Haifa became a cosmopolitan center and a home to emerging Palestinian nationalism in the twentieth century, and especially during the British Mandate. The construction of the Hijazi Railway in 1908 and the naval port in 1933 drew populations from across Palestine and the Arab world to Haifa. The city developed a modern lifestyle, based on civic relations and growing individual liberties, including women rights. Leisure and cultural activities were central to these formations, as local religious communities, private entrepreneurs, and various professional associations competed in organizing cultural events in Haifa's public spaces. Various Palestinian clubs, theatres, cinema halls, and cafes offered stages for local artists and famous singers from the Arab world, including Um Kulthum and Farid al-Atrash.
However, these developments did not last. Haifa lost some 95 percent of its Palestinian inhabitants in the Nakba, including the city’s financial and cultural elite, most of whom were expelled to Lebanon. The city fell under Israeli military rule (1948–66), and the remaining Palestinian population was confined to the Wadi al-Nisnas and Hallisa neighborhoods. Disconnected from the rest of the Arab world and the Palestinian nation, the devastated Palestinians who remained in Israel’s borders endured decades of marginalization. The communist party was the only political organization to survive the Nakba, mostly because of its Arab–Jewish character and internationalist agenda. Its increasingly non-Zionist stand made it a home for the few remaining Palestinian intellectuals, such as Mahmoud Darwish, Emile Habibi, Emile Touma, Hanna Abu Hanna, and many others. Because of its ability to defy censorship, poetry was the primary medium of cultural expression available under military rule. Poetry festivals were organized across the country, and literary works were published in the party's daily newspaper al-Ittihad (The Unity, 1944–) and its cultural periodical al-Jadid (The New, 1951–91), both printed in Haifa.
In the first decade after the Nakba, Israel aimed at separating and confining the Palestinians who remained within its borders. Since the second decade, however, it has made an effort to assimilate them. State and municipality funded institutions offered depoliticized cultural programs for “Arab-Israelis” in Haifa; examples include the Rubin Conservatory and Ha-Noar ha-Oved ve-Halomed (The Working and Learning Youth) club that belonged to the Histadrut labor union. However, most prominent was Beit Hagefen (The Vine House), which was founded in 1963 to offer training in music and theater in Arabic.
In the search for employment and education, a flow of internal Palestinian migration to Haifa had begun in the 1950s and increased after the end of the military rule. These populations included mainly internally displaced refugees. They eventually inhabited former Palestinian neighborhoods, and Jewish residents gradually moved to newly constructed homes on the Carmel Mountain.
Haifa also played a major role in education, which was key to achieving Palestinian economic advancement. Founded in 1952, the Orthodox Arab College was the first high school to offer Palestinians in Israel a complete secondary education to male and female students. The expansion of the school system for Palestinians in the following two decades culminated in the establishment of the University of Haifa in 1963. The university greatly contributed to the education to Palestinians, and especially among women, who could commute from the Galilee and the Muthalath (Triangle) regions. During this period, Palestinians also began acquiring skills and training in the arts at Israeli institutions but lacked venues where they could freely express national sentiments.
A few independent Palestinian initiatives appeared in Haifa during the 1970s and 1980s. Al-Masrah al-hurr (The Free Theater) was founded in 1973, as young Palestinian actors began questioning the partnership with the Israeli cultural center Beit Hagefen. However, it dissolved only one year later because of financial difficulties. While some actors left the stage altogether, others established Al-Masrah al-nahed (The Rising Theater), which operated under the management of Beit Hagefen and an independent committee; it lasted only for four years. In the late 1980s, six teenagers came together as the rock band Al-Shate’ (The Shore) and sang about urban life when social and political expression was limited. After two recorded albums and a few years of successful concerts in Haifa and neighboring towns, Al-Shate’ eventually disbanded; its audience couldn’t afford to pay for tickets, and the band lacked local stages and professional connections to book performances abroad.
Toward the late 1990s, an independent Palestinian cultural scene began emerging in Haifa. Several factors contributed to this. To begin with, the demise of the centralized state model since the 1980s led to job market fluidity and improved economic conditions for Palestinians in Israel. The increasing number of university graduates resulted in professional diversity, expansion of the private sector, and Palestinian self-employment. As more Palestinian women entered the job market, dual-income families increased and the birthrate declined. Although standards of living did not improve equally for all Palestinians in Israel, this selective change led to the emergence of a Palestinian middle class. Growing up in a more prosperous environment, a second generation of middle class Haifa residents began to expand the city’s cultural scene by the late 1990s.
In addition to this, the Palestinian cultural scene shifted from one organized through political parties to civil society institutions and commercial enterprises, which led to greater artistic liberties and diversification. As the Palestinian Authority was formed in the '67 Territories during the Olso Accords, Palestinians in Israel demanded collective cultural rights through cultural autonomy. While Al-Midan Arab National Theater was founded in 1994 with governmental funding, this demand was officially rejected in the Israeli Knesset. (The theater closed in 2015 after a political scandal.) Still, a de facto cultural autonomy emerged as Palestinian civil society organizations established autonomous institutions outside direct state control. Many of the leading Palestinian NGOs inside Israel were established in Haifa, some of which specialize in cultural activities; one such organization, The Arab Cultural Association was established in 1998 in Nazareth but moved to Haifa in 2013. In tandem a growing number of Palestinian-owned cafés and bars opened to offer spaces for small performances and exhibitions by Palestinian artists. Starting with Fattoush café-restaurant, these venues began appearing in the German Colony in the late 1990s, soon spread to the Hadar neighborhood, and in the 2010s also to the port area in downtown Haifa.
While these new entertainment spaces attract a Palestinian crowd from towns and villages in the Haifa vicinity during the weekends, many moved to Haifa in the search for privacy, urbanity, and Palestinian belonging. Among these internal migrants were young Palestinian families, professionals, single women, queers, artists, and inter-religious couples. As of 2019, the population of Haifa was about 285,317, of which approximately 33,000 (12 percent) are Palestinian. However, this official statistic is an undercount; a significant number of Palestinians, especially students and young adults, maintain their address in their towns of origin for various reasons.
Political conditions also contributed to Haifa’s changing character, as the rift between the state and the Palestinian citizens peaked after October 2000 events at the beginning of the second Intifada, when Palestinians throughout Mandate Palestine demonstrated against the Israeli occupation. While these events were a watershed in exposing the deep divide between Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli citizens, it increased relations between Palestinians across the 1967 Line. In addition to this, advancements in media and communication have encouraged local cultural producers to seek recognition for their national identity and original productions in wider Arab and Western art scenes. The internet has been particularly effective in helping establish both the practical and conceptual independence of young artists. It enabled both producers and consumers to participate in Palestinian and international cultural initiatives in ways that bypass Israeli mediation and censorship. While inexpensive technologies of digital production and distribution have led to widespread democratization away from corporations and state institutions, for Palestinians in Israel this development carried also political significance. Moreover, the Internet helped in creating new communities of taste outside traditional and institutionalized cultural expressions. New audiences appeared for new music styles in Palestine, such as rap, rock, jazz, and various genres of electronic music.
Along with the cyberspace, Haifa's physical space played an important role in the development of Palestinian nightlife. While many new Palestinian bands appeared in Haifa in the last decade, others were founded elsewhere and came to be part of the emerging scene in the city. Despite these cultural transformations, it took a while for the young generation to establish spaces for night entertainment in Haifa, where different styles of music could be performed and audiences could congregate in a casual and permissive setting. As Palestinian cultural institutions were afraid to compromise their reputation by supporting activities that include gender mixing and alcohol consumption, this night scene had to independently organize events, at the risk of confronting Israeli police and Palestinian moral authorities.
In 2011, with the beginning of the Arab revolutions, a few groups began organizing dance parties on a weekly basis. They initially rented Israeli spaces, yet after the ban on national and politicized content the limitations soon became clear. This led to the organization of night events in empty spaces owned by Palestinians, including warehouses, abandoned buildings, or agricultural lands outside the city. Since these spaces were not licensed for social gatherings, the organizers risked police raids, which could result in an end to the gathering and (occasionally) fines. Because the parties were illegal, a certain commitment was required by both the organizers and the public to temporarily appropriate spaces and bear the consequences. The goal of reclaiming new spaces in the city created a politicized atmosphere among the participants, so that these parties soon attracted a large crowd and led to the emergence of a Palestinian night scene in Haifa. After several years, this scene was institutionalized with the opening of permanent dance bars and the nightclubs, such as Kabareet and Fattoush Gallery-Bar. The audience played an important role in offering stages for local innovative and experimental cultural content, but also in hosting other Palestinian, Arab, and international musicians.
The far-reaching changes taking place among the Palestinian community in Haifa came along with the marginalization of the city in Israel’s geopolitics. From the third largest city in Israel, Haifa became unattractive for young Jews, with less employment opportunities, a decline in Israeli cultural events and nightlife, and poor city management. Haifa’s marginalization, in comparison with Tel Aviv’s financial centrality and Jerusalem’s political and religious importance, opened a neglected space that allowed the rise of a Palestinian middle class and cultural activities in the city. In addition to this, the role of a secular and tolerant Jewish-Israeli population in Haifa should also not be underestimated. More visible on the street than at the institutional level, this tolerance has historical roots as Palestinian and Jews in Haifa lived in close proximity and cooperation prior to 1948, as the city emerged as a modern cosmopolitan center.
The development of a vibrant Palestinian cultural life in Haifa reflects the desire of Palestinians in Israel to reconnect with other Palestinian communities and with the Arab world. This assertion of affiliation to the Palestinian nation through cultural activities appeared after their exclusion from official Palestinian politics in the Oslo Accords in the 1990s. The recent informal announcement of Haifa as "the capital of Palestine culture" affirms its artistic milieu’s aspiration not only to be counted as a part of the Palestinian nation, but also as its cultural vanguard.