Haifa’s “Festival of Festivals,” held annually in December, has just ended. The month-long street festival is a public celebration of all major religions, featuring large elaborate displays of Christmas, Hanukkah and the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha. Each year, thousands of visitors from within Israel and from overseas fill Haifa’s streets surrounding the neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas to enjoy local food stalls, craft markets, an antiques fair, live music and theatre performances. The festival is also a symbolic display of the mixed city’s cultural, religious and ethnic diversity and its efforts to cultivate coexistence.

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Salah, 57, a bus driver from Shfar'am, an Arab city 10 miles outside of Haifa, arrived early on Saturday morning to help his son set up his popcorn stand, and stayed until after dark to experience the festival in full swing. He told Davar that many of his friends and family travel to Haifa from nearby Arab villages to take part each year, adding that the festival “makes us very happy, even though it’s only on once a year.” When asked how the festival’s narrative of coexistence meets the reality on the ground, he told Davar: “Look, I’m a bus driver, so I see all kinds of people from all walks of life. And people are mostly good to one another. I am thrilled when I get to see a thing like this. I wish that it were always like this – because it­’s not always like this. We need to relish these peaceful interactions, keep conflict down – god willing – and enjoy ourselves. That’s the most important thing.”

Salah from Shfar'am standing next to his son's popcorn stand. Festival of Festivals in Haifa, December 2019 (Photograph: Caden Feldman-Gubbay)

Azzan, 52, a Haifa local, brought his young daughter to the festival, telling Davar that, “This is how coexistence starts between the religions. You start celebrating together, you become more familiar with one another. Now an Arab can become familiar with a Jew, with his customs. And the Jew is familiar with Arab customs. And one becomes closer to the other, not just in matters of business, also in other things it becomes better. It’s definitely educational.”

Michael, 50, travelling with Ilson, 49, both on vacation from the Netherlands, stumbled upon the celebrations by chance while exploring the city: “We just took the bus to the center and there were lots of people. I asked somebody what was going on and he said, ‘Well, it’s the festival of Christmas, Hanukkah, and the Muslims are celebrating also.’ In the big square we saw the three symbols: the Christmas tree, with a Jewish star, the star of David, on top. And we saw the Muslim sign, the half-moon, next to a Hanukkiah. And there were all these people quite peacefully standing around it, not having any problems. It’s nice. It’s a strong symbol of unity.”

Michael and Ilson, from the Netherlands, sitting down with a coffee in Wadi Nisnas. Festival of Festivals in Haifa, December 2019 (Photograph: Caden Feldman-Gubbay)

A common sentiment among a number of festivalgoers is that the festivities, while genuine, are a celebration of what the city aspires to be, rather than an actual reflection of everyday life. They feel that while the story of Haifa is not one of true coexistence, the festival is the sort of thing that might move things in the right direction. Ken, 52, a cook from Haifa who recently moved to Israel’s south, told Davar: “Let’s just say, there are problems. But today is the holiday of the Christians, of the Jews, and of the Muslims. So today is not a problem, even though there usually are problems. But the festival is important to me. I return to Haifa every year for the festival with my wife and daughter, to enjoy ourselves.”

Festival of Festivals in Haifa, December 2019 (Photograph: Caden Feldman-Gubbay)

Hassan, 50, from Haifa, brings his 10-year-old son to the festival every year and is a firm believer in the importance of the struggle for coexistence despite the difficulties he faces as an Arab-Israeli citizen of Haifa, telling Davar: “Coexistence is always possible, even though our lives are difficult, and we feel others' eyes on us. Everywhere we go we feel like we are ‘special’, like we have a number written on us that says we are Arab. But that doesn’t matter. Forget that. Leaving all that aside, it’s possible. Every person should bring what is beautiful in them.” In addressing the educational significance of the festival for children, he added, “My son doesn’t know which religion he is. What for? We don’t talk about religion. It doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish, Muslim, Christian. Humanity – that’s it. Be a human being.”

Lubna, 62, a Haifa local and retired teacher, has run a coffee and hot soup stand at the festival out of her front yard for the past five years. She told Davar that while she supports the festival, “there’s also the other side. Those who complain, in Wadi Nisnas for instance, greengrocers and storeowners and the like – that on days like these it’s completely impossible to enter the neighborhood by car, so they lose business.”

Lubna also expressed her doubts at the authenticity of the festival as a whole, explaining that “for many people, this is all just a big performance. To say that one person likes the other, that it’s coexistence, stories like these… they usually aren’t true. If it’s an Arab, then he’ll say ‘what the hell, it’s an opportunity – when Jews come, I can make an income, I’ll open a stall.’ But it’s not for coexistence. Those who come from Tel Aviv or down from the Carmel mountains, Jews or Arabs, coming to walk through and enjoy themselves, have to pay through the nose for some pathetic sandwich that costs 25 shekels.”

Lubna, retired teacher from Haifa, serving soup to passers-by at her stall outside her house in Wadi Nisnas. Festival of Festivals in Haifa, December 2019 (Photograph: Caden Feldman-Gubbay)

 

Nevertheless, Lubna still sees great importance in the potential the festival offers to those who see value in it: “Here for example, at my stall, the coffee costs 5 shekels, a cookie is 2 shekels, and a large cup of soup is 5 shekels. It’s not for income, or for profit. I open up here for the experience itself. To see people, to learn the culture of another people, and of the different peoples together. It doesn’t really impress me, and there isn’t a lot of truth in it – but sometimes you have conversations that radiate optimism and goodness to the other side, and you get to go back to just being a human again.

“Look, I can sit in my house and relax. Why should I run around to heat up the soup, or whenever the coffee runs out or whatever for a few shekels? Because for me it’s refreshing. It’s a good thing. I sometimes see people who know us, they come in. Even strangers ask to sit down. I don’t turn them away. I don’t get many, but two couples came earlier. They asked to sit down, and I welcomed them in and we got right into conversation. For me that’s everything. The encounter itself.”

Omer Geva, 26, a student at Kinneret College who previously lived in Haifa for the past five years told Davar that “Life here is shared – there’s no getting away from it. You see one another, so why not understand where they’re coming from and what their customs are? I think it creates less racism in the future, that kind of encounter and familiarity.” While acknowledging that the festival has its limitations, he added, “The fact that you see Muslims, Christians, dancing, and you see a Hanukkiah next to that, and that’s OK, and you see people with a kippah walking around eating sufganiyot, and that everything blends in together, that in my eyes creates the city of Haifa. It’s a kind of symbolism that shows that it’s not just any old street festival. It has a purpose.”

While the Festival of Festivals is a long-standing tradition in Haifa, it has not been adopted in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, the other two of Israel’s three largest cities, and in this respect the city is an anomaly.  The choice to put on a festival that asks a diverse cross-section of Israeli society to intermingle in public spaces is a rare occurrence in an increasingly divided Israel. Despite being far from proof of coexistence, the Festival of Festivals is an important cultural landmark. While for some it may be little more than overpriced street food, for others it represents a clear choice to challenge and expand their definitions of community and to familiarize themselves and others with people and cultures foreign to them, in hopes of laying the groundwork for a more unified, tolerant society.