The Anti-Millennium: The Islamization of Nazareth

, April 16, 2000

No. 428  April 2000

Who Has the Tallest House of Worship?

On 21 December 1997, just four days before Christmas, Muslim zealots fenced in the area at the foot of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, declared it waqf land (a Muslim holy endowment), erected a large tent as a provisional mosque, and demanded the construction of a permanent mosque with a towering 86-meter minaret.

This conflict, which pitted Nazareth’s Muslim majority (70 percent) against its Christian minority (30 percent), was only the tip of a growing enmity between the two communities during the past decades. As long as nationalist Arab groups within the city had been able to live under the uniting umbrella of the Communist party which ruled the city for decades, questions of religion and communal rivalry were set aside. But with the decline of the communists and other Arab nationalists headquartered in the city, new groups began to emerge, the most important of which are the Islamists. This reflected the demographic transformation of Nazareth, known for its Christian holy sites, into a Muslim city where local Muslims sought to shift its identity on a symbolic level as well to reflect their predominance.

The process of Islamization of Nazareth has been gradual. Sometime after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the traditional Christian majority came to be balanced by the Muslims, mainly due to the influx of refugees who had sought shelter there when their villages were destroyed during the war. Subsequently, the more Westernized and more educated Christians bore fewer children while their Muslim compatriots continued to have large families. As the millennium approached, highlighting the Christian history of the city, the Muslim majority decided to intervene by scuttling the elaborate festivities planned by the Israeli government and the Municipality of Nazareth, headed by its Christian mayor. As part of this effort they sought to construct a mosque which would tower over and dwarf the Christian Basilica of the Annunciation, the largest church in the city.

The Communist Era in Nazareth

Until the mid-1970s, municipal government in Nazareth was dominated by local parties associated with the ruling Mapai party and its derivatives, whose power was based on family connections. These parties were so incompetent in administrative and urban governance that in 1974 Prime Minister Golda Meir appointed a commission of inquiry which recommended the dismantling of the city council and placing city affairs in the hands of an appointed commission manned by officials of the Ministry of Interior.

However, in the municipal elections of 1975, the first where the mayors were directly elected, Tawfiq Zayyad, a Muslim and the rising star of the Communist party (first known as Rakah and then Hadash), who headed a local list of his own creation – the Nazareth Democratic Front – garnered a stunning 70 percent of the vote. His victory, and the establishment of the first communist-led city administration in Israel, created apprehension in the Israeli government which regarded Rakah as an enemy. In consequence, the Ministry of Interior refused to cooperate with Zayyad, probably hoping that his isolation would bring about his downfall.

The Democratic Front led by Zayyad, with the backing of his new city council, revolutionized city politics and the city administration, and was reelected by a landslide in 1979. At that time, Ramiz Jeraisi, a young (27), educated engineer and a Christian, was elected deputy mayor and would become the actual city manager while his boss was engaged in national politics as head of the Hadash party in the Knesset. The charismatic Zayyad became, in effect, the “foreign minister” of Nazareth, lobbying government offices and negotiating with other parties and government ministers on behalf of the city’s interests as well as those of all Arabs in Israel. During the nearly two decades that Zayyad served as a powerful spokesman for Nazareth and the Arabs in Israel (until his tragic death in a car accident in 1994), his loyal and devoted deputy, Jeraisi, took care of the affairs of the city.

Zayyad was easily reelected in 1983 and Hadash held a majority in the city council (11 out of 17 seats). Just before the elections, the party journal, Al-Ittihad, published his powerful poem lauding the “Great Egyptian Crossing” in the 1973 war, a demonstration of Arab nationalism for which the Arab voters rewarded him. Zayyad’s success in local politics spilled over into national politics when, in the general elections of 1984, more than half the Arab population of Israel voted for Hadash, and the new Committee of Heads of Arab Councils (CHAC) practically adopted the Communist platform at Zayyad’s instigation.

Zayyad was also the engine behind the organization of annual summer camps used to mobilize Arab youth for the party. Each year thousands of volunteers, including some from the West Bank and Gaza and even from abroad, would participate in maintenance work throughout the city, mending fences, paving roads, and refurbishing

Raphael Israeli

Raphael Israeli is a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A graduate of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in History and Arabic Literature, he received his PhD in Chinese and Islamic History from the University of California, Berkeley in 1974. Israeli has written 30 books and some 100 scholarly articles in the fields of Islamic radicalism, Islamic terrorism, the Modern Middle East, Islam in China and Asia and the Opening of China by the French. His books include The Iraq War: Hidden Agendas and Babylonian Intrigue and Living with Islam: The Sources of Fundamentalist Islam. His most recent book (2012) is The Oslo Process: The Euphoria of Failure