Growing up in the United States, I was privileged to have learned alongside people from diverse religious, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds both in public school and in university. Because this was my reality, I often forget that although Israel is diverse, most Jewish and Arab youth grow up in separate communities and do not come into contact with each other until much later in life, if at all. Youth who grow up in diverse communities are more likely to learn the value of tolerance and accept the differences of others. Peoples’ interactions with different peers, at any age, are crucially important for learning these values and incorporating them into their future lives.
In Israel, Jewish youth are drafted into mandatory military service after high school. Some are given the opportunity to participate in a pre-army program (in Hebrew referred to as a “mechina”) which often focuses on specific skills or studies to prepare for their military service. There are a range of programs focusing on different topics that students can choose from. For many Jewish Israelis, the army presents the first opportunity for exposure to the Arab population; an interaction which is rarely positive and builds a problematic base for future interactions with Palestinian citizens of Israel. The Abraham Fund Initiatives (TAFI) views these academies as an opportunity for Jewish Israeli adolescents to interact with and learn about their Arab counterparts. TAFI currently operates programs in five different pre-army academies to provide knowledge and promote discussion about greater Israeli society among post-high school students.
Last week, I attended the Abraham Fund Initiative’s mechina program in partnership with the Telem pre-army academy. In addition to community service projects and other Jewish studies classes Telem provides, TAFI offers a session with an Arab facilitator once per week to teach about different aspects of Arab society. The class incorporates discussion of current events, political issues, religion, and cultural traditions. The class I observed focused on teaching the students about Islam. The facilitator, named Angham Hussein, is a Muslim-Arab in her mid-twenties from the Beit Zafafa neighborhood of Jerusalem, and has already developed a friendly relationship with the students. As the students began to list all their existing knowledge about Arab and Muslim identity, they felt comfortable asking her varied and sometimes personal questions about her family and traditions. The students had limited knowledge of the origins of Islam and religious customs, and asked dozens of questions. One student asked if there was an equivalent of a Bar Mitzvah in the Islamic tradition, for example. They were shocked to learn that Muslims are forbidden from drinking alcohol, and that Angham herself had never tried it. They also were surprised that men and women could not meet unsupervised before their wedding. Among several topics, they learned about Ramadan and its origins, and the students agreed they would not be able to endure such a difficult fasting period.
The class I observed had been meeting for several months, and for many this was their first exposure to these subjects. Angham explained that the students’ knowledge about the non-Jewish population is limited to what their peers tell them and what they see on television. Any prejudices they hold largely derive from a lack of understanding. She tries to not only provide them with new information, but also a new way to think about it. After receiving little information or misinformation about Arab society for much of their lives, the students are happy for the opportunity to get a more personal, in-depth perspective. One student named Gilad told me that he realized the overarching principles in every religion are the same, and it’s really the cultures that are different. Another student, Avishag, said that she loves having the opportunity to learn from an Arab who she can relate to, and it makes the class feel very personal, like she is telling her story.
Before I attended the pre-army session, I expected that the participants would hold on to their preconceived notions, and that their biases would be hard to challenge. In reality, students at age eighteen are able to engage in critical thinking and are incredibly curious about life outside of their familiar environments. These students don’t want the Arab community to feel foreign, but societal norms have created a feeling of separation. Avishag shared that she is thankful for the opportunity to take this class because now it won’t feel so intimidating to meet Arabs. She feels like there is less distance between the two populations. The class also provides an important foundation for the future. The students are more receptive to contact with the Arab community and less afraid. Gilad told me that after this year he plans to seek out more interaction with Arabs, and be more aware of their presence in Israel. Regular interaction with Angham, a peer from another religion, is also crucial to the success of the program. The students feel that they can ask her anything, and knowing her breaks down barriers for them. People develop ideas and beliefs as they grow up. Intercepting this development and challenging them to think in an alternate way can affect their behavior into the future, ultimately leading to a more open, and shared, society.