Thursday, August 10, 2006

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Smile on, beacon of tolerance

August 10, 2006


Ever since this war began, I cannot get an old Hebrew nursery rhyme out of my mind: "O pretty ship Take me to Beautiful Haifa Land me there in town

And I shall sing me a song."

I want to speak of Haifa, the prettiest city in Israel. Atop Mt. Carmel, "the evergreen mountain," lies the lovely town, stretching from the Druze villages to the perfectly shaped bay. "As Carmel by the sea" (Jeremiah 46:18), it gently slopes down to the Mediterranean. A Haifa sunset is breathtaking.

Haifa, with its pine groves, was the safe haven of my childhood. I was not born there but half of my family is from Haifa and all of my wife's family still lives there. My daughter closed a family circle by enrolling as a student at the Technion in Haifa (one of the world's top scientific universities).

A few weeks ago, my daughter called in the middle of the night. She wanted to know where the safest place in her apartment would be and the drill for rockets and missiles. During the last few weeks my family has endured attacks by an untold number of rockets and missiles, but they have all clung to their lovely city.

About 85 years ago, a young Jewish officer, recently discharged from the British army and a survivor of a terrible pogrom in Russia, made his first steps in that little town. He was my grandfather. In the 30 years of his service as the district officer, he saw Haifa emerge from a small coastal town of 22,000 to a bustling seaport of nearly 150,000 Jews and Arabs. Today's greater Haifa has nearly half a million people. It is a world-renowned high-tech center (the operating system in your PC was probably developed there), a lovely beach resort and a major seaport.

Traditionally, Haifa has been a place of peace and coexistence, tolerance and harmony, with its Maronites and Jews, Druze and Carmelites, Greek Orthodox and Ahmadis, Sunnis and Baha'is. It is said that Beirut is the most cosmopolitan city in the Mediterranean. There are no synagogues in Beirut anymore, but Haifa boasts many mosques, churches and synagogues and the magnificent Baha'i Temple with its golden dome and charming terraces.

In 1948, following numerous attacks from the Arab side against Jewish neighborhoods, Israeli forces took Haifa. Like many senior IDF officers, my father pleaded with Arab childhood friends to stay. Many left, but many stayed and formed the lively Arab community of today's Haifa. Indeed it is very difficult to tell nowadays a Jewish girl from a Christian or a Muslim, dressed like young women from any modern city with their tank tops and iPods, giggling on their way to class at Haifa U.

The first rocket to strike Haifa landed in Stella Maris, next to an ancient Carmelite convent overlooking the Prophet Elijah's cave. Another rocket fell in Bat-Galim ("daughter of the waves"), a seashore neighborhood where my father was born. Luckily, my daughter took many pictures, so we will know how it used to look.

Those who are launching these rockets have only one goal: to destroy Israel and what it stands for. But they should not have kidnapped our soldiers from within our sovereign territory or bombed our cities and villages. They should not have touched Haifa.

I can comprehend how some may find it difficult to grasp the essence of what Israel means to the Jewish people. It is hard to fathom the depth of our 1,900 years in exile -- always hungering and yearning for a place of our own. Our Jewish state is an astonishing success story, and it will never cease to amaze the world. If left alone, we would concentrate on creating literature (in 2005, Israel ranked first, alongside the United Kingdom, with new books per capita), on ground-breaking advances in scientific research that benefit mankind, on performing and visual arts productions praised around the world, and on building the strongest and most diverse economy in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, our enemies confuse our love of learning, culture and economic progress, along with our desire to live in peace with our neighbors, as signs of weakness rather than evidence of a strong, mature society. But when we are attacked, all of our resources, bound by a strong moral fiber and buoyed by the justness of our cause, will see us through.

Haifa will rise and continue to glimmer as a beacon of tolerance and Arab-Jewish coexistence. Smile on, daughter of the sea, for golden days are yet to come.

Barukh Binah is Israeli consul general in Chicago.

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