Jewish and Arab boys and their fathers having fun together . . .

At 11 one morning, I returned home to discover that my house had been broken into. Judging by the cigarette butts on the patio, more than one person had helped to rip out the wooden shutter and prise open the door. Soon I heard of other burglaries in the neighborhood, even a hold-up at the post office. One neighbor confided that she suspected the Arabs who cruise the neighborhood regularly calling for used appliances, the “alte zachen”. Another called out while he was cutting his hedge: “I am sure the Sudanese migrants broke into your home. You know, they are living near the cinema. There are about twenty of them in a flat there. They can’t work, so they steal.”

In answer, I said firmly that I had no reason to suspect such people as I had worked for some years to rehabilitate young offenders, who were mostly Jewish. One Jewish 16 year-old had broken into 18 premises one summer holiday before the police caught him. His mother's boyfriend sent him on missions to steal anything that could generate money for his drugs. But of course it is easier for people to blame the non-Jews in our midst, the stereotypical Arab and the stereotypical migrant, the “Other,” and not to admit that our own people are capable of such deeds. Especially if we do not really know these “Others” and sensationalist headlines in the media shape our opinions of them.

As soon as we get to know such people personally, and learn about their lives, their hopes and fears, we understand that they are humans just like us. As soon as we learn their names, take an interest in them as people, and engage in respectful dialogue with them, we discover their warmth and kindness. As soon as we meet them on an equal footing, eye to eye, we can also develop meaningful friendships.

One small nonprofit organization in Israel, “A New Way,” works in secular Jewish and Arab schools building such friendships between Israel's children, their parents and their teachers, in the hope of ultimately promoting peaceful co-existence and democracy. Although Israel’s population practices many different religions, Israel’s schools are mostly segregated - Arab schools for the Arab population, Jewish schools for the Jewish population, Christian schools for Christians, some Jewish schools with Arab students, and some Christian schools with Moslem students. Most Jews do not speak Arabic, do not understand Arabs, and stereotype them negatively. And Arabs, who do mostly speak Hebrew, similarly stereotype the Jews, again negatively.

I joined some 70  fourteen year-olds, as well as their parents, their siblings  and teachers, who gathered on a Friday morning at the A'hd school for scientific excellence in the Bedouin town of Hura  in the desert near Arad. Half of this group comprised Bedouin from the region, and the other half were from families who had moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union and now live in the Tel Aviv area. The immigrant children all attend the Shevah Mofet regional middle school, not far from Tel Aviv’s central bus station. The two groups, who greeted each other as old friends, could not have been more different.

All the Bedouin girls covered their hair with tightly wrapped scarves, and their bodies in long dresses or  long tunics over trousers. The girls from Tel Aviv, in contrast, displayed their hair and much more besides, through body-clinging jeans and tops.

“We were frightened when we first visited the Arab school,” admitted Tali, a student in the Tel Aviv school, who lives in Ramat Gan and does not speak Arabic. “And they were also frightened of us. The program is a good experience, and fun.” Samira, who attends the school at Hura and lives in the Bedouin town of Rahat, told me that she hopes to study math and computers at university and then engage in research work at the Weizmann Institute of Science or Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

The class that I joined was bright and decorated. I could not read the Arabic calligraphy on the walls but I could understand the algebraic formulae. Instead of a mathematics lesson, parents and children told each other about their hobbies, their week-end activities and their favorite foods. Then they played a sort of "musical chairs". Each time the music stopped, they all climbed on to a chair and stood on it, but there was one chair missing and the person without a chair had to stand on the same chair as someone else or leave the game. Each time the music stopped another chair was removed. As hardly any chairs remained, the most agile children remaining in the game huddled together and clung on to each other. They helped each other to stay in the game and laughed. At the end of the game, everyone shared a superb spread of food which the parents had brought. The stuffed vine leaves were the best I have ever tasted.

The friendship program runs in 22 pairs of schools and includes multiple meetings throughout the academic year. Separate introductory meetings for students, staff and parents explore opinions and attitudes, expectations and concerns, to prepare the ground for a series of cross-cultural encounters. Then the children meet each other in joint sessions, outdoors and indoors, in structured activities, using games, music, art and theater. They visit each other’s places of worship and schools. At the end of the year they take part in separate feedback sessions and speak honestly about their impressions.

. . . and Jewish and Arab girls and their mothers do the same

“In my long career as a teacher of civics and history, I have taught many classes about the Jewish-Arab conflict and I am used to the prejudices and stereotypes," one of the teachers told me. "The positive effects of this project are genuinely transformative." Children and parents also summed up the project: Drushbar, in Arabic, Haverut, in Hebrew, friendship. Sadaha, namshikh, keep going. Tikva, amal, hope. Other popular words included ‘interesting’, ‘thanks’, and bilingual slang, kef and sababa, conveying enjoyment.

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Michele Klein

Michele Klein was born in London, UK, grew up in Geneva, Switzerland, gained a B.Sc in Psychology from University College London, a Certificate of Education from the University of Cambridge, and a ...

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