A visit to Nazareth

by Tim Wheeler

Forwarded message: From: ebeid123@bellatlantic.net (Ibrahim Ebeid)

This article was reprinted from the August 16, 1997, issue of the People's Weekly World. For subscription information see below. All rights reserved - may be used with PWW credits.

NAZARETH - We traveled by bus one day across the fertile coastal plain up into the Galilean Hills to this town of 60,000 people, the largest Arab community in Israel. According to the New Testament, Jesus of Nazareth worked in Joseph's carpentry shop here, preached to the poor, made the blind see, and drove the moneychangers from the temple.

It is a picturesque city rising on steep, arid hills with the domes of churches mingled with the minarets of mosques. In the center is the Church of the Annunciation built on the spot where the angel Gabriel is said to have announced to Mary that she would give birth to Jesus.

Yet in the midst of all these religious artifacts, we were reminded of the profound role played by the Communist Party of Israel (CPI) in defense of the vital interests of the city's residents, as well as its leading role in progressive struggles throughout Israel. Members of the CPI have been elected as mayor and a majority on the city council for the past 21 years. The demographics of Nazareth are bewildering. It is a majority Arab, but also a majority Christian. There is a Jewish minority but also a large Muslim minority. About half the population lives below Israel's official poverty line. Unemployment has fallen from 25 percent in recent years to nine percent today. In the cauldron of ethnic and religious strife in the Middle East, instigated by one imperialist power after another, Nazareth stands as a community that struggles for unity and mutual respect. It reflects the humanist policies of the CPl which stands for freedom of conscience and separation of religion and state.

Tawfiq Zayyad, an Arab poet, a leader of the Communist Party of Israel, was first elected Mayor of Nazareth in 1974. A man beloved of the people, he was elected and reelected with ever greater margins until his tragic death in a car accident three years ago. The current mayor and deputy mayor are also CPI members and 11 of the 19 members of the City Council are members of the CPI.

I was traveling with fraternal delegates who came from Vietnam, Russia, Cyprus, Greece, Portugal, and France to attend the CPI's 23rd Congress. We were greeted in the city by Party and City officials at the headquarters of the Nazareth branch of the CPI. We were accompanied to Nazareth by CPI General Secretary Muhammad Nafaa, CPI Knesset member Tamar Goshansky, and Benjamin Gonen, a party leader who serves on the executive board of Israel's Histadrut labor federation. Nazareth Deputy Mayor, Suheil Diab, also a CPI leader, welcomed us, "We are now preparing for 'Nazareth 2000,' the celebration of the beginning of the Third Millennium of Christianity," he said. "We conceived the idea of making Nazareth one of the prime sites for this celebration and the Vatican accepted the proposal," he said. Nazareth is one of three sites chosen, Rome and Bethlehem in the Palestinian West Bank being the other two. Just before his death, Zayyad had met with Pope John Paul II to discuss the plan which included a promise of substantial funds to build hotels, to restore the old Nazareth market, to rebuild "Mary's Fountain" and other holy sites in Nazareth.

Under the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli government agreed to provide substantial funds to restore Nazareth in preparation for the millions of pilgrims expected during the year-long celebration, Diab continued. "From 1992 until his assassination, Rabin took a number of steps not only for peace but also in terms of gains for equality for Israeli Arabs. Netanyahu has reversed this. His budget shifts the priorities back to the military and to the Jewish municipalities.

"Objectively, there is a need for a wide popular front to remove this government from office, to send them home," Diad continued. "There is a need for the trade unions, the peace organizations to join together with the muncipalities to oust Netanyahu, the main problem in Israel today. The question is how to coalesce this movement before Netanyahu leads Israel to disaster."

Time is passing, the year 2000 draws nearer, he continued, "and we are still waiting for the millions of dollars promised for the Nazareth 2000 project. For us, this is not just a celebration of the birth of Jesus. We want to begin the new millennium having achieved a just peace in the Middle East."

Construction was visible throughout the city. We later toured the city, visiting the old Nazareth Market which is being restored and "Mary's Fountain" which is being rebuilt. According to legend, Mary, mother of Jesus, drew water from this well each day. While we were there, a crew of construction workers were excavating the site.

Diab explained that the city administration and the Communist Party worked out a strategy to forge ahead with the reconstruction based on organizing from the grassroots. In each of the 13 neighborhoods of Nazareth, community organizations selected projects they wanted rushed to completion as part of Nazareth 2000.

"We have organized 5,000 volunteer workers into brigades led by skilled construction workers, who come in and complete in one week what it took a year to accomplish before," he said.

Dr. Altmad Sa'ad, a Knesset member from Nazareth told us, "As an Arab community, we have a special place in the life of Israel. On the one hand, we are part of the Palestinian people, those who stayed on their land. On the other hand, we are Israeli citizens. That's why we play a crucial role in the struggle for peace. We suffer from a double oppression - class oppression, which is imposed on all working class people in Israel, and national oppression and discrimination. Eighty percent of Arab lands were confiscated. We face a host of discriminatory laws. They claim they want to develop the land - but not for Israeli Arabs. We, the Communist Party of Israel, are the only Party that unites Jews and Arabs on the basis of equality." When the Netanyahu regime staged a bloody escalation of the long-simmering war with Lebanon, a mass protest demonstration was organized in Nazareth attended by both Arabs and Jews demanding that Netanyhau reverse his policy of wrecking the peace process. Peace forces came from all over Israel to join the march and rally.

Later that afternoon, we drove on to the Sea of Galilee, the largest body of fresh water in the region. From the overlook, high on the side of the Galilean Hills we looked down on the green fields, vineyards, and orchards that fringe the sea, an oasis in the midst of the barren, scorched mountains. It reminded me of the apple and peach orchards of Wenatchee on the banks of the Columbia River in Washington State. On the opposite shore of the Galilee, the Golan Heights, Syrian territory occupied by Israel since 1967, rose steeply into the summer haze. In 1992, I had looked across from the Syrian village of Al Quinetra dynamited by the Israeli army when it evacuated the town.

A few minutes later, our bus stopped at Yardenit on the banks of the Jordan River. It is said that John the Baptist baptized Jesus at this spot. The river bank was crowded with pilgrims from all over the world waiting to be immersed in the river. I removed my shoes and socks and waded into the cool stream, a symbol of freedom for so many enslaved and oppressed peoples. Now, the Palestinian people of the West Bank, many in villages lacking even enough to drink, are struggling for their share of the life-sustaining water.

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