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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Children’s Art for Peace

A children’s art exhibit in New York works toward improving Jewish-Arab relations in the Middle East.

My first impression was of dazzling color – brilliant reds, yellows, greens – radiating from the pristine walls of a Manhattan art gallery. Then I saw the pervasive longing for peace, sometimes implied, more often expressed, in the drawings and paintings of Israeli children.

The occasion was the New York opening of “Children’s Art For Peace,” an exhibit of paintings and drawings by young Arab and Jewish artists from the Givat Haviva Institute in Israel.

Nestled in the Sharon Valley, halfway between Haifa and Tel Aviv, Givat HavivaInstitute is the largest and oldest organization in Israel working for Jewish-Arab rapport in that troubled land. Established in 1949, the Institute brings together 40,000 Jews and Arabs each year to study Jewish-Arab relations, Middle Eastern politics and history, Zionism, the Holocaust, kibbutz life and the Hebrew and Arabic languages.

One of its most promising activities is “Children’s Art for Peace,” an after-school program that offers talented Arab and Jewish seventh and eighth graders a year or more of serious art study. Participants are chosen for their artistic ability. The children submit art samples to the faculties of their individual schools, who in turn send the best portfolios to Givat Haviva. Faculty at the institute then choose students for the program. The names of the children are not known at that time.

Once they have been admitted to the program, youngsters come to the Givat Haviva Art Center once a week throughout the academic year for three-hour classes. After leaving the program, students may continue their art studies for an additional year at a campus high school.

According to a Givat Haviva spokesman, the Art Center is one of the few institutions in Israel where young Arab students can receive formal art lessons, because most Arab schools do not have the resources to provide art education, even at the senior high school level.

In the “Art for Peace” program, youngsters learned from two gifted instructors, Fadia Korbi, a young Arab-Israeli schoolteacher, and David Koren, a Jewish instructor. Samples of their pupils’ work were incorporated into an exhibit that opened in Washington D.C. in March 1991 and is still touring the United States and Canada.

The often wistful ouvre of the youthful artists included in this exhibit reveals a diversity of talent. Technically outstanding are sketches by two Jewish students from Kibbutz Ein Shemer: a drawing by Hagit Riftin of a mare and her nursing colt, and another by Arman Lotan showing a hand holding a rose in front of a dented car.

At least two paintings depict violence and war. One, especially disturbing, includes fragments of people – a face, an arm – in a junkpile. The other shows two trucks in a head-on collision, replete with bombs and explosions. The soul of a dead person is shown as an angel rising toward heaven. In a third picture, a spigot has been inserted into a globe, from which flow drops of blood.

Clearly, artwork such as this suggests that children in Israel have been damaged by the violence and tension between Arabs and Jews. When asked to comment, David Koren said, “Yes, due to the circumstances it’s inevitable sometimes.”

But it is the cry for peace that catches the heart. Amna Marii, an Arab student from Arara village, wrote “I don’t like war” across an abstract background. Tat Gruag, a Jewish youngster from Kibbutz Ma’anit, painted a dove with an olive branch in its mouth, flying through the skies. On its back an Arab and a Jew are riding.

The picture to which most people are drawn, however, is one by Suad Mohmud Yunis, also of Arara village. Suad has drawn a jolly lion and a smiling lamb, sitting on their haunches like begging dogs, happily shaking hands. Beside them is a tank. Flowers protrude from its turret and gun, and a smiling sun beams over all. Across the top of the painting is an olive branch and a banner held by two white doves, on which is written, “We wont peas [We want peace]” in English and Arabic. Let’s not comment on Suad’s English spelling; his philosophy is sound.

Clearly, “Children’s Art for Peace,” now in its sixth year, has had an impact on the children who participate. How do they feel about their experience? An American visitor asked this question of several Arab and Jewish youngsters.

One Jewish child responded, “I don’t have a problem working with Arabs. I saw most of the Arab paintings dealt with peace.” Another commented, “I thought there wasn’t place for fear…I found sometimes, in class, we spoke Hebrew with Arabic accents.”

Ibrahim, a 14-year-old Arab boy, stated, “The program is good. It is the first opportunity I have had to paint. I don’t find it difficult to work next to Jewish Israelis – I feel good about it.” Another Arab student added, “I have the opportunity to develop freedom to paint and have a hobby. I feel good. I think Israeli Jews are friendly and I try to speak with them.” Her friend concurred: “I feel Jewish Israelis also want to be friendly.”

Several Jewish children expressed a desire to learn Arabic to enhance their communication, and one expressed surprise at the fluency of the Arab children in speaking Hebrew. Unfortunately, the children tended to speak their own languages much of the time.

Several youngsters, both Arab and Jewish, indicated there had been tension at the outset, and a few unpleasant incidents did occur. As a result, some participants dropped out. Those who persevered, however, agreed that they had benefited. A Jewish student remarked, “I’m more comfortable working with the Arab students after a period of time.” An Arab observed, “Arabs and Jews have here the chance to make relations with each other which doesn’t exist outside the program.”

Do the participants feel “Children’s Art for Peace” will help to break down barriers between the two communities? Dana, a 14-year-old Jewish student, said it best: “All projects with Israeli Arabs are important. Even if we don’t get closer, it’s still important. Maybe things don’t happen the first year, but it’s something to build on.”

Can Arabs and Jews coexist as equals in Israel? The children were not able to address this question, but David Koren did. “I don’t think there is any other choice,” he asserted. “From Israel’s point of view, it has to happen.”

Peg Maron is the production editor of Catholic Near East.

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