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Without chatter over humus and beans

"The meetings prove that solidarity is possible, that what we have in common is greater than our differences"

dscf0839_smallThe road from the village of Reineh in the Galilee to Hakfar Hayarok and the road from Tel Aviv were both jammed, offering the program coordinators an opportunity to sort out the final details. It turned out there was twice the number of students from Reineh than those awaiting them in Kfar Hayarok, but this didn’t worry coordinator Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka, stuck in the traffic jam on her way from Tel Aviv. So there’ll be two Arabs and one Jew to each discussion group – not ideal, but workable, she says to the northern region coordinator, Hanan Zoabi, who is with the Reineh students on the bus. The problem was how to rearrange the activities, which had been planned for work in pairs – but the problem was solved long before the traffic had cleared.

This meeting was part of the Youth for Social Change program, organized by the Workers Advice Center (WAC-Maan), shortly after the Jewish festival of Purim. The date was fixed a long time in advance, but two days previously a group of youths leaving a Purim party had beaten up a cleaner just because he was Arab. Following this incident there were a number of cases of hate crimes against Arabs. Some programs which bring Jews and Arabs together might have taken such current events as a hot topic touching the heart of the Arab-Israel conflict. Others might have chosen to ignore it, presenting a utopia of coexistence instead – let them learn a little folklore, let them chatter over humus and beans, as Agbarieh-Zahalka says.

WAC-Maan’s program takes a different approach. It doesn’t seek confrontation or celebrate folklore, but identifies common issues that concern Jewish and Arab youth, and encourages joint social involvement. Later, when mutual trust has been established, the pain can be brought up – but then perhaps confrontation will no longer be necessary for understanding. At the start of the meeting, Agbarieh-Zahalka also notes the racism at the heart of the conflict: “I see hatred and incitement, but these are empty shells containing nothing. I believe that this shell can be shattered, that we can educate the youth to value social justice instead of inciting them to hatred.”

To avoid creating a situation in which each side blames the other for its ills, the project includes a series of separate meetings, each group on its own, during the school year. “It is important that we be willing to scrutinize ourselves and put aside any arrogant approach,” explains Danny Ben Simhon, the project’s national coordinator. “Only in the second stage do both groups meet together, to clarify problems in common, from racism, exploitation, precarious employment terms and unemployment to poverty and violence. The central question always begins with what we want to change within ourselves and our immediate surroundings, and only then society in general.”

One of the first attempts to hold a meeting between Jewish and Arab youth in the framework of the Youth for Social Change project took place a couple of years ago in Kibbutz Ginosar, with students from Mahanot Ha’olim and the Tamra youth center. This was the time of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. The social protest movement in Israel had not yet begun.

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About Rachel Michaeli