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Haifa’s New Legacy — Teenage Drinking

Haifa has many legacies. It was the seat of the British Mandate before the State of Israel was established. In the early decades of statehood it was the “red” city, so-called because of its left-wing politics. Latterly it has been known for its laid-back attitude toward religion, with more shops and services operating on Shabbat than elsewhere in the country. But now comes a slightly less flattering label — boozy Haifa.

Come the weekend, Haifa’s bars are packed. But the type of drinking that is becoming associated with this city is teenage binge drinking. Figures just released by Magen David Adom, Israel’s ambulance service, show that for the fourth year in a row there has been an increase in drinkers under 18 in Israel requiring medical attention. In 2009 there was an average of more than one case a week — 58 total. The youngest was just 10 years old and the average age was 16.

The interesting thing about teenage binge drinking in Haifa, which we’ve not seen elsewhere in Israel, is that it’s not just a habit but it’s becoming a cause that the young are championing. Last week was Israel’s Alcohol Awareness Week and the municipality had a host of events planned. Now in most other cities and certainly other countries teenage drinkers would sit through events taking place in their classrooms and nod, even if they are resolved to go home and hit the bottle. But some Haifa youth apparently have an even larger-than-normal dose of Israeli chutzpah. They started a campaign on Facebook to subvert Alcohol Awareness Week and turn it in to a pro-drinking event, urging school students to take alcohol to school and get drunk.

Now even with the hundreds of members the group attracted, you would dismiss this as an isolated childish stunt that doesn’t prove anything about the youth culture in Haifa, were it not for the fact that those who know the city best, the municipal authorities, thought otherwise. In the seven years that mayor Yona Yahav has been in his post he has never sent a blanket letter to residents, but he was convinced that to keep booze out of schools — which he did — it took him to write a message mailed to every single parent in the city decrying the plan. Parents were surprised by the letter and its impassioned tone, which has placed teenage binge drinking firmly on the local agenda.

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