“Azhar” her name-tag said. I was in the bar of the Scots Hotel in Tiberius with some members of the family I was guiding when I noticed the Bar Tender’s name. I asked the young woman what her name meant. She replied that it means “flowers” in Arabic and what followed was a fascinating cross-cultural conversation.

Usually one tends to associate with people similar to oneself. This was a mutual opportunity for both of us to learn about the other culture in Israel. Even though approximately 20% of the population consists of Israeli Arabs (of the 20%, about 8% are Druze, about 5% are Bedouin, and about 10% are Christian) unfortunately there is very little informal contact between the two sectors until after the high school, and only then it is mainly with those Israeli Arabs who serve in the IDF. The majority does not serve in the IDF. (The Druze, with mandatory conscription, and Bedouin and a slowly increasing number of Christian Arabs who can, and do, volunteer are the exception.)

Azhar told me that she is a secular Bedouin who grew up in a mixed village of Christian and Muslim Israeli Arabs. She told me that all the men in her family served in the IDF and her father is a career officer and votes for Likud (So much for stereo types). She also informed me that the majority of girls in her village also do some type of community service and that two girls in her class volunteered for IDF service! Another fascinating fact was that not only do the students learn Hebrew on a high-level, which is contrast to the shameful lack of emphasis on Arabic language and culture in Israeli Jewish schools, but she even did a matriculation exam in the Hebrew Bible (Tanach)! If Jewish students learned about the Muslim and Christian cultures of their fellow citizens it would lead to much more understanding and tolerance.

Even though Azhar told me she feel very patriotic and attached to Israel she sees that at times of recession and unemployment in the Israeli economy, the Israeli Arab sector is consistently amongst the hardest hit. She also acknowledged that despite the loyalty demonstrated by the vast majority of Israeli Arabs, the number of Israeli Arabs involved in anti-Israel activities, either directly or indirectly, has increased in recent years.

Despite being secular, Azhar respects her traditions and has never touched alcohol despite working as a Bar Tender. All in all, it was a fascinating conversation between two Israeli citizens who do not normally get to socialise or interact. Azhar had never met a Jewish Israeli her age until after high school, and the only Jews she knew were her father’s army buddies. Her mother insisted that all her children speak good Hebrew and even spoke Hebrew at home with them sometimes and showed them TV shows in Hebrew. What are needed are more opportunities to interact socially and culturally between all members of Israeli society in order to promote understanding and peaceful coexistence.