Living in Israel, the home of a conflict that is considered one of the most complex and intractable conflicts worldwide, is something that for me has become surprisingly normal. Life here is different, for sure, but it is rather fascinating how easily the human mind can adapt. Where border controls, airport questioning and armed soldiers on the street used to astonish me, they have become part of daily life, unnoticeable even. Although this adaptive ability has made my personal life a lot easier, it does not change reality, nor the general acceptance of the current status quo. In Israel, Jewish and Arab people have become set in their ways of thinking about ‘the other’, and this is highly problematic. Fuelled by hate, suspicion, or simple ignorance, the divisions between Jewish and Arab communities stay intact, and this separation creates a fertile ground for the development and survival of stereotypes.
This however doesn’t mean that the situation is hopeless. It only means that in order to break these prejudices, direct interaction is needed. Although dispute resolution mechanisms such as negotiation and mediation between politicians are important tools for the resolution of conflicts, the success of eventual settlement depends on the attitudes of the masses. By letting people from both groups meet face-to-face, people are offered the opportunity to look beyond their set ways of thinking. Slowly, they can get to know each other, and it is believed that stimulating intergroup contact can create a degree of empathy for the other side.
The Abraham Fund Initiatives (TAFI) is doing a great job at such people-to-people peacemaking. Last week I was privileged to join TAFI’s staff members on an evening-trip to the Al Gazalia School in Taybeh. As part of TAFI’s Shared Learning program, this Arab school had been paired with the Jewish Lev Hapardes School, to create contact-based interaction between Arab and Jewish children (see my previous blog about Shared Learning). TAFI’s program is active in around twenty school pairs across Israel, but at this specific school-pair something extraordinary had happened. Encouraged by TAFI’s suggestions about organizing Shared Learning-related events, the parents from both schools had requested to meet as well. TAFI was of course enthusiastic about this idea, and due to close cooperation between TAFI, teachers, and parents, the first inter-group parent meeting of the year was a fact.
When I arrived at the school, it was full of people. A group of young children, beautifully dressed, stood impatiently waiting in the middle of the room, while some chatting parents were seated on chairs around them. The building itself, with its bright yellow walls, was fresh and welcoming, and so were the people. Curious about their new guests, several teachers and parents immediately came up to me, asking me who I was and where I was from. After chatting with them for a bit, I quickly took a seat in the circle, and observed the parents coming in. The Jewish parents, visiting an unfamiliar place, seemed a bit uncomfortable at first, but the warm speech of the school principal put them at ease. “We love you all, and thank you for coming”, he repeated multiple times, and I saw some smiles here and there. The smiles broadened even more when the children, that had been waiting, started to sing. “Look how adorable they are!” a mom next to me exclaimed enthusiastically, and everyone clapped along.
The charming performance got everyone excited, and the parents were ready to begin. After speeches of a local poet and the Mayor of the town, stressing both the historical tensions between the two communities and their enthusiasm for today’s initiative, TAFI’s facilitators May and Assaf introduced tonight’s game. All the parents were asked to choose a personal item that symbolized a certain story, habit, or characteristic, and put it on a sheet in the middle of the circle. Then the parents had to pick an object that stood out to them, and ask the owner to explain it. Stories about fear of driving (car keys), phone addictions (phone case), and lack of sleep (eye mask) received grinning nods of recognition, while others were more emotional and touching. The story of a Jewish dad, about always being prepared for his three daughters by keeping a Labello lip balm in every single bag he possessed, made all the parents smile. I smiled as well, thinking of how well this interaction reflected the goal of this meeting. Whether Arab or Jewish, the game seemed to prove, we are all human, and all parents that love their children.
This theme kept coming up during the rest of the evening. While people were filling up their plates with all the tasty food provided, May asked the parents to sit down in mixed pairs, and to talk about themselves and their children. The four dads, quite the minority, immediately sat down together in two single pairs. The women, who had a lot more choice, kept rotating from woman to woman, and tried to meet as many strangers as they could. It was interesting to observe their interaction. While the Jewish moms seemed enthusiastic but slightly passive in their approach, the Arab women – being the host community – took a very welcoming and proactive attitude. Due to their warmth, all parents were chatting in no time, exchanging stories about their lives and their children. After roughly an hour, May asked the parents to sit down and evaluate, and most parents made some disappointed sounds. The evaluation was conducted in an open and inclusive manner, and the responses of the parents were striking. Not only did they express their enthusiasm verbally (“We wanted to talk more and more!”, “I felt a lot of love!”), but also their physical presence had changed. Where they had started the meeting in two clearly separate groups, the group now sat down completely mixed, Arab and Jewish parents alike.
When I saw all parents getting up, and exchanging goodbyes, I felt inspired. Setting up this meeting had been a challenging task, but seeing the outcome had made it worth it for sure. Although people-to-people peacemaking is still in its infancy, and the long term influence these workshops have on the resolution of conflicts is still relatively uncertain, it is definitely a start. Even in a time frame of two hours, you could feel how much their perspective had changed. Encouraged by the accessible nature of the event, the parents had talked about their previous prejudices openly, while giving the other the opportunity to respond to these notions. The comment of a Jewish mom, stating that she didn’t expect to meet “such super-intelligent people”, is a spot on example. Although this comment seems rather harsh, it also shows that this parent had the courage to speak about it openly, and the Arab women responded in a promising way. Instead of acting insulted, the woman next to her simply smiled, and said: “at least now you see that we are not”.
Looking back on the evening, it had certainly been a most successful event. In order to have long-lasting impact, however, these workshops need to happen more often. Moreover, people need to be willing to meet. Due to the positive experience of their children, these parents felt like they couldn’t stay behind, and after the successful workshop, were eager to meet again. It is now up to all of us that more of them will follow.