Visitors from JCF find hints of Jewish-Arab coexistence

HAIFA — As a rule, Evan Goodman doesn't dance.

The rabbi of San Francisco's Congregation Beth Israel-Judea will sing, but when it comes to anything involving moving body parts and music, forget it.

Yet last week, when a troupe of Lebanese Arab and Israeli Jewish children pulled him onto the dance floor to the tune of "Od Yavo Shalom" — with an Arabic verse unknown to the group — the non-bopping rabbi couldn't refuse.

"The most moving part of the trip for me was hearing that chorus of Jewish and Lebanese kids singing together," he said. "My eyes filled with tears as I listened to them singing these songs of peace in Hebrew and Arabic. After everything they've gone through, if they can still have hope, then we've got to have hope, too."

Goodman's sentiments seemed to sum up those of the 37 Bay Area participants on the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's solidarity mission to Israel. The group spent the better part of a day last week visiting Jewish-Arab coexistence projects funded by the JCF's overseas committee.

During the highly emotional scene, the visitors heard from people whose lives have been impacted by the recent outbreak of violence, not only in the West Bank and Gaza Strip but within Israel as well.

While some participants felt outright despair from what they saw and heard, most came away believing the instances of coexistence they witnessed served as small beacons of hope, even if they were tiny in comparison to the bigger picture.

As the group had already heard, the fact that Israeli Arabs were involved in recent rioting made an incredibly tense situation even worse.

Erez Kreisler, mayor of the Misgav region in the lower Galilee, which includes 10,000 Jews and 5,000 Bedouins spread out among 34 villages, expressed his frustration. "Lots of people speak about coexistence. It's a very sexy issue," he said. "But few people actually do it."

Jews who choose to live as the minority in the predominantly Arab Galilee had come a long way in establishing good relations with their Arab neighbors, he said. All the more reason why Kreisler was so angry that residents of Arab villages nearby were so willing to participate in the riots.

The Bedouins remained quiet, he said, stuck between a rock and a hard place, caught between their Arab identity and loyalty to Israel.

The disappointment in his voice was palpable as he cited more than 200 incidents in the area — including stone-throwing, tire-burning and Molotov cocktails.

"They set fires around our villages," he said. "What did you want to tell us? When you set a fire near my house, it tells me that we shouldn't be here.

"We extended our hand and now they've slapped our faces."

The mayor's talk had a great effect on Bette Hootnick of Palo Alto, who said that while she came to Israel with no preconceived notions, based on what she heard, she was quite pessimistic.

"These are people who have devoted themselves to Arab-Jewish dialogue and coexistence," she said. "Their hopes were dashed."

Hootnick echoed one of the speakers who said the Israeli Arabs had not shown any leadership in mending relations. "I'm a people person," she said, "but I don't see any hope for coexistence. I wish I could be more positive."

A visit to the Bilingual School in the Galilee seemed to provide visitors with perhaps the greatest example that in spite of recent events, coexistence is still possible.

Now in its third year of operation, the Bilingual School educates 84 children from surrounding Jewish and Arab villages in three grades, first through third. There are two principals, one Arab and one Jewish, and in each classroom, there is an Arab and a Jewish teacher. All the children are taught in both languages. There are two other bilingual schools, one in Jerusalem and one in Jaffa.

A quick view of a classroom in the Galilee did indeed show the Arab and Jewish children speaking each other's languages, practically unheard of in Israel.

The school also brings the parents of the children together, to get to know one another. "The parents cannot stay behind the children," said the Jewish principal, Tami Dumai.

Two parents addressed the group, one Jewish, one Arab, and made the point that "to identify yourself correctly, you have to know others."

While Marti Sands-Weinstein of Redwood Shores, who was on her first trip to Israel, expressed profound sadness at all of the suffering she had witnessed, the Bilingual School gave her the most hope.

"Hatred must truly be learned," she said. In the Bilingual School, "you saw Arab and Jewish children playing, laughing, doing art and listening to one another as if they were beloved brothers and sisters. No one had taught them yet to hate one another."

Also in Misgav, the group visited a Bedouin community center housed in a trailer, learning of the plight of the Bedouins as well as cooperative efforts between the Bedouin and Jewish communities.

During a visit to Haifa on Nov. 29, the group stopped by the office of an organization called Yedid, which reaches out to all minority populations in Israel, including Haifa's large Arab population and poor immigrants. Participants also visited an Arab community center.

Haifa was held up as a model of coexistence because of its large Arab population. While Haifa's Arabs did demonstrate against Israel when the rioting began, they were nonviolent and remained so — largely because, the group was told, Mayor Amram Mitzna told the police not to interfere.

In a talk with the group that night at dinner, Mitzna called his city — which is partnered with San Francisco — "a microcosm of the state of Israel," and said that it functions as a "mirror to what's going on in Israel."

Mitzna spoke of the necessity for Israel's Arab citizens to obtain full equality.

"We must digest the idea that Arab citizens are equal, not with slogans, not by law, but really day to day," he said. "Many Israeli Jews take a patronizing attitude toward them."

Furthermore, he said, Israelis should not be surprised that Israeli Arabs identify so strongly with their Palestinian counterparts across the Green Line.

"We, the majority, have the responsibility to make sure they don't feel like second-class citizens."

The following morning, Nov. 30, the chancellor of the University of Haifa and founder of its Jewish-Arab Center there, Eliezer Rafaeli, said he had reason to be proud. In a country in which Arabs make up 20 percent of the population, the proportion of Arab students at the university is 23 percent, and that is without preferential acceptance, he noted. His deputy is a Muslim Arab, as are many faculty members. And in a sign of the times, he said, more Arab women are enrolled than men.

"We don't have a Garden of Eden," he said. "We have arguments and demonstrations. But day in and day out, you feel an atmosphere of the possible."

Shari Freedman of San Francisco was deeply moved by Rafaeli. "I was so lifted up by how pragmatic his approach was," she said. "He has been in this field for 20 or 30 years, and you could see it from his experience."

Mark Bernstein of San Francisco said he felt he had come at a "seminal moment for Israel" in terms of its Jewish-Arab relations.

The recent unrest, Bernstein said, will force Israel to improve the situation for its Arab minority. "I'm optimistic that an issue that hasn't been a priority will move forward, and I hope that the San Francisco community will continue to help improve it.

Joyce Rifkind of San Rafael also sounded hopeful. "I came here somewhat pessimistic," she said. "But now I feel so much more optimistic. We've seen living examples of coexistence, and the coming generations will learn to live together in peace."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."