Playground project builds Arab-Jewish friendships in Israeli Old City of Akko

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Arab and Jewish youngsters in Israel came together to build a playground in a poor Arab neighborhood in the Old City of Akko recently, thanks to a $10,000 grant from the Abraham Fund of Berkeley's Middle East Children's Alliance (MECA).

Thirty youths aged 8 to 15 constructed the playground for the Al-Sindiana Association Nursery, a kindergarten that serves poor children. It is the only facility of its kind in the area.

Representatives from the Movement of Democratic Women in Israel (TANDI) helped the Berkeley group start the playground project. Founded in 1948 as a branch of the World Federation of Democratic Women, TANDI's membership comprises Jewish and Arab Israeli women who seek equal rights for women and children.

Middle East Children's Alliance (MECA) promotes Jewish understanding of Palestinian issues. The group's special events coordinator, Penny Rosenwasser, said the project's goal was to "build the [playground] and also to bring these groups together, to have dialogue."

While the equipment manufacturer assembled the actual play structure, youthful volunteers cleared and cleaned the area, gave surrounding walls a fresh coat of paint and then adorned those walls with murals. Such work was difficult and important, but it was only part of the plan. The Jewish and Arab youngsters engaged in many activities together, sharing stories, experiences, cultural expressions and personal perspectives. They visited a Palestinian family's home, toured the Old City and took a boat ride.

That visit to the Palestinian home was the first time some of the Jewish children had ever visited an Arab family, Rosenwasser noted.

The youngsters and their families as well as Akko residents and members of a local kibbutz on which some of the project's participants live attended a cultural program that featured a Palestinian dance troupe and a Palestinian singer performing songs in Arabic and Hebrew. A well-known Palestinian actor presented skits in Hebrew and Arabic.

"This was the first time some of these Jewish families had socialized with their Arab neighbors," said Rosenwasser.

U.C. Davis graduate student and MECA volunteer Estie Neuwirth was in Israel during the playground project and volunteered to pitch in.

"It was really inspiring and moving," she said. "What was accomplished in Akko should serve as a model for other communities in Israel."

MECA achieved its goal of bringing the two communities together for an open dialogue, Rosenwasser said, having fostered "an ongoing experience of peaceful coexistence.

"The kibbutz invited [students from] the kindergarten to visit. They said, `We've been to you, now you should come to us.'"

TANDI coordinator Chaya Shalom said she was "quite amazed with the success. It really exceeded my expectations. There were real friendships created between Jews and Arabs."

Ironically, Shalom said the only conflicts that arose between the youngsters were not between Arabs and Jews, but between kibbutzniks and urban Israelis.

Israel's large-circulation Arabic daily, Al-Itihad, covered the project, as did the national Arabic radio station and local Arabic and Hebrew newspapers. Israeli television's Channel Two has also considered covering the story.

While this is the first project completed in MECA's "Playgrounds for Peace" program, three other projects are in the works — one in the West Bank's Al Bireh and another in Nablus, Gaza.

MECA is also applying for another Abraham Fund grant with which to construct a playground in Lod or West Jerusalem.