Conflicting Loyalties and Local Politics in Nazareth

By Emmett, Chad F. | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 1997 | Go to article overview

Conflicting Loyalties and Local Politics in Nazareth


Emmett, Chad F., The Middle East Journal


Local politics in Nazareth has been influenced by a variety of factors. Originally, parties were centered on family, religion and quarter, or were linked to Communist ideology, which offered the only venue for Arab nationalist claims. Arabs also voted for Zionist parties in order to survive politically in a Jewish state. Recent changes in the region and throughout the world have brought additional parties to Nazareth, including Islamic and Arab nationalist parties.

Nazareth is in many ways a unique place. Its location within the state of Israel with a population comprised of Palestinian Arabs who adhere to either Islam or a variety of Christian sects means that there are, often times, competing loyalties within the political arena based on both nationalist identities and religious affiliation. Additional loyalties are based on either ties to an extended family or to specific quarters, most of which are communal or hamula (clan) based. Several areas on the periphery of Nazareth are inhabited primarily by refugees who claim allegiance to a common place of origin.

While many of the political parties operating at the municipal level have family, religious and quarter ties, they also have important external links to Russia, the Israeli Communist party, the Islamic world and Islamic parties, Palestinian and other Arab nationalist parties, and to Israeli Zionist parties. So important are these external ties that few if any of Nazareth's parties have emerged as purely Nazarene, they all have ties to larger geographical areas.

An analysis of the influence of location on Nazareth's municipal politics is based on current theories in the study of electoral geography which state that place matters. John Agnew, for example, writes: "All places have their own history, 'external' links and peculiar traditions. Consequently, places are the social contexts in which political expression is determined."' David Reynolds also recognizes the important ties between place and politics. He advocates an electoral geography that has more of a "place-based contextual approach" that includes a "deeper historical analysis of the exercise of power and social struggles against it in particular places during periods of significant social change."2 Agnew suggests that "political behavior is intrinsically geographical . . . [and that] social contexts provided by local territorial-cultural settings (neighborhoods, towns, cities, small rural areas) are viewed as crucial in defining distinctive political identities and subsequent political activities."3 Included within these local settings are the influences of what has been called the neighborhood effect, which suggests that voting behavior is often directed towards candidates from a voter's own neighborhood.

Social context is not just limited to local characteristics. External forces are also an important influence on political activities. Agnew identifies the modern territorial state as "one of the most important `outside forces'."4 In the case of Nazareth, outside influences include the state of Israel as well as the non-state Palestinians. Influences even extend beyond the state level to include other states, nations and religions.

Present day Nazareth is a crowded city of about 65,000 Arab inhabitants.5 In 1946, Nazareth's population was only 15,000-hardly more than a village.6 This number increased to over 20,000 as refugees, primarily Muslims from the 1948 war, fled to the city for protection. Since its inclusion in Israel in 1948, Nazareth has been the largest Arab community within the state. Since the return of Christians almost four centuries ago, Nazareth has been a mixed city of Muslim and Christian inhabitants (currently it is over 60 percent Muslim).7 Because of its sanctity as the site of the Annunciation, Nazareth has attracted a variety of Christians including Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Roman Catholics, Maronites, Copts and Protestants. This mixed communal composition has had a significant impact on municipal politics that can be divided into two distinct phases: an early phase in which the majority of the parties were Christian and Muslim, and a later phase in which Islam became a more forceful contender with stronger ties to the larger political movements of Islam.

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