Israel institute seeks to connect religious, secular Jews

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After spending nearly 50 years building bonds between Israel's Jews and Arabs, the Givat Haviva Institute has turned its attention to frayed relations among Jews.

"There is such a separation. No one knows each other," said Marcia Kannry, national outreach director for the institute's supporting foundation in the United States.

Ever since Orthodox Jew Yigal Amir assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin last November, Israelis have seen a social rift widening between religious and secular Jews. In response, organizations such as Givat Haviva are hoping their conflict-resolution programs can create a sense of harmony.

Youngsters first encounter barriers between religious and secular communities early in life, Kannry said. Separate school systems set up for religious and secular Israelis reinforce differences.

"This separate system produces myths and innuendoes about the `other' over there," said Kannry, who recently visited San Francisco to raise money for Givat Haviva.

Secular Jews believe their religious counterparts shirk mandatory army service and embody "power gone berserk based on biblical interpretation," Kannry said.

Meanwhile, religious Jews view their nonobservant counterparts as "people without values, hedonistic, materialistic without ideology," said Avshalom "Abu" Vilan, a co-founder of Israel's Peace Now organization who accompanied Kannry to San Francisco.

Givat Haviva leaders are not suggesting that the two education systems merge in order to alleviate tensions, however.

"The religious people have the full right to their own schools," said Vilan, who is also secretary general of the Kibbutz Artzi Federation, one of three umbrella groups for Israel's kibbutzim.

Instead, Kannry said, Jews from both sides of Israeli society could come together, talk and learn about each other. They could begin having such dialogues while in their early teens, before their belief systems are fully cemented.

"As I respect them, I want them to respect me," Vilan said of Jews whose lifestyle differs from his own.

In December, Givat Haviva sponsored an all-day session that brought together nonreligious and Orthodox Jewish educators as well as Muslim teachers. Now the institute is seeking funds with which to launch conflict-resolution groups involving 100 to 200 Jewish high school students.

Vilan noted that these groups might come together more harmoniously than Jews and Arabs who share with each other neither a culture, a language nor religious practices. But Kannry dismissed the suggestion that Jewish interactions would automatically be easier.

"We don't know," she said. "We have to see."

Despite efforts to bring Jews together, Givat Haviva is still best known for sponsoring grassroots Jewish-Arab tete-a-tetes.

Each year, about 50,000 Israeli Jews and Arabs visit Givat Haviva's 50-acre center halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. The institute, which is Israel's oldest and largest conflict-resolution center, uses art projects, one-on-one dialogues and classes about culture to break down stereotypes.

It also teaches Arabs about the Holocaust, economic development and democracy.

Since 1993, the institute has won two awards: the Israel Education Prize and the Chairman of the Knesset Award for Improving the Quality of Life in Israel.

Still, Givat Haviva has its limits. Asked whether the institute would ever reach out to Hamas sympathizers, Kannry and Vilan immediately rejected the notion.

"We are very dangerous to Hamas; we talk of understanding," Vilan said. "Who are Hamas? They believe Israel has to be just a space for the Muslims."

Added Kannry, "We have to be pragmatic. Conflict resolution can only exist when people are ready to say, `We can listen.'"