U.S. sailors get warm welcome from residents of Israeli port

February 17, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

HAIFA, Israel -- The woman who called herself Nomi was a rainbow in a dim bar. She had an explosion of teased yellow hair, tears drawn in black mascara, full red lips, and gold earrings that seemed as big as the ship's anchors of the Navy sailors she serves.

"We love the Americans," she said, perched solidly on a bar stool. "When they come in here they're like a man who's been stuck in the desert. We give them a drink. We give them some music. We give them some attention."

Nomi might not be the Haifa tourist board's first choice as official greeter, but her sentiments are on the mark. By most accounts, Haifa warmly welcomes the U.S. sailors whose ships visit here often.

The feeling seems mutual. Haifa is Israel's largest port, its third-largest city and a favorite stop for sailors.

"This is one of the few ports we've been at where people aren't rude to Americans just for sport," said Seaman Skip Roberts,

TC 21-year-old from Indianapolis who was on liberty from the USS Santa Barbara, anchored last week in Haifa bay.

"The people are really cool here," agreed his shipmate, Petty Officer Brian Thompson, 20, of Virginia Beach. "The women are beautiful. The people smile at us. They aren't rude."

Goodwill is a matter of civic pride in Haifa. The city of 250,000, 55 miles north of Tel Aviv, is unusual for the ease among Israelis and Arabs. There have been few incidents of violence, and the 25,000 Arab residents live in neighborhoods among Jews.

There also is tolerance for Haifa's various religions: In addition to Muslims and Jews, the city has Christians and Druze, and is the world headquarters of the peace-to-all Bahai religion.

"It's really a model for peace. We live together," boasted Joseph Bar, spokesman for the Haifa municipality.

Since the mid-1970s, U.S. Navy ships have made Haifa a regular port of call. When an aircraft carrier or a task force arrives, as many as 10,000 sailors swarm ashore. Contrary to the image of drunken seamen on leave, the sailors have caused relatively few problems here, citizens say. They cite two rape cases in recent memory, and the occasional brawl.

"They are good ambassadors," said Ruth Weinstein at her the Haifa Tourist Board office, crowded with pictures of Navy ships. About 40,000 sailors arrive each year, she said.

But residents are cautious about having Haifa as a permanent base for the U.S. Navy.

Mayor Arie Gurel said he has heard nothing about such a proposal, and "I would know about it if it were at an operative stage," he said.

One place with a more-the-merrier attitude to sailors is the USO in Haifa, run by an inexhaustibly hospitable Gilla Gerzon. Her take-charge approach has won her renown among the officers and enlisted men of the 6th Fleet, and probably accounts for much of the popularity of the Haifa stop.

Her USO is not a sad hangout for lonely sailors, but more like the busy office of a camp's activities director.

She dispatches tour-buses full of sailors to Jerusalem, to Tel Aviv, to the Galilee. She sends them out to a kibbutz, or to the Arab Druze village, or to homes for a warm Jewish meal. She puts them to work with a local center for handicapped kids. And she mothers them infectiously.

"There really is some kind of love here between Israelis and Americans," she said. "I only wish that wherever these sailors go, they take with them some of that."

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