Nazareth Illit, Israel — The founding ethos of this town in the Lower Galilee, adjoining the ancient city of Nazareth, hits the visitor upon arrival.
The town looks down directly on Nazareth, a large Arab-populated city.
The two municipalities are divided by Zionism Street, a road decked with large Israeli flags — the type normally seen on a border crossing. And indeed, psychologically this is a border. It demarcates the line between the old Arab city and the new state-built city.
But today, Nazareth Illit, which was conceived and developed by Israel’s first generation of leaders explicitly to counter the majority Arab presence in this part of Israel, is in reality an ethnically mixed city. With a population of 40,600, the percentage of Arabs living within its boundaries — 17.6% — is not much less than that of Haifa, a long historically mixed city that is 19.5% Arab.
But no one would ever confuse the two cities’ stances toward their respective demography.
At the end of May, Haifa named a square after the Arab author and politician Emile Habibi, whose previous honors include the Al-Quds Prize from the Palestine Liberation Organization. The city unfurled its newly named square during the local Arab Cultural Festival.
Just 30 miles away in Nazareth Illit, even library books in Arabic are considered too large a concession to the non-Jewish minority.
In one of the city’s well-stocked libraries there are plentiful collections in Hebrew; in Russian, for the large immigrant population, and even — despite the rarity with which it’s spoken here — English. But when I asked the librarian if there are any Arabic books, she stared down at her computer with a curt “no.” Any plans to get some? “No.”
Though Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the government demographics authority, has formally designated Nazareth Illit as a mixed city — a label the bureau gives to just seven other cities — the town’s mayor, Shimon Gapso, insists otherwise, regularly and publicly.
“‘Nazareth Illit is a Jewish city.’ I say that a few times every day, and everyone who wants to come here needs to know that,” he told the Forward.
The Arab minority in the 57-year-old city has grown significantly over the past two decades and continues to grow. By virtue of the fact that courts here no longer tolerate racial or ethnic discrimination in housing, there is little Gapso can do to change this.