The experiences in the Face-to-Face/Faith-to-Faith Israeli-Palestinian group

Interview by Thilo Schöne

Alex Kusner and Maisa Zoabi coordinate and facilitate the Face-to-Face/Faith-to-Faith group of ICCI since January 2010. Alex is a 27-year old Jewish Israeli who holds a B.A. in social work from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is the graduate of several facilitator training workshops as well as a pre-military training program for social leadership. Maisa is a 25-year old Muslim Palestinian Israeli who holds a B.A. in Education and Chemistry as well as a Teacher’s Certificate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She has been guiding and tutoring youth for several years.

Each year for the past 7 years, ICCI recruits a group of 12-14 Jewish, Christian and Muslim youth to participate in a year-long dialogue and leadership program called Face to Face / Faith to Faith. The program includes attending a two-week summer intensive experience in the U.S., as part of a full, comprehensive year of dialogue and action projects in Jerusalem. This program is done in partnership with the Auburn Theological Seminary of New York and local groups in Northern Ireland, South Africa, and the U.S.A.

After the return of the teenagers from the summer intensive in July, I talked to Alex and Maisa about their experiences in the program.

After asking about her impressions, it was important for Alex to highlight the huge difference in the behavior of the Israeli and Palestinian participants in this program after the summer intensive experience. Most of them had for the first time in their life the chance to talk to the “other” all day long for two full weeks. They felt understood and were more able to identify the core of the issues.

According to Alex, the teenagers were much more forthright in engaging difficult topics and discussing them openly and honestly. The exchange with the youth from other conflict regions in the world—especially South Africa and Northern Ireland—gave them hope that there could be a peace agreement in their region as well.

She observed that the teenagers saw how coexistence is working, especially in Northern Ireland. In comparison to all the other regions, they got the feeling that their story is one story in many conflictual stories of the world. Most of them became better listeners than before. They noticed in one activity in which they were supposed to draw a time line of the conflict that their narratives do not match at all. It seems that this was a turning point, since it was the first time that their internal disagreements actually came to the surface.

Alex emphasized: “I, as a Jewish-Israeli, noticed how limited the audience of the Palestinians is, and because the chance that their voice is going to be heard is small, all of their thoughts, words and actions change in such a situation. As soon as our Palestinian teenagers felt that their opinions are respected and have the same quality for us as the Jewish opinions, they changed their attitude and opened themselves for real dialogue.”

Maisa has been facilitating such a group for the first time this year, but she participated already in dialogue seminars for several years. She expected from the program that people will learn more about the other side and especially how to listen, even though it may sometimes be painful.

She saw these goals as achieved: “There is this one Palestinian boy who felt that he had constantly to be the voice of the Palestinian people. He attacked the Jewish participants when they said something. In the camp he started to listen and to accept different narratives. I would never have believed that this change could actually occur in such a short time but it did happen and it made me happy.”

Maisa added that a key to understanding the behavior of some of the Palestinian Israelis is their position as a minority in Israel. This influences their way of thinking, since they tend to generally see themselves in the position of an underdog. It is really hard for Palestinian youth to open themselves up, to talk and to acknowledge the suffering of the other, because they fear if they leave their identity as a minority no one will care about their suffering anymore. That is why it is so important to create an atmosphere of trust and respect. Maisa observed: “I, as a Palestinian Israeli, also learned many things in the program. Not only did I learn to be patient, but I also heard many things about the suffering of the Palestinians in Jerusalem. I am from the north of Israel and we live together there. The Jews were my neighbors, not my enemy. It was a shock for me to encounter the real problems 14-year olds have to deal with in Jerusalem.”

In summary, both Alex and Maisa are happy that they have the opportunity to be facilitators in the summer intensive and in the Face to Face program throughout the year, and both want to go on with this program. They see a change in the teenagers’ behavior, which gives them hope that more changes will be possible during the second half of this program in the coming 4-5 months.

Changes in Jewish-Polish Relations

– An interview with Avigail Moshe by Thilo Schöne –

Today I had the opportunity to interview Avigail Moshe, Director of Youth and Young Adult Programs for ICCI, who spoke with me about her experiences in Jewish-Polish dialogue. The trigger for this interview was her recent trip to Poland with a group of participants in an ICCI course on the subject of Polish-Jewish Relations Today, which took place from July 22th until August 2nd.

Avigail studied Islam and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has much experience in Jewish-Polish relations. She has been working for several years as an educator and coordinator for trips to Poland for young Israeli students and has attended many programs which deal with Jewish-Polish relations. Although the roots of her family are in Ukraine, she developed a huge interest in Poland and studied about it on an academic level.

The participants in the course she has been coordinating during the last year for ICCI were mixed in age, personal background, gender, and religious attitudes. Some participants had a professional background in the field and already knew a lot about the topic but wanted to discover the new realities in Poland and get to know the subject better. Others wanted to get a deeper insight into their personal roots and to learn more about their heritage.

When asked what she thought about the program of the course, a collaboration between ICCI and the Polish Institute in Tel Aviv, and about the changes in the group she observed, she made many fascinating statements. One could see Avigail’s fascination with Poland in her eyes. It was really important to her that the participants of this program had come to realize that Poland has changed, and that some of them started acknowledging that the Polish people also suffered during World War II.

Avigail is always impressed on her trips to Poland – especially so during this most recent trip – with the fact how the Polish Catholic church has changed in recent years. Most priests do not accuse Jews of killing Jesus anymore and appear to have a better understanding of the Jewish elements in Christianity, leading to a better, more positive appreciation of Judaism. Many Polish priests are also engaged in activities revolving around the Jewish heritage of Poland and in preserving the memory of Jewish life in Poland and of course of the Shoah. Avigail was really touched by the story of a Polish priest who prays once a month in Treblinka, and by the other priests who regularly visit concentration camp sites to pray for the souls of Jewish victims. In contrast to conventional public opinion, she has not discovered anti-Semitism in modern Poland. She feels strongly that programs like the recent seminar in Poland contribute to changes in public opinion.

On her recent visit to Poland, Avigail had the unique opportunity to attend the ceremony on August 1st of the national commemoration day of the Polish Warsaw Uprising of 1944. She was very surprised when she heard a siren at 5 p.m., similar to the one everyone in Israel can hear on the Holocaust Memorial Day. However, despite some similarities between the commemoration in Israel and the one in Poland, the meaning of the day for Polish citizens on the street appeared to be different. Furthermore, the timing of the Memorial Day in Poland falls outside the framework of formal education (since it is during summer break). Thus, unlike in Israel, schools do not appear to be involved in maintaining and passing along this legacy of collective memory.

Upon entering a Polish Catholic graveyard, Avigail was touched to hear the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Rabbi Michael Schudrich, read Psalms in Hebrew. Such an experience, she thought, could only happen in Poland. Getting to know modern Poland and its Jewish heritage is an experience Avigail believes no Israeli should miss out on. She is determined to promote further progress in Jewish-Polish relations and hopes that more people will attend programs such as the course offered by ICCI and the Polish Institute.

AN EYE-OPENING DISCUSSION WITH MUSLIM WOMEN IN ABU GHOSH

On July 5th, I took a group of 35 North American Jews who were studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel on a study tour to the Israeli Arab town of Abu Ghosh to learn about ISLAM IN ISRAEL.

After our meeting with Issa Jaber, the director of education of the town (see blog posting), we walked to the community center for a session with women who have been undergoing training in women’s empowerment during the past few years.

Since the director of the community center, Haya Abdulrachman, was in the hospital with a broken leg, we met with four women who opened our eyes to issues confronting Israeli Arab women in a traditionally conservative town like this one.

The women, two of whom were wearing head coverings, shared with us some of the experiences that have enriched their lives and the lives of their families during the past few years since they have been participating in this empowerment program. First of all, they have been learning about women’s health issues. Many of the women in the town now go swimming once a week –for the first time in their lives and in the life of their town — at a nearby kibbutz swimming pool and others are learning to do other forms of physical exercise on a regular basis.

In addition, they spoke quite a bit about new developments in child-rearing. Many of the women—including the four women with whom we met — are now working outside of the home and are therefore developing new relationships with their children that are less authoritarian and more modern than in the past. As a result of this, they are giving their children more responsibility and they are discovering that they can be their friends.

The discussion in the room was electric. About half of the North American group was made up of women who asked many questions and were gratified by the honest and forthright answers of the Israeli Arab women, who seemed highly interested in sharing their experiences with this group. These Muslim women were seriously grappling with real-life daily issues of adapting to modern culture in an Israeli Arab town which is sociologically very “traditional”. It was fascinating to be able to engage them in a genuine dialogue about core issues in their identity as Palestinian Arab women living in Israel.

SEEING, HEARING AND WITNESSING PALESTINIAN ISRAELI NARRATIVES IN KAFR KASSEM

On July 12th, I took a group of rabbis from North America who were studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute on a study tour to two Israeli Arab towns. In the first town– Baka el Gharbiyah– we visited the Al Qasemi Academy (see previous blog posting). In the second town, the town of Kafr Kassem, we were guided through the town by Shahin Sarsour, an advisor to Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsour. Sheikh Sarsour was the former major of the town and is now an elected Member of Knesset, representing the United Arab List, the Israeli Arab political part connected with the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, with which I have been in contact and in dialogue for many years.

Sheikh Sarsour was supposed to be with us for the day, but he was called to be in the Knesset for some urgent discussions and votes! This is just one example of the fact that he—along with members of the other three Israeli Arab political parties who serve in the Knesset – are fully engaged with Israel’s democracy, as parliamentarians, with all the inherent difficulties of being part of the minority in this country.

In the absence of Sheikh Sarsour, we were fortunate to have the assistance of Shahin Sarsour with us all day, to answer so many of the questions raised by the rabbis on the study tour. As someone who had lived in northern California for 12 years and is now back in Kafr Kassem, he was both gracious and forthright in providing honest answers to all of our questions.

In Kafr Kassem, we met with the vice-mayor and members of his staff in the meeting room of the local council. They shared with us many of their problems, with a particular focus on how hard it is for Israeli Arabs to build homes, as compared with Jewish citizens of Israel. One of the most interesting parts of this discussion was that there were some major disagreements among the people from Kafr Kassem who spoke to us. Some of them tried to say that things were improving, especially under the leadership of the new Israeli Ministry for Minorities, headed by Professor Avishay Braverman (former president of Ben Gurion University and now a Member of Knesset with the Labor Party). And others said that the situation was not getting better at all, and was a result of long-term institutionalized discrimination, which is still going on to this day.

In addition to the discussion at the city council, we were also taken to see the Museum of the Martyrs (and we drove by the memorial in the center of the town). This museum commemorates the well-known massacre of 48 people from Kafr Kassem in October, 1956, on the eve of the Sinai War– in which Israel Border Patrol soldiers killed villagers who did not obey the curfew that was imposed upon them at that time.

We were guided by the director of the museum who told us repeatedly that the government of Israel has never really apologized for this massacre. Yet, on the bus ride back to Jerusalem, people on the bus looked up this story on Wikipedia and found that the border policemen who were involved in the shooting were brought to trial and found guilty and sentenced to prison terms. Two officers were sentenced to 17 and 15 years imprisonment, later reduced to 5 years, and served a short term. The case established a famous legal principle concerning the fact that security personnel must disobey illegal orders. Moreover, according to Wikipedia, in October 2006 schools around the country were instructed to observe the Kafr Kassem massacre and to reflect upon the need to disobey illegal orders. In December 2007, Shimon Peres, President of Israel, formally apologized for the massacre.

In short, what we learned from this experience is that the “double narrative” very much applied here, i.e. there is a Palestinian and an Israeli narrative to this incident, as there is to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a whole. The Palestinians usually lay the entire blame on Israel for what happened, and the Israelis do exactly the same thing, in reverse. Unfortunately, neither side usually listens sensitively to the pain of the other in this ongoing conflict. One of the main goals of this study tour— and of the work of ICCI in general—is to learn to listen to both meta-narratives –and the many sub-narratives that come up on both sides—in order to develop greater understanding and more empathy with the other.

Another view of Islam in Israel—a visit to Al Qasemi Academy

On July 12th, 2010, I took a group of  35 North American rabbis who were studying at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem this summer on a visit to Al Qasemi Academy in the Israeli Arab town of Baka El Gharbiyah, in the Triangle area of Central Israel. We met with various people from the administration and faculty of this unique teacher-training college, the only one in Israel that exists in an Israeli Arab town.

I have visited the Al Qasemi Academy many times during the past 19 years, and am well aware of their special approach to teacher-training, but this was the first opportunity to be exposed to such a modern and progressive approach to education among Arabs in Israel for most of the rabbis from abroad (the group included Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox rabbis).

According to Mr. Owni Manasreh, one  of 11 faculty members who teaches Islamic Studies at the college, the lecturers at this institution are teaching the kind of Islam which will offer their students answers to the extremists. He views Islamic fundamentalist extremism as a serious danger to humanity, and he is interpreting Islam – based on the Koran, the Hadith and other sources—in ways that are open and pluralistic. Moreover, he and his colleagues are struggling intensively with issues of modernity. “We teach our students the positive aspects of Islam and we enable them to handle questions of the twenty-first century,” he told the rabbis.

In addition Mr. Manasreh, explained about the Sufi movement, of which he is a member. In this region, the Sufi movement is about 100 years old. Not only do they make people closer to God, but they focus on many aspects of everyday life. In this way, Sufi teachings are highly relevant to the real lives of the students at this college.

We also heard from Ms. Amani Makaldi and Mr. Wassim Yunis, of the Public Relations Department of Al Qasemi. They told us that 95% of the students at the college are women. More and more women in the Arab sector in Israel are going into education, but they can’t all find jobs.  The college treats them with utmost respect, encouraging Muslim religiosity without forcing it upon any one. Moreover, they are also teaching education courses in “critical thinking” which is a way for them to enable their teachers-in-training to cope more reasonably with the modern world in which they live, albeit, in a traditionally conservative community.

Furthermore, we learned that the Al Qasemi Academy seeks to become the first Israeli Arab university in the state of Israel. Based on their excellent beginnings and their serious educational and organizational strategic planning, it seems to me that this dream could certainly become a reality in the not too distant future.  They have the will, the drive, the knowledge and the commitment to make this happen.

All of the visiting rabbis came away with a positive impression of the efforts of this very special institution of higher education in Israel in training members of the Arab community in Israel towards improving the future of education in their schools and communities.  Most of them had no idea that such an institution exists in Israeli society.

For more about the Al Qasemi Academy, see their website at http://www.qsm.ac.il/

AN AMAZING ART GALLERY IN AN ISRAELI ARAB TOWN

On July 8th, I took a group of students from abroad to visit an amazing art gallery in an Israeli Arab town, which is famous—or infamous—for its “Islamic extremism” in this country. The town of Umm el-Fahem which is the largest Israeli Arab Muslim  town in Israel, is situated in the Vadi Ara section of Israel, an area that saw a lot of rioting in October 2000, at the beginning of the second intifada. It is known in the Israeli media as the home of Shiekh Ra’ed Sallah, the leader of the northern wing of the Islamic Movement in Israel, who just began another jail sentence (for 5 months) for attacking an Israeli policeman, and who was in the flotilla which tried to break the Israeli blockage of Gaza a few months ago.

Very few Jews go to Umm el-Fahem. It is perceived to be a hotbed of anti-Israel sentiment and of potential violence.  Yet, I had absolutely no problem in bringing a group of Jewish and Christian students from abroad who were studying with me in a course on COEXISTENCE this summer at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University, to see first-hand this unique and impressive gallery in this quiet and peaceful town.

We were warmly welcomed there by Lilli Stern, who works in Resource Development and is an eloquent spokesperson in the wonderful art gallery called  The Umm el-Fahem Art Gallery (www.ummelfahemgallery.org ), founded by Said Abu Shakra, with the blessings of the municipality of Umm el-Fahem and with support from Israel’s Ministry of Education.   The idea of this gallery is to create a space where people can meet and have a cultural exchange. It is also a home for Palestinian artists from Israel and the territories. They host 3-4 major exhibits a year, and the current exhibit by Abed Abdi (a Palestinian artist from Haifa) which is beautiful and inspiring, is accompanied by a beautiful catalogue in Hebrew, Arabic and English, which I purchased for our ICCI library.

In addition, much community work is done in this beautiful space. Children from villages in the area come and meet artists, and there are activities here for youth at risk and for women’s empowerment. In addition, they do some wonderful special projects, such as a ceramics symposium, which got a lot of attention from Jews and Arabs in the area.

The sponsors of the museum are now dreaming (and fundraising) to build a full museum of contemporary art in this city, which would represent the first art museum in an Arab village in Israel! As a first-time visitor to this oasis of coexistence in the middle of Israel, I can only say that I hope that they succeed in this ambitious project.

If you haven’t visited the gallery in Umm el-Fahem yet, I urge you to do so. You will be treated to a very special educational and cultural experience, as were my students this summer.