The National – 2 August 2009
TARSHIHA, ISRAEL // The Jewish community of Kfar Vradim, set in the still-verdant hills of northern Israel close to the Lebanese border, has taken the idea of neighbourly feuds to a new – and noisier – level.
Last week, it set up a large sound system, pointed it at the neighbouring homes in the Arab town of Tarshiha, the nearest of which are less than 1km away, and blasted them with Beethoven and Mozart.
Officials said they were forced to take the drastic step in retaliation for what they call the “deafening” blare of Arab music from late-night street parties the villagers have to endure each summer through the wedding season.
“You can’t believe how loud it is,” said Sue Goodman, 67, whose home faces Tarshiha’s noisiest neighbourhood across a small valley. “Even with the windows shut, you can’t hear the TV. And when it goes on late there’s no way to fall asleep.”
“It must damage the hearing of the people actually at the party,” added her husband, Geoffrey, 79. “At midnight they usually let off fireworks and start shooting guns too. It can sound like a war zone.”
“It can be loud,” conceded Amjad Dakwar, 25, an engineer from Tarshiha who lives close to the Bedouin neighbourhood where the loudest weddings are held. “The families there tend to have parties in the street rather than in wedding halls and it’s difficult to get away from the noise.”
But Mr Dakwar, like many people in Tarshiha, has little sympathy for his neighbours in Kfar Vradim. “Wedding parties are part of our culture. The people of Kfar Vradim chose to live right next to Tarshiha and build on our land. If they don’t like it, they should move back to Tel Aviv.”
Relations between Israeli Jews and the country’s large minority of 1.3 million Arab citizens have been marked by tension since Israel’s founding in 1948. Jews typically claim the minority is disloyal, while Arabs say they face endemic discrimination.
Rarely, however, has music become such a contentious issue.
According to Kfar Vradim’s council, they turned up the volume on recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Mozart’s Requiem and Puccini’s opera Tosca only after talks failed with Tarshiha’s residents.
One unnamed official told Israel’s popular website Ynet: “We just felt we had no other choice. All of our attempts to explain that the loud music is undermining our quality of life have failed.”
A council spokesman, Golan Yossifon, denied claims that Kfar Vradim is trying to recast its dispute with Tarshiha as a “clash of civilisations”. “Generally we have excellent relations,” he said.
The unnamed official, however, issued a barely veiled threat, saying Kfar Vradim might blast Tarshiha for a second time if it did not quieten down. “Everything will depend on developments. However, if we are forced to play the music again we shall put the speakers closer to the neighbours’ houses.”
There has been no official response from Tarshiha.
Kfar Vradim is also preparing to buy a meter to measure the decibels of the wedding party music. It says that such a move would “render matters clear and not up for discussion or interpretation”.
Despite Mr Yossifon’s claim of good relations, both the Goodmans and Mr Dakwar admitted there were other, long-term tensions between the two communities.
“The Arab families complain that we are sitting on their land but they sold it to Kfar Vradim,” said Mrs Goodman, a potter. She said there had been demonstrations in Tarshiha when they and other families moved in to their new neighbourhood 10 years ago.
“Most of us shop in Tarshiha and they know they can’t have it both ways. If there are nationalist demonstrations, we can always take our business elsewhere.”
Tarshiha’s inhabitants, however, say most of the land was not sold but confiscated by state bodies that wanted it for settling Jews.
Rowda Bishara, whose famous Christian family is from Tarshiha – her brother is the exiled political leader Azmi Bishara – and herself heads the Arab Cultural Centre in Nazareth, said her father’s extensive land holdings had been confiscated many years ago.
Much of the town’s seized land was later transferred to Jewish communities like Kfar Vradim for their expansion, she added.
Both neighbouring communities are unusual. Unlike Israel’s other rural Jewish villages, which were established by the state or Jewish organisations, Kfar Vradim was founded by one of Israel’s wealthiest businessmen, Stef Wertheimer, in the mid-1980s.
It was created as a well-to-do private housing estate for workers in his nearby Tefen industrial zone. As his business empire grew, so did the estate, creeping ever nearer Tarshiha. Today it is a thriving community of nearly 6,000 Jews.
Tarshiha, meanwhile, is the only Arab community in Israel merged with – and, many residents complain, dominated by – a Jewish town, the much larger Maalot.
“Although we have a joint municipality, Maalot is actually further away from Tarshiha than Kfar Vradim and unaffected by the wedding parties,” said Mr Dakwar.
Tarshiha, which dates back to the Canaanite period, has a mixed population of 5,000 Muslims and Christians compared to Maalot’s 16,000 Jews.
But like most Arab communities inside Israel, Tarshiha has little control over its room for growth, which has been tightly restricted by successive governments.
“You have to ask why Vradim is so close to Tarshiha. The goal, as with other Palestinian communities, is to surround us and limit our space for development,” said Ms Bishara.
Mr Dakwar said Kfar Vradim was preparing to expand on to a new area of Tarshiha’s lands, to its east, bringing yet more Jews close to Tarshiha – and its weddings.
Although most Jewish and Arab citizens live in entirely separate communities, a long-standing policy by the authorities’ to “Judaise”, or make more Jewish, areas heavily populated with Arab citizens, like the Galilee, has often brought the two groups into uncomfortable proximity.
Complaints by Jews about noise from Arab neighbours typically concern disturbances caused by the early morning call to prayer from mosque loudspeakers.
In 2002 the mixed city of Jaffa, next to Tel Aviv, announced that it was buying a system to limit the volume of local mosques’ speakers after complaints that the muezzins were too noisy.
Not all Jews living near Tarshiha agree with Kfar Vradim’s method of retaliation. Rina Liebovitch, who lives in a community called Meona, said: “The residents of Vradim are acting like kindergarten children.”
She accused them of being “snobs”, and added: “There’s more to this than just a complaint about noise. I don’t know exactly what’s behind it but it’s not pleasant.”