Haifa and Sarajevo: A Meditation
by Stephen Schwartz
The civilized world has been promised an end to the carnage at the border of Lebanon and Israel. People of faith and goodwill look toward dissolution of the Hezbollah militia and the rescue of Lebanese democracy, the hostage of Hassan Nasrallah and his Shia Muslim radicals. Residents of northern Israel and southern Lebanon have begun returning to their homes.
An important story has been ignored by the mainstream media (MSM) in the month of continuing terror: the saga of those Israeli Arabs who suffered alongside Jews, under the rocket fire coming from the north.
Israeli Arabs, like Jews, were forced into shelters by Hezbollah missiles. Many Arabs evacuated the northern quarter of Israel. Personnel with whom I work closely at the al-Qasemi Academy, a Sufi Muslim teaching institution just inside the Israeli border, sent e-mails to me describing their concern and, in one case, a decision to take shelter in Jerusalem.
The city of Haifa, known for Jewish-Arab solidarity over many generations, played a special, symbolic role in the torment of the past four weeks. With a combination of arrogance and fear, Hassan Nasrallah broadcast a speech telling Israeli Arabs to abandon the great port. He said, "I call on you to leave this city. I hope you do this...please leave so we don't shed your blood, which is our blood."
Nasrallah's demand reflected weakness rather than strength. Notwithstanding the disinformation purveyed far and wide, Hezbollah provoked great resentment among ordinary Lebanese and Arabs for its adventurism, which proved disastrous for all those living on both sides of the border. One Haifa resident, a high school teacher named Azam Halabi – almost certainly an Arab – was quoted in the Toronto Star of August 15, 2006. As he resumed his normal habit of fishing off the breakwater that is one of the city's prominent features, he commented, "Now there is a feeling that something is going to be all right. Today, we have a hope."
Political and media demagogues may continue their pattern of incitement against Israel and adulation of Hezbollah, but ordinary people will increasingly assert their right to live in peace, to support their families, and to pursue their work in a secure and free society – free, above all, of the menace of sudden murder.
In pondering the fate of the Israeli Arabs, targeted by Hezbollah alongside their Jewish neighbors, it was inevitable that I would be reminded of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital where I learned lessons about interfaith cooperation, about friendship between Muslims, Jews, and Christians, and about how civilized people defend their city – lessons that changed my life. It was said then, by a Muslim woman journalist I knew, Azra Alimajstorović, that the victims of Sarajevo were neither Muslim, nor Serb, nor Croatian, nor Jewish; they were all Sarajevans, neither more nor less.
Israeli Arab Sufis will now restore and continue their educational program. With them in my heart, I recalled some Serbs I know who stayed in Sarajevo while "their own people" rocketed and sniped at them and their neighbors, killing more than 12,000 people, including 1100 children. Like my colleagues from the al-Qasemi Academy, some Sarajevo Serbs refused to be stampeded against those with whom they had spent their whole lives.
Indeed, Serbs stood among the heroes of Sarajevo's defense. Gen. Jovan Divjak, an officer in the former Yugoslav Army, is a Serb who directed resistance along Sarajevo's front lines. One night, four years after the end of fighting and imposition of the Dayton Accord in 1995, I sat with a woman friend and watched a documentary in which the brave Divjak defied gunfire from Serb irregulars – terrorists no less than Hezbollah – keeping his head high as he confronted those intent on destroying his life, his family, and his history.
When Divjak took me to visit the trenches above Sarajevo, I commented on how shallow they were, and wondered aloud if they had been filled in by the passage of several winters, and alteration between snow and thaw on the ground. No, Divjak told me, they had never been deep, because they were dug with the bare hands of the Bosnian fighters. Divjak now directs a charity helping Bosnian children.
Another Sarajevo hero I know is Mirko Pejanović, of the local Serb Civic Council. Pejanović also refused to leave the city and participated in its civic life throughout the years of the siege. Yet another figure was Dragan Vikić, who had been commander of special police units in Sarajevo when the cruel encirclement and assault on the city began. After the war, Vikić gained no special honors or enrichment from his courageous act. Today he owns a small cafe.
Northern Israel will rebuild quickly and the Israeli Arabs who live there will share in the reestablishment of a normal society, with the help of friends in America and around the world.
We live in an age where terrorists seek to burst apart the bonds of civilization – a word derived from the Latin civitas, or city – just as the words citizen and civility originate with the idea of the city. Wars between countries are passing from our experience; we now survive, if we are lucky, wars between fanatical ideologues and ordinary people.
Those of us who believe in civility, citizenship, civilization – and ultimately in the city itself – will stand with those who have refused to abandon their cities: Haifa, London, New York, Sarajevo. We will defend the foundation of faith: love thy neighbor. We will prevail, as Serbs loyal to Sarajevo and the Israeli Arabs who love Haifa will prevail. We will defend our city, which is the city of humanity.