In a May 25th New York Times essay headlined “The Myth of Coexistence in Israel,” Diana Buttu, a Canadian-born Palestinian lawyer and former advisor to the PLO writes how worried she is about raising her son:
“How do I explain to my 7-year-old what being a Palestinian citizen of Israel means? What future can he look toward, when leaders of the government incite hatred against him? What audacious hope can he have when he is bound to face racism and discrimination in education, employment and housing?”
Such negative rhetoric about her son’s hope-less future will have a devastating impact on his self-confidence and will only perpetuate the inciteful hatred towards Jewish Israelis as he grows up.
But the question is, what do most Palestinian citizens of Israel teach their children? Do they feed the same hatred and fear as some Palestinian citizens do from the diaspora? Do they use the Palestinian Authority textbooks, which the latest EU report says “contain dozens of examples of encouragement of violence and demonization of Israel and Jews?“
My 20 years experience of working in informal education within the Jewish and Arab sector in Israel has shown me a very different perspective. Overwhelmingly, Palestinian citizens of Israel want a good life for their children, free of hatred and full of hope for an equal and shared society. The truth is, while there is discrimination in some areas of society, there are also many opportunities in place to break down ignorance and mistrust between communities and help children like Ms. Buttu’s son to succeed and even thrive.
The peacemaking power of sports is not a myth
One of the best platforms to combat discrimination and promote equality is through sport. For decades, hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arab and Jewish children in mixed and separate cities have been discovering sport’s transformative power for themselves.
An example is Budo for Peace, founded in 2004. Since then, the NGO has used martial arts to bring thousands of Israeli and Palestinian youth together. The program begins at age 8, meaning many of the original participants are now in their late 20s and 30s. Some are mothers, such as 34-year-old Shadya Zuabi, an Arab who became a world karate champion at 17. Her success was a win for Israelis, a win for Palestinians and a win for women’s empowerment. The story of her identity struggle is told in the award-winning documentary, SHADYA, which is also used as an educational program by PBS community classroom.
There are more than 30 sport for peace organizations in Israel using pedagogical trust-building programs designed to bring different communities closer. The Sport for Peace coalition has over 100,000 children a year actively involved in soccer, basketball, tennis, catch ball, surfing, skateboarding, karate, judo, and other programs. Every encounter helps build a shared society whose members not only co-exist but co-thrive.
Civil society in Israel is not a myth
It is well known that politicians use “fear-of-the-other” tactics to garner votes and power. The recent violence seen in mixed cities was ignited by the political stalemate and several political leaders, but it is not a true reflection of civil society in Israel.
For that, look no further than a hospital, a shopping center or a sports match. You will see Jewish and Arab patients being treated by Jewish and Arab medical staff . You will see mixed customers and sales staff at the mall and mixed spectators at the stadium. And you will see Israeli Arab and Jewish entrepreneurs working in the vibrant high-tech industry. This reality may not be newsworthy, but a shared society is flourishing behind the TV cameras all the same.
So how can I prove this truth when the media is fixated on violence? I decided to try: I invited Jewish and Arab martial arts instructors to a spontaneous two-hour beach training session on a Friday morning involving just sand, sea, fresh air, sweat and goodwill.
They came in cars loaded with students from all parts of Israel, ready to train with others irrespective of religion, race or background. From the Arab village of Tamra in the Galilee to the Bedouin village of Abu Quidar in the Negev, from the Ultra-orthodox suburb of Bnei Brak to the mixed Jewish/Arab city of Jaffa — they converged to the beautiful ancient seaside town of Jaffa, all keen to participate in Training for Shared Society.
The excitement traveled fast in the Sport for Peace community and we were joined by 2 other organizations- Hagal Sheli – Surfers from Jaffa and East Jerusalem and Haredi leketzev – Ultra-Orthodox Jews doing Capoeira.
The news of the joint initiative even reached the representative host of the Olympic Games, the Japanese ambassador, H.E. Koichi Mizushima, who was keen to pass on the Olympic ideals of excellence, friendship and goodwill and to tell the kids about the values of traditional Japanese martial arts — respect, self-control and harmony.
“Audacious hope” is not a myth
Civil society in Israel does not rely on political leaders. It relies on people taking responsibility for offering their kids a better future. Consider the Hand in Hand schools, a network of six bilingual (Arabic and Hebrew) schools with 1,300 students and 6,000 parents and staff. Or the myriad educational programs such as the Hartman Institute’s Min HaBe’erot program, which trains Israeli and Arab educators to better understand each other through interfaith studies. They are but two of the 150 organizations in the Alliance of Middle East Peace (ALLMEP) – the fastest growing and largest group of peacebuilders in Israel and Palestine. ALLMEP is responsible for lobbying the US Congress to create the Middle East Partnership for Peace Fund ( MEPPA ), a $250m fund promoting grassroots people-to-people peace initiatives.
So I invite Diana Buttu’s son to visit his aging grandfather in Haifa, where he would be welcomed to play his favorite sports (including ice hockey) in mixed Jewish and Arab teams.
On his way, he would see the largest billboard in the country that states: “From today, Jews and Arabs – Shared Fate, Shared Governance.” And on his departure at the airport, he would not miss the stunning photo exhibition called Hamsa Aleinu, supported by President Rivlin, which highlights organizations that promote equality and co-thriving in Israel.
There is still a lot to be done. But with a new coalition government, and philanthropic support such as the Social Venture Fund, and the Inter-Agency Task Force, and the full support of President Herzog, the prospect of resetting the national agenda to promote a healthy shared society in Israel is real.
The task begins with the new leaders setting an example of mutual respect. It is their role to inspire the young generation for a brighter future. It is also the responsibility of parents to look for those opportunities that offer hope while raising their children. Sending a child to a Sport-for-Peace team may not make them future Olympic champions, but it will make them the champions of a shared society.
With that mindset, Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel would not just co-exist; they would have the opportunity to co-thrive.