One Galilee pub shows that ‘economic peace’ is not enough

At Samim Bishara’s Kamun Pub in the northern town of Ma’alot-Tarshiha, Arabs and Jews can sit alongside each other to drink beer and eat pizza. But even in what might appear to be an oasis of coexistence, fundamental inequality is inescapable. 

By Steven Davidson

A bartender pours a pint at Kamun Pub. (Steven Davidson)
A bartender pours a pint at Kamun Pub. (Steven Davidson)

Tarshiha is technically one of the few mixed, Jewish-Arab villages in all of Israel. In 1963, the government merged the Arab village of Tarshiha with the Jewish town of Ma’alot to form the municipality of Ma’alot-Tarshiha.

Samim Bishara, 42, grew up in Tarshiha but didn’t learn Hebrew until his early 30s. “When I was 16, police saw I was Arab, and they fucked me up. For years I did not like Jews,” he told me, an American Jewish journalist, and my two new Jewish Israeli friends, Uri and Yahel. “When I got older, and I had my own bar, I became wiser.”

Bishara speaks English with a quirky accent I can only surmise he picked up watching mafia movies. That night at Kamun Pub, the bar he owns in Ma’alot-Tarshiha, he spoke frenetically — and nonstop for five hours. His head zipped back and forth, he gesticulated wildly.

A few minutes earlier, when we walked into the pub, we found the sounds of Stevie Wonder serenading a dimly lit room adorned with an array of understated cubist paintings, limestone walls, black and white photos — and hipster Jews and Arabs drinking beer and eating pizza.

I had mentioned to the waitress that I was an American journalist chronicling interactions between Arabs and Jews. “The owner would love to speak to you!” she said. Seconds later, Samim sat himself at our table and began talking.

Samim Bishara raises a glass from behind the bar at Kamun Pub. (Steven Davidson)
Samim Bishara raises a glass from behind the bar at Kamun Pub. (Steven Davidson)

“This place, this bar, it is more than drinking,” Samim, whose eccentric personality was only overshadowed by his hyperbole, preached to us. “Arabs, Jews can sit together, talk, and have a fucking beer together because right now, there’s a civil war — a civil war! — that will happen if we don’t come together and have a motherfucking beer!”

Throughout the Galilee, Jews and Arabs interact and live side by side. But the interactions are primarily economic. Many Jews go to nearby Arab villages and towns to do their shopping and sometimes for hummus. Lacking in social relationships, an economic relationship may persist, and even thrive, while mistrust remains.

Professor Ashutosh Varshney, a leading expert from Brown University on ethnic conflict resolution, compared this situation to what he found studying half a dozen villages in the Gujarat state of India that see outstanding peace among Muslims and Hindus compared to elsewhere in the country.

These villages were remarkable for the degree of social, political, and economic interaction between the different religious groups. One village, however, experienced what he described as a “less stable, weaker peace” because the relationship remained purely economic — similar to Jews’ visits to Arab villages in the Galilee.

“It doesn’t create any civic interaction of any kind, bonds of any kind, any social capital,” Varshney said. “Of course, you can call it better than not anything, right? Hierarchical economic exchange can be peaceful, but it doesn’t generate much social interaction beyond the marketplace.”

Clinking glasses at Kamun Pub. (Steven Davidson)
Clinking glasses at Kamun Pub. (Steven Davidson)

Kamun, which opened in 2006, is named for the cumin spice used in many Middle Eastern dishes that, as the pub frames it, “while not being the main ingredient, is the unquestionable soul and spirit behind them.”

Samim keeps the pub’s menu of munchies and brews in English. “[English] is international,” he explained. “If I have it in Arabic, Jews will come and say, ‘What the fuck?!’ And if I have it in Hebrew, Arabs will come and say, ‘What the fuck?!’”

As the drinks flowed, Samim’s monologues drifted between the philosophical and the inane. At various points, he compared humans in conflict to cats, cows, fish, dogs and “those fucking annoying flies that hang around your toilet when you try to take a shit.” He often mentioned his own proposed solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“There must be a State of Galilee! Yes! Give each of us our own land—dut, dut, dut, dut,” he exclaimed, chopping the table into an imaginary federation. “Let us live without the crazy people,” he beckoned. “Tranquilo! Tranquilo!”

Samim’s stream of thought erupted so precipitously that sometimes, the rare pauses were what stood out. “And you had in Gaza, you had these massac—” he hesitated the slightest second for the first time in two hours. His eyes quickly glanced at my two Israeli friends, Uri and Yahel.

By 3:30 in the morning, with everyone gone and the lights dim, I realized Samim was ready to chat past dawn. We said our goodbyes, and Samim gave me a hug. “This is peace in the making!” he exclaimed.

Samim didn’t even mention charging Uri, Yahel, and me for all those drinks. The $90-worth of beers he kept bringing to the table, it seemed, came free of charge.

“This is not a business,” he later told me. “The dream of Kamun is to just be together, drink together, speak together!”

Earlier in the day, my friend Uri had half-joked that what made Dostoevsky and Tolstoy so great was that you didn’t quite know exactly what they meant, but whatever it was, was profound. Samim, in this very narrow respect, is a bar owning, bandana-wearing Tolstoy.

On the drive home, Uri and Yahel confided that our night at Kamun had been the first time they ever had an in-depth conversation with an Arab. It was a “once in a lifetime experience.”

But it was just one night, they qualified. Samim, they said, wasn’t like other Arabs, or anyone else, really. Kamun to them was like lightning in a bottle, not really reflective of, well anything. And there were those awkward moments where politics surfaced before Samim felt compelled to nervously change the topic.

Such intimate social interaction can only go so far within the unique structure of Israeli society, Professor Varshney explained: “Its status as a Jewish state is key. You can have local models of peace, no doubt,” but so long as citizens reside under an explicitly Jewish state, what sociologists call a “deep hierarchy” persists.

“It is a kind of democracy which is undoubtedly some kind of democracy,” he added, “but it is not a democracy premised upon equal ownership of the nation by the Jews and Arabs. The hierarchy is very clear.” Under such conditions, said Varshney, peace remains strictly limited to locales like Kamun.

With Kamun as its spiritual capital, the State of Galilee is Samim’s dream to escape this hierarchy. But would he otherwise be fine living in the Jewish state? “Sure, I guess, whatever,” he said, uncharacteristically subdued. It was easily the shortest response he offered.

Steven Davidson is a freelance journalist who previously worked for The Forward and has written for The Times of Israel, Haaretz, Salon, Narratively and Mondoweiss, among other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @sdavidson169