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.

“The pictures coming in from Cairo’s Tahrir Square seemed threatening to the Jewish youth,” Ben Simhon recalls. “At the beginning of the meeting, the participants read Martin Buber’s text on the power of youth. They read it in both languages [Hebrew and Arabic] and then debated whether what was written in 1918 is still relevant. Does the youth have the power to change, what are values behind the social justice slogans, and what is the connection between the issues Buber spoke about and the demands of the demonstrators in the square. As soon as they began scratching below the surface, they found the Tahrir demonstrations were no longer threatening… and they found themselves identifying with those same values that were expressed in the slogans of Cairo and Tunisia.”

WAC-Maan contacted the Education Ministry and presented the program and educational approach to the Youth and Society program. “We noted the program had a social message. It addresses social involvement on social and economic issues, education towards democracy, gender equality and the struggle against racism, and encourages active involvement and independent thinking,” Ben Simhon says: “We received permission from the ministry of education to be active in schools. In fact, only one high school in Tel Aviv refused to host the program, on the grounds that it was organized by a trade union.”

dscf0836_smallWAC-Maan set off without any budget, funding all activities itself. We saw that in some Jewish schools, if they don’t get matriculation points for the activity, and in a market saturated with extra-curricula activities, they say they have no need for our program. In the best case, they ask for a single joint meeting in order to add a “V” to ‘coexistence’ activity. “In an age in which the most important question in the education system is “How will I benefit from this?” there is little place for educational initiatives like WAC-Maan’s program. However, quite a few Jewish schools are showing interest and the initiators believe that success will bring more into the program.

Arab schools are more open to the idea, perhaps because they are not inundated with extra-curricula options or perhaps because they are less achievement-oriented. There could be various reasons, but in any case the program requires partners among Jewish schools. There is also an imbalance in the hours dedicated to the program – the Arab schools hold weekly meetings, but the Jewish schools have no time for more than a separate meeting once or twice a month.

At present, in addition to Reineh and Hakfar Hayarok, the Youth for Social Change program is running for the second year in the Yafia high school. In this school year the program will also be held in Haifa’s technical high school (Bosmat), the democratic school in Hadera, and the Terra Santa High School in Jaffa.

The youth arrive with all sorts of prejudices. The Arab youth fear they won’t be accepted or be allowed to speak, that they’ll have to adapt themselves, or that the Jews know better than they do. The Jewish youth fear that if they go to an Arab village, they’ll be killed. “The Jewish youth think the Arabs are terrorists,” says Zoabi. “The Arabs think Jews of their age have no problems, that as they were born in a Jewish state their lives must be ‘honey’. Suddenly they learn that Jews too are squashed into classes of 40 pupils just like Arabs, or they unexpectedly hear a Jewish pupil express a ‘backward’ opinion that he is against his mother working.”

“I want to know how the Jews live,” a student from Reineh says before the meeting, “even though I am sure they have everything and that their lives are perfect.”

“Just before the first meeting between the Haifa school and the Yafia school, Operation Pillar of Defense began,” says Yoav Tamir who coordinated the meeting. “The parents were worried, and some children said they would not go unless they had army escort. We weren’t sure what to do. In the end we decided not to put the students in such a difficult position and postponed the meeting. Eventually the meeting took place about a fortnight later. The students returned very happy, and continually asked me when there’d be another meeting.”

Some of the mutual suspicion is the result of previous disappointing attempts at such meetings. “What we have in common is racism on both sides,” said Karawan Maryena. “I expect that everyone will stick to his position.”

“I have taken part in meetings between Arabs and Jews in the past,” said Arawa. “I don’t think it gave me much, it wasn’t really justifiable. In one meeting we had to teach the Jewish youth Debka [folk dance] and Arabic songs, or well-known eastern dishes. I don’t understand why such meetings are important.”

Du’a added, “I took part in a Jewish-Arab meeting and there was a lot of tension, there was shouting and heated debates.”

Subhiya, on the other hand, said “I’m actually interested in hearing what they think of us, and seeing if we have something in common.”

Since the beginning of the 90s, the school at Neve Shalom has run a broad program of meetings between Arab and Jewish youth. The program began during the Olso Accords, and since then tens of thousands of young people have taken part. In the years following the second intifada in 2000, the program gradually reached a dead end. In his article “New concepts for Arab-Jewish youth meetings” (17 Dec. 2012), Ben Simhon analyzes the reasons for this, {http://www.wac-maan.org.il/en/article__182/wac_initiates_a_new_platform_for_dialogue_on_social_change|A New Platform }. “One of the declared aims of the meeting was to sharpen the national identity, different for each side, as a condition for a meeting between equals. Each side had to say what it feels, while the other participants had to ‘face the blame’ and listen patiently. In the optimistic atmosphere of Oslo, it still worked. But since the intifada, this approach has encouraged a more extreme entrenchment and mutual blame. Another problem was the lack of continuity. In a concentrated workshop of two days in which participants are expected to undergo an accelerated process of awakening, the ability to build something in common, stage by stage, is lost… It must be said to their credit, however, says Ben Simhon, that the Neve Shalom School for Peace was among the only ones that continued to hold meetings despite the atmosphere of ‘there’s no partner’ which the Israeli leftwing adopted.”

dscf0887_smallIn the Hakfar Hayarok meeting (2 Feb.), questions of national identity are left aside, and fraternization takes place more rapidly that on Facebook. The students sit in small discussion groups. After a short conversation to get to know each other, they move on to meatier questions: Is there any point in demonstrating when the chances of success are so small? What would you do if the school decided to uproot trees? Such questions raise issues common to Jews and Arabs. Eli from Hakfar Hayarok thinks that protest is a waste of time. “If the school decides to uproot trees, there’s nothing that can be done.” Maya disagrees: “Remember there are others who are concerned about this and you can get together with them. Think what would have happened if the blacks in the US had thought they didn’t stand a chance.” Agbarieh-Zahalka offers them another point to consider – many whites also joined the struggle of the blacks. Eli isn’t convinced, and Hattem shares his view: “What if the school has good reason to uproot them? It’s just a few trees…” But Gil replies, “A few trees and a few more trees, and before you know it an entire nature reserve has disappeared.”

Later they discuss the issue of voting according to whom your parents vote for instead of the party you support. Ostensibly, this is an issue that concerns the Arab youth, an issue for self-reflection, but Gil joins in and says it’s an issue in all societies, that it’s logical for Sara Netanyahu to vote for her husband Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “She too must vote for the common good and not just for her own benefit,” says Monica from Reineh.

There was also a place for opinions which did not sit well with the aims of the meeting. On both sides there were those, particularly the young women, who supported the idea that housework is for women only; however, opinions were also expressed such as ‘men are unable to do housework,’ or ‘God made women for this, they do it better.’ Arawa agrees with the ‘traditional’ division of labor, with men going to work and women staying at home to care for the children and the home, but she says men must help. Fahem says half-jokingly, “If the woman doesn’t work, it’s logical that she does all the housework,” and adds that she personally wouldn’t allow a man to intervene in the housework.

Then a disagreement arises, but it soon becomes clear that it stems from a translation problem. Natalie says the man must share the burden of housework. Just as he eats and makes things dirty, so must he also cook and clean. But in the translation the word ‘share’ was rendered as ‘help’, and her words were understood to mean the opposite of what she had intended. Ali said he is indeed willing to help – he’ll fix the stove if it doesn’t work – and everyone laughed. When an internal discussion develops in one of the languages, Majdi Kadah, a tutor at Reineh, reminds them that everything they say is being translated.

At the beginning of the meeting, one student suggested they talk to each other in English. However, the discussion in the two languages, Hebrew and Arabic, is an important part of the program, granting equal respect to both. The leaders make sure all is translated, even when everybody understands Hebrew. “In the heat of the debate, one of the leaders forgot to translate, and the other stopped the conversation until what had been said had been translated,” Zoabi says. She speaks about a shy student from Reineh who hardly spoke even during the separate meetings in Arabic. “The translation encouraged him to speak and take part in the joint meeting,” she says. “If the debate had been conducted in Hebrew, he probably would not have participated. A mother tongue grants confidence, the ability to express oneself freely, and a status equal to all.”

The meeting draws to an end. There is a feeling that more time is needed. There are too few meetings, and time is short – and after getting through the traffic jams, there is even less time available. Nonetheless, they try to take advantage of all the time they have.

“Because of WAC-Maan’s meetings, I became interested in politics and in what’s going on around me, in the Arab world and all over the globe,” says Angela. “You can’t demand social justice and be indifferent to the occupation of another nation, justice must be universal,” says Yael. “These meetings showed me that there are people among the Jews who identify with us, and that we have many problems in common,” says Shams. “There was a good atmosphere,” Natalie notes. “Everyone laughed, I felt everyone was equal despite language differences and differences of opinion.”

dscf0895_small“The meetings prove that solidarity is possible, that what we have in common is greater than our differences,” says Ben Simhon. “Change is the result of a long process, but the very fact of holding meetings while such a racist atmosphere pervades the streets already generates significant change. Addressing social and economic issues which the educational system doesn’t touch is very important, and from the students’ point of view there is another advantage, in that they don’t need to be examined on this activity!”

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About Rachel Michaeli