse in a natural stone pool filled with freezing
mountain water gushing from a crack in the mountain wall. The Safed Foundation
is building an adjacent women's mikveh that will use the same water source.
question remains: Who wants Safed more, Abu Mazen or you?
Mark is an associate editor of the Jewish Week. This article is excerpted from
their 6/20/03 edition.]