A Tale of Two Cities

“The director of the IDF Planning Department, Yuval Ne’eman, stated that [Nazareth Illit] would “safeguard the Jewish character of the Galilee as a whole, and… demonstrate state sovereignty to the Arab population more than any other settlement operation.””

Wikipedia, “Nazareth Illit”

When I was first planning my trip to Nazareth I did some basic research on the city’s history and demographic situation.  I understood that the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel lived alongside the Jewish majority, but in only those vague terms.  When people would ask me what I was getting into I was able to tell them a few simple facts to assuage feelings of discomfit they held on behalf of my future. “They have a soccer team there. It is in the 2nd division of the Israeli league.  You know, it’s where Jesus grew up, there’s a big church. The population is about 110,000, and that is made up of Christians, Muslims, Jews.”

Nazareth at sunset

The first two facts are unassailably true.  There is a soccer team that plays here. Their season starts in September and I am looking forward to attending games.  Nazareth is the place where Jesus grew up and the Basilica of the Annunciation dominates the Nazarene skyline.  However, the final fact is a bit more nuanced than I had been expressing.  There are one hundred and ten thousand people in Nazareth. Sort of.  What I did not know is that there are two cities with the name Nazareth.  Nazareth, the first, is the capital city for the Arabs in Israel and is the ancient city where Jesus walked. 60,000 people live here. It has a vibrant city center and many peaceful residential areas.  Natzerat Illit (or Nazareth Illit, “Upper Nazareth”), the second, is very different.  50,000 people live there. This is the city which Yu’val Ne’aman was referring to in the quote above.  The city was founded in the early 1950′s as part of the “Judaization of the Galilee” program.  The Israeli government was trying to maintain the Jewish majority by designating certain land for development by Jewish settlers.  Anyone who has been here can plainly tell you that Nazareth Illit is more than a separate neighborhood.  It is a self-sufficient, separate city all its own.  Where the skyline of Nazareth is a patchwork of minarets, winding roads, and the great Basilica; to look at Nazareth Illit is to gaze upon 20-odd uniformly tall apartment buildings built on a grid.  At sunset the rays of light hit the buildings of Nazareth Illit on the same side as each other.  There is not much variation.  Sunset over the rolling hills of Nazareth is reminiscent of a kaleidoscope.  Rooftop gardens dot the different sizes of buildings and the call to prayer sweeps across the cityscape as the line of night passes each of Nazareth’s mosques.  This is a city with ancient history permeating every block.  This was Mary’s Well, that used to be Joseph’s workshop, the owner of that tourist shop found Roman cisterns in his basement (you can pay ~30 NIS for a tour).

Nazareth Illit was founded by Jewish settlers in order for the new Israeli state to consolidate power over the Galilee region. No one knows exactly when or by whom Nazareth was founded.

Last weekend I took a walk through Nazareth on Saturday when the Souq is bustling.  Then, on Sunday, I took a cab over to Nazareth Illit. This is what I saw:

This one looks familiar, right? Yeah, that’s Nazareth.

These are a couple of shops near the center of Nazareth. It was a hot day and those popsicles were looking pretty tempting.

Looks like somebody beat me to it.

Saturday finds the famous Mahroum’s Sweets packed to the gills. Local pastries, don’t mind if I do.

The cab ride to Nazareth Illit took about ten minutes. Normally I take the bus around Nazareth, but there is no local line that goes to Nazareth Illit on Sundays. These really are two different cities.

This is where the cabbie dropped me off. My first thought: gosh, this looks like suburban Columbus, OH, where I grew up.

Now that is a patriotic car dealership.

It’s hard to believe this suburban sprawl is a short cab ride from Mary’s Well. Time to cue up some Arcade fire on the ol’ iPod.

This is actually an entirely different mall from the one above. This one has a Domino’s Pizza in the food court. Too bad I was full from leftover baklava from Mahroum’s Sweets.

What’s that through the fence? An Arab cemetery. I stood in the exact same place taking this picture and the one directly above it. That cemetery is one barbed wire fence away from the mall’s parking lot.

I did not stay long in Nazareth Illit.  There is probably more to it that what I saw on Sunday and the towering high rises that dominate the view from my apartment’s roof.  Until I find out otherwise, I’m not going back to Nazareth Illit.  Well, I will probably go if I get a hankering for a delicious slice of Domino’s pie, but other than that, probably not.  Okay, maybe I’ll be interested in purchasing some consumer electronics. I would go back to that mall for those.  These cities are so different, and so close.

When I talk to friends back home about living in Israel, I don’t have a scripted response for their questions ready to go.  It is a complicated place. What I can offer them now is a better understanding about what it means when people say “Arab Palestinians and Jews are living side-by-side”.  In the case of Nazareth, as we’ve learned, it means two very different cities, on neighboring hills, sharing a name.

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UPDATE:  Here is an interesting video from local journalist Jonathan Cook in which he discusses the history and present conditions of the relationship between Nazareth and Nazareth Illit.

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