One night last week a group of young adults — Palestinians and Jews — gathered in the Education Center of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (www.icci.org.il) in Jerusalem to view and discuss the complex issues raised by the provocative Israeli film “Ajami”, which won many awards in 2009, when it was released in Israel. These young adults are part of ICCI’s program called “Jewish and Palestinian Young Adults for Peaceful Coexistence”. Most of them are graduates of ICCI dialogue and action programs over the last 10-12 years, that have taken place on a regular basis, even during the Second Intifada and the years following it, who are rejoining ICCI’s “Alumni Community” in order to continue the dialogue and to move from dialogue to action. In addition, our graduates came with friends who are newcomers to ICCI.

“Ajami” is a joint production of an Israeli Palestinian—Scandar Kopti– and an Israel Jew—Yaron Shani — who also jointly edited and wrote the script. According to Israeli film historian, Amy Kronish, this film was a landmark for Israeli cinema because of the following characteristics:

Through a complex and hard-hitting film such as this, the viewer is able to gain tremendous insight into contemporary issues of Israeli Palestinians—drugs, crime, relations between Arabs of the West Bank and Arabs of Israel, Bedouin from the northern Negev seen as outsiders within Palestinian society, issues of identity for the Arabs of Israel and tense relations with the security forces of the Jewish state.–www.israelfilm.blogspot.com

Indeed, in the discussion last week, many of these issues came up. One Jewish participant was disturbed at the terrible image of Israel that this film portrays. Another Jewish participant was bothered by the overdose of violence in the film, which she felt stereotyped this poverty neighborhood in Jaffa too much. Similarly, one of the Palestinian participants felt that the Palestinians in this film were depicted in a very negative way, casting a shadow on all Palestinians, as if they are all involved in crime and violence. Moreover, another Palestinian in the group wondered why it was so difficult for the police to apprehend the Jewish perpetrators of acts of violence in the film, when it is well known that when they want to arrest Palestinians they usually do so very quickly.

It was a very open and genuine discussion. All participants spoke in Hebrew or Arabic, with translation. This method engenders cultural respect, and also creates active listening.

In our dialogical work, we are genuinely interested in knowing what each person thinks and feels. There is no “scoring points”, no casting blame, no ad hominem attacks on anyone. The unique element in this kind of informal educational method is that it leads to lots of real listening to the many personal and collective stories that people have to share. It is a profound effort at mutual understanding—which seeks to find ways to cooperate actively—which is all too rare in our society.

ICCI’s Alumni Community will be planning more film screenings and discussions as a way to further mutual recognition and understanding. In addition, this community is currently engaged in planning and implementing action projects, which can shape the private and public discourse about one another in Israel and Palestine in significant ways in the months and years to come. You will undoubtedly be hearing more about them in the near future.

In the face of the ongoing unresolved conflict—with the winds of anti-normalization blowing strongly in both the Israeli and Palestinian communities—this kind of dialogue and action combination can pave the way for a better future, for both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, who share the same city of Jerusalem, and the same land of Israel/Palestine, which is home to both peoples.