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A room with a view… of Armageddon

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A room with a view… of Armageddon

Haifa

Overlooking Haifa, there is a very different view than in the old atmospheric city of Nazareth. Looking from my hotel window in one direction is the Mediterranean, and a graceful sea city curving around a bay. In another, what looks to be an extremely busy industrial port. And looking down the mountain on which my hotel is situated is a series of very organised raised gardens with what seems to be a religious building at its heart. But this is a religious building that looks very different from the many Jewish, Muslim and Christian buildings I’ve seen to date. Why does it remind me of India?

To find out why I need to investigate my surroundings. I took a short taxi ride from Nazareth to Haifa, the third city of Israel. With a randomly chosen hotel, I find myself plunged back into the world of “international blandness”; a hotel that could be anywhere in the world, tasteless international cuisine, staff who are surprised you want to set foot outside the hotel, and inevitably, a cover band playing Celine Dion. But on leaving the hotel I find I am on Mount Carmel, another sacred mountain, home to the Carmelites. Nearby are some of the main villages of the Druze, a largely forgotten religious minority in Israel and Lebanon, and in the distance … the supposed location for Armageddon.

Fortunately Armageddon seems a long way off in the tranquil gardens which turn out to be the Shrine of the Bab, the founder of the now small religion of Babism. The shrine is also sacred to the much larger Baha’i faith. Bahais are yet another religious minority that suffer major persecution in their homeland, Iran. Haifa is a long way from Iran but was chosen as the tomb of the Bab.

I am in Haifa to meet Adalah, an organisation that defends Palestinian rights through the legal system. As a lawyer myself this organisation is one of the most impressive I’ve come across who use law to bring about change. Its founders, a married couple who are a male Palestinian citizen of Israel and a Jewish woman from New York, grasped an opportunity when the Israeli Supreme Court proclaimed itself ready to start applying “basic” laws (including that of equality). Step by step, major cases were won by Adalah, including the right to public display of the Arabic language.

But I am told that the times may be changing again. Aharon Barak, President of the Supreme Court and principal intellectual force behind this change in laws, retired last year. He is one of the most impressive judges in the world but it remains to be seen whether his legacy of holding government and laws to a higher, constitutional standard will survive. As in the United Kingdom, Israeli politicians have been attacking judges for “going beyond their powers” at a time when supposed security measures are eroding what have long been fundamental freedoms against arbitrary detention and torture. I hope the moment for organisations like Adalah has not gone.

But the fact that organisations like Adalah and I’lam can even hope to make a difference highlights the contradiction in Israel, a state founded on being Jewish but supposedly granting equality to all. Palestinian citizens, 20% of the population, do have some freedom to stand for election, to use the media and legal system, which can actually bring about real change. But beneath all of this remains a great deal of widespread and systematic discrimination. Although Palestinian parties are in the Knesset, none has ever officially formed part of the coalition governments. The legal victories that have been won in recent years are still a long way from addressing the key issue of land rights.

Haifa itself is a contradiction. Beneath the modern veneer are ancient and modern religions apparently co-existing. But also there is very recent violence. Arab and Jewish civilians were killed between 1947 and 1948 and thousands of Palestinians subsequently fled. Arguments still rage as to what degree they were forced out by the Israeli army, but it’s undeniable that they have never been able to return, many leaving the beauty of Haifa and Mount Carmel to face a life in Lebanese refugee camps. Last year the tranquillity of the Tomb of Bab was disturbed by the latest war in Lebanon and north Israel. Despite appearances Haifa is a long way from being at peace.

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