ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Learning to Live Together

In the quiet following the Israeli-Arab conflict, dialogue workshops surface in an effort to improve relations between Arabs and Jews.

From the start of the Palestinian intifada in December 1987 until Israeli troops began withdrawing from Palestinian towns and cities in 1995, virtually the only Israelis that most Palestinians encountered were soldiers armed with tear gas and bullets. Israeli civilians, who once so eagerly explored the ancient West Bank hills, wadis, towns and villages cited in the Old Testament, stayed away, fearing attacks by stone-throwing Palestinians.

Yet these days, strolling through the peaceful streets of the Palestinian town of Nablus, it is tranquility, not violence, that comes to mind.

Although many residents of Nablus and other Palestinian towns still have serious grievances with Israel, particularly with regard to closures and severe travel restrictions, there is a glimmer of hope. Apartments and offices are under construction in Nablus, and the old city and its casbah, which once witnessed Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed, are bustling with shoppers. There is even a push to restore the old city’s picturesque Turkish baths in the hope of attracting tourists.

On this late spring day, however, a sure sign of hope may be found in a nondescript building near the city center. Here, in the modest office of the Palestinian Federation of Women’s Action Committees, a small group of Palestinian and Israeli young people, most in their 20’s, share their pain, their hopes and their dreams in a two-day workshop entitled “The Transformation of Suffering.”

Divided into groups of twos and threes, the participants are asked to recount one pleasant personal experience and one unpleasant one. The anecdotes, they are told, “may refer to anything except the conflict.” While many of the Israelis and Palestinians are able to recall meaningful events related to their families or friends, teachers or colleagues, a significant minority cannot seem to divorce their memory from the words “soldier,” “war,” “bombing” or “terrorist.” They recall incidents of harassment at checkpoints and describe how people they knew and loved had keen injured in shootouts or killed by fanatics.

The facilitators, Palestinians and Israelis who believe that dialogue is a key tool in the quest for a peaceful Middle East, sigh deeply and then offer encouragement and guidance. Despite deep wounds and painful memories, neither the workshop leaders nor the young participants appear discouraged.

“This is all part of the process,” says Israeli facilitator Marcia Kreisel in a reassuring tone. “It takes time to build communication and trust.”

Dr. Ron Kronish, Director of the Inter-religious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), an umbrella organization of more than 60 programs that promote interfaith cooperation among Christians, Jews and Muslims, agrees that the process toward reconciliation takes time.

“Dialogue and pluralism are not intrinsic to the neighborhood,” Dr. Kronish says with a smile. “The environment is less than fertile.”

Because people from different backgrounds have difficulty seeing things from the other’s perspective, he says, “communication is vital. As we move toward peace – and I think we are closer than we were five or ten years ago – there’s more need than ever for dialogue about the other.”

Dr. Kronish, an American who moved to Israel many years ago, says “he is aiming for the kind of coexistence he sees in the United States. There is a community relations model in the States that says you don’t have to love each other; rather, you have to respect each other and live together.”

In his interfaith work, Dr. Kronish and his partners try to abolish stereotypes. “Our theme is understanding each other. By meeting face to face, the participants learn about the range of identities in both communities.”

Citing ICCI workshops that enable Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel to get to know each other better, he says, “by talking to each other the participants learn that the other community is far from uniform. Jews begin to realize that Arab society is made up of secular and religious people, Christian and Muslim, modern and traditional. The Arabs take note of the differences between religious and secular, Sephardi and Ashkenazi [Jews of Spanish or Middle Eastern descent and Jews of European descent]. They learn that not all Jews or Muslims think the same thing.”

While it might be logical to assume that those who go out of their way to interactwith the “other camp” have shed their preconceived notions, “there are always some stereotypes to dispel,” acknowledges Rawda Basir, the Palestinian facilitator of the “Transformation of Suffering” workshop taking place in Nablus.

Ms. Basir, a Catholic Palestinian who spent eight years in an Israeli prison for what she describes as “nonviolent security offenses,” says that “for a very long time, Palestinians and Israelis kept very high emotional borders between them. Our goal is to cross these borders.”

Ms. Basir says her own inner healing began when she and other women prisoners went on a hunger strike and a group of Israeli women championed their cause. “I saw the Israeli women demonstrating on our behalf. I saw them supporting our struggle. From then on, I began to think that maybe we can accomplish something by working together.”

The workshop taking place in Nablus is an outgrowth of Ms. Basir’s vision.

While goodwill is essential to all successful coexistence work, she says, “Trust must be earned.” And that is the case here as well.

As much as the young people sitting in small groups obviously want to break down the boundaries, most appear wary at first. It is not easy for them to share personal anecdotes, in part because intimacy with strangers is difficult, and partly because they feel uncomfortable communicating in their only common language, English.

Gradually though, the ice begins to melt.

Once the participants have recounted their stories, Ms. Basir and Ms. Kreisel ask them to switch roles: “Now repeat each other’s anecdotes, this time imagining that it is your story.” When they inadvertently say “he” or “she” instead of “I,” the leaders gently correct them.

It is on a walking tour of Nablus, led by three of the young men in the group, that trust really begins to take hold.

Sounding very much like tour guides, the threesome proudly point out sites of local interest: an old church, a towering mosque, the open-air food market. For the Israelis, it is difficult to believe they are actually sightseeing in Nablus.

“I feel so safe,” says 26-year-old Sharon Peleg. “We’re walking around just like people anywhere in the world would walk with friends.”

In Israel, a similar breakthrough takes place during a morning visit between Jewish and Arab Israeli children in the Arab Israeli village of Ein Rafa, not far from Jerusalem.

Already acquainted with each other through two previous visits, the fifth-graders are taking part in a unique folklore project run by the Center for Creativity in Education and Cultural Heritage in Jerusalem. The six-year-old project, which is also helping children in the mixed Jewish and Arab city of Ramle, receives its backing from, among others, the Ministry of Education’s Unit for Democracy and Coexistence and the Abraham Fund, which grants nearly one million dollars annually to projects promoting coexistence within Israel.

The project, says Simon Lichman, Director of the Creativity Center, focuses simultaneously on three problem areas in Israeli society: cultural pluralism; the transmission of home culture between generations and coexistence between neighboring Arab and Jewish communities.

“By working on their own heritage rather than on the gap between communities, the children learn about each other’s cultures by experiencing their own,” Mr. Lichman says. “An atmosphere of pluralism is encouraged through the acceptance of differences between groups as well as the discovery of similarities. The children learn that diversity is interesting, and that what they have is interesting to others.”

The program appears to be working. Although it takes some time for the Jewish children, who are accompanied by their teacher and some parents, to feel at case with the Arab students on this hot day in May, soon they are interacting freely.

“When we started meeting, we didn’t know each other, but now we have friends here,” says 11-year-old Nitay, one of the Jewish students. “Before we started to get to know each other, I thought all Arabs were bad. All I knew about were the wars. And then there were the terrorist attacks, and I thought, It’s impossible to make peace with Arabs. Now that I know them, I realize the Arabs in Israel want peace as much as we do. Maybe they can help us make peace with other Arab countries.”

Muhammad, an 11-year-old from the nearby Arab village of Ein Naquf, says, “I really like coming here. I had Jewish friends before (the meetings) through the soccer league, but I wanted to make some more.”

Despite the success of this and dozens of other coexistence programs in the Holy Land – ranging from Physicians for Human Rights to the Jewish-Arab Center for Economic Development – a dearth of funding and the tense political climate are hurting some programs and preventing the creation of countless others.

Ms. Rachel Shilo, Executive Director of the Abraham Fund’s office in Israel, notes that there are more worthy ventures than money to sponsor them.

“Last year, we mailed out over 500 application forms, and 250 organizations actually applied. In all, they requested over five million dollars. Unfortunately, our budget is limited.”

The fund’s goal, says Ms. Shilo, “is to enable the Arab citizens of the State of Israel to live on equal terms with the Jewish citizens. To accomplish this, Jews must get to know this minority population and learn that all citizens are entitled to the same rights. They have to know that if Israel is to be strong, its people need to be equal.”

Ms. Shilo acknowledges that raising funds for Israeli-Arab projects is not easy: “Let’s face it: What we’re doing isn’t sexy.”

Unlike the coexistence movement within Israel, which is definitely gaining momentum, projects between Palestinians and Israelis are suffering from the stalled peace talks, say some activists.

According to Judith Green, a cofounder of the Rapprochement Center, the organization that organized the Nablus workshop, “it has never been more difficult to bring people together.”

The center, which organizes meetings between Jews and Arabs in the largely Christian Arab village of Beit Sahour, in predominantly Muslim Arab Nablus, and occasionally in Jerusalem, began operating in late 1987, right after the start of the intifada.

“Back in ‘92, ‘93, ‘94, even before the signing of the Oslo [peace] accord, our activities were really reciprocal,” says Ms. Green, an Israeli. “We would bring Palestinians to meet Israelis in synagogues and elsewhere, and Israelis would go to the West Bank.”

Ms. Green says that things began to deteriorate about two years ago, when, in reaction to Palestinian terrorist attacks, Israel began to impose extended closures on the West Bank and Gaza. The closures not only prevented Palestinians from working in Israel, but effectively put an end to Palestinian-Israeli dialogues within Israel itself.

“Since then, it has become almost impossible for us to get permits for Palestinians to enter Israel for our meetings, and that’s very bad,” Ms. Green says. “Our purpose is to bring together as many people as possible, from as many sectors of the population and different environments as possible.” Consequently, “there are only a very small number of Israelis willing to take part. They’re afraid to visit the (Palestinian) territories out of fear of encountering physical violence and they’re less relaxed. There’s an entirely different psychology which isn’t conducive to dialogue.”

Ms. Green and many others involved in coexistence work attribute the lack of progress in the peace process with creating a sense of apathy among many Palestinians and Israelis.

“During times of crisis – terrorist attacks, the tunnel opening last September, even the Hebron massacre – our meetings went on. Emotions ran very high, but we met. In the past few months, feelings of depression and helplessness have set in. There’s been a gradual loss of confidence that dialogue will lead to anything. The success of the workshop held in Nablus was pretty unusual.”

Natalie Rothman, spokeswoman of the organization Physicians for Human Rights, says that although the group has encountered some obstacles recently, their work continues. Almost all of the 200 physicians and nurses – the majority of them Israelis – who volunteer their services between one and four times per month to help Palestinian villagers continue to come, she says.

The problem, Ms. Rothman says, “isn’t with the volunteers, it’s with the media. I’ve been encountering more skepticism on the part of Israeli journalists who say that unless a story has blood in it, it’s not worth broadcasting. That’s a pity, because I think it’s important to get across the message that Israelis and Palestinians can work together as equals.”

Back in Ein Rafa, youngsters – the Jewish children virtually indistinguishable from the Arab ones – are asked to draw a set of two identical pictures. Some draw colorful birds, flowers, trees, peace signs. When instructed to do so, they place their pictures face down and proceed to mix them up. Caught up in the sheer fun of locating the matching pairs, the kids laugh and joke with each other.

Despite the Arab youngsters’ somewhat halting Hebrew (they study the language about four hours per week) and the Jewish children’s almost nonexistent command of Arabic (most do not study it in school), they find a way to communicate. By the time Mahdia Barhum, one of the Arab teachers, and Simon Lichman hand out jump ropes and soccer balls about an hour later, the only barrier left standing is the schoolyard fence.

“The [Arab] children wait for the days they can see the [Jewish] kids and Simon,” says Ms. Barhum. “There are several girls who talk on the phone with each other. Some meet, even though they live far from each other. Perhaps these exchanges will solve some of our problems.”

Michele Chabin is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem.

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