Festival of Festivals celebrates  the 3 major monotheistic religions plus Druze and Bah’ai minorities with a  200,000-strong street party

Over the past two weekends in December, Haifa’s  artsy neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas has been overrun with soldiers in green  uniforms. But these soldiers don’t have guns.

Instead, they have posters and petitions. “You light  up my life!” reads one poster. Others gather signatures for petitions demanding  people be happy and enjoy the holidays.

The “soldiers of love” performance aims to upend the  concept of soldier, a divisive subject fraught with meaning in Israel.

"Love soldier" street performers at Haifa's Festival of Festivals during the first weekend of the festival. (photo courtesy: Beit HaGefen)

The festival began in 1994, when Christmas, Hanukkah,  and Ramadan all fell around the same time in December. Because the Muslim lunar  calendar does not have leap months like the Jewish lunar calendar, the holy  month of Ramadan lands at different points every year, and this year the holiday  took place over the summer. Still, the festival is committed to celebrating  all monotheistic beliefs, as well as the city’s other minorities of Baha’i and  Druze.

In a country where most people live in religiously  segregated neighborhoods, Haifa remains dedicated to multiculturalism and  coexistence.

The first year, the majority Arab Christian  neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas — known for its large community of artists — invited  Jewish and Muslim artists to collaborate on a small street festival. Since then,  the festival has grown to one of the largest events in Haifa and a major  economic engine for the city. The streets are crowded as hijabs mingle with  Santa hats and a few kippot, with lights strung across the neighborhood and  Christmas trees poking out of restaurant doorways.

“This festival is very important for people to give  voice to their ideas, especially for people who come from outside Haifa and  don’t live in a shared city,” explained Assaf Ron, the executive director of Beit  Hagefen, an Arab-Jewish community center that organizes the festival.  “Visitors can see that [Arabs and Jews] can sit together, you can enjoy the same  music, Arab music or international music. The city puts a lot of money into it,  because it’s an important message and because it brings people to the city.”

Many of the city’s museums host special exhibitions  for the festival. There’s also an antique fair, a liturgical music concert  series, crafts workshops, and plays for children and adults. There are also  tours, such as the special “Inside the Trash Cans” (it rhymes in Hebrew)  exploring what the city throws away, to raise environmental awareness about  waste. This year, Ron was excited about the inclusion of “Conversation Jams,” a  series of facilitated street conversations aimed at engaging visitors in  conversations about difficult topics in Israeli society.

“It’s not connected to religion at all, it’s totally  about multiculturalism,” said Danny Ronen, the director of Haifa’s Tourist  Board. “For Israeli Jews to come here and see a Christmas tree and to see Santa  Claus and all those things is really nice, it puts them in the spirit of  Christmas.” Ronen noted that growing up abroad in France and Belgium, his  family incorporated their celebration of Hanukkah into the Christmas spirit of  those countries, and he enjoys the blend of holidays. “It’s almost like going  abroad, it’s really nice because Christmas is a special atmosphere,” he  enthused.

Streets are packed in the neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas during the Festival of Festivals. (photo credit: courtesy/Beit HaGefen)

In the past, the city’s rabbis have been less than  enthusiastic. Two years ago, one municipality rabbi threatened that any  restaurants or event halls that displayed “non-Jewish holiday symbols” would  lose their kashrut license, though the city was quick to revoke the  letter.

The festival is part of Haifa’s bid to become a  tourism hub for northern Israel. According to Ron, the city has just 1,400 hotel  rooms, putting it on par with cities like Netanya or Nazareth. Ronen said  improvements in the highway infrastructure have positioned Haifa as a good base  for tourists to explore the north, though they face stiff competition from  Nazareth for Christian tourists and the Galilee for tourists looking for a quiet  northern vacation.

The summer Israel-Hamas war in Gaza makes a joint  Arab-Jewish festival especially pertinent this year, organizers said. The  ongoing terror in Jerusalem highlights the importance of building cultural  bridges, especially because Haifa does not find itself dealing with the same  kind of religious extremism found in Jerusalem, added Ronen.

“Bringing my kids to see the lighting of the Christmas  trees on Ben Gurion Street is a blessing,” said Ron. “It helps us understand  we’re not alone in the world. There are more people living beside us who have  the right to enjoy the holidays. It won’t hurt my Judaism, it may even  strengthen it, because true Judaism is pluralism.”

At the city’s main traffic circle in front of the  Baha’i Gardens, a worker put the finishing touches on a large menorah, a Muslim  crescent, and a Christmas tree, celebrating all three monotheistic religions in  front of the holiest site for the Baha’i faith.

“You won’t make peace because of this festival,”  declared Ron. “You do so because people get to know one another, and that’s what  we’re doing all year round.”

By Melanie  Lidman                                                                                                                                          December 22, 2014, 11:43  pm