Israeli-born Palestinian Ulfat Haider is the program director of the Beit HaGefen Center. (Photo/Courtesy Beit HaGefen)
Israeli-born Palestinian Ulfat Haider is the program director of the Beit HaGefen Center. (Photo/Courtesy Beit HaGefen)

Meet the Jewish-Arab team that pitches coexistence in Israel

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Breaking down mistrust between Jews and Arabs who live in Israel might sound like a daunting mission, but it’s one that Asaf Ron and his colleagues at the Haifa-based Beit HaGefen Center take to the streets every day.

The CEO of Beit HaGefen, Ron will speak at four Bay Area Jewish institutions about his experiences building cultural and social bridges between Arabs and Jews. Ron, who is Jewish, will be joined by Israeli-born Palestinian Ulfat Haider, program director of Beit HaGefen, for the talks, presented by Lehrhaus Judaica from Nov. 14 to 20.

Their message focuses on creating understanding between two peoples who live on the same land but often harbor negative stereotypes of one another. Steering clear of politics, they seek to get ordinary folks to understand the culture and history of their neighbors.

“Our lectures are about the hopes and challenges of building a shared society in Israel,” Ron said via phone from Haifa, a sister city of San Francisco since 1973. “The biggest challenge is building trust and reducing fear. If we can reduce the fear, then we are achieving our goals.”

Established in 1963, Beit HaGefen conducts workshops in which Jews and Arabs engage in positive face-to-face dialogue. The center’s aim is to prepare Israel’s Jews and Arabs for the day that political leaders take steps toward peace.

”If you sign a peace agreement tomorrow, the people are still not ready to meet each other,” Ron said. “So we are doing the work from the bottom up with the people, but we are also doing the work from the top down with the religious leaders, the municipality and the police about cultural traits and how to behave with each other.”

Beit HaGefen is home to the Alkarma Theater, an old Arab theater in Haifa that brings plays to the general Arab public and serves as a cultural bridge to the Jewish population.

Jews and Arabs know each other, but we don’t meet each other.

Last May, the theater staged “Return to Haifa,” story about Palestinian and Jewish lives in 1948-49 Arab-Israeli War.

“The hall was full of Jews and Arabs who were watching and touched together by both narratives,” Ron said. “The feedback was amazing and the audience was moved by both stories.”

Beit HaGefen also conducts art, music and theater projects in Haifa and across Israel, and offers co-educational clubs for Jewish and Arab children aimed at introducing them to their fellow citizens. The center also conducts cultural tours for foreign visitors interested in learning about the diversity of Haifa, which is one of Israel’s few “mixed cities,” meaning it contains both Arab and Jewish residents.

“Jews and Arabs know each other, but we don’t meet each other, and this is a problem when you have a conflict,” Ron said

Ron said an important part of the Beit HaGefen mission is to break down stereotypes. Jews learn the history of the Arabs living in Israel and the trauma their ancestors experienced, such as losing their homes and land in the War of Independence. Arabs learn about the desires and motivations of young Israelis who go into the army not to harm Arabs but to serve their country.

“People must understand each other and care for each other,” Ron said. “We have to be able to listen to the person and hear their narrative. Then we can argue.

“We don’t have to agree on everything,” he continued. “We can have different perspectives … [and] even if we don’t know about borders or a future resolution to the greater conflict, we can still live together in peace.”

The four talks in the Bay Area, titled “A Jewish Democratic State: Creating Shared Space for All People in Israel,” are being co-sponsored by a host of agencies, including the New Israel Fund, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and the Jewish Community Relations Council, JCCs in San Rafael, Palo Alto and Berkeley, and the S.F.-based Israeli consulate.

Beit HaGefen Center talks are scheduled for 7 p.m. Nov. 14 at Congregation Beth El (Berkeley); 7 p.m. Nov. 16 at 
Osher Marin JCC (San Rafael); Nov. 18 following services at 
Congregation Beth Am (Los Altos Hills); and 7 p.m. Nov. 20 at the Jewish Community Federation (S.F.).

Michael Kohn
Michael Kohn

Michael Kohn is a Bay Area-based freelance reporter and has written about Israel for Lonely Planet.