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Hepzibah Alon
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Let’s talk about hope

Is dialogue possible after Oct. 7? Alumni of an Israeli international school are embarking on a project that answers yes
(StudioM1 via iStock)
(StudioM1 via iStock)

It is almost seven months into the war, and we are starting to come to terms with the reality of our new situation: some 1,200 Israelis brutalized and murdered within our own borders, over 130 innocent people still held hostage in Gaza, thousands of Israelis displaced here within the country and every day more deaths of our sons and daughters in combat. And the war looms on. Most Israelis are some level of broken, depending on where they are on the graph of concentric circles from the center of death and destruction that occurred on October 7th and the ensuing damage.

From the other side of the border, images of a kind of hell trickle into our news stream. Some are brave enough to look at them, some are not. There have been multiple articles about how our hearts have shrunk here, unable to make room for anyone else’s pain as our own is too great. Outside of Israel, tempers run high and mob mentality has begun to set in. Everyone feels called to take a side, like some kind of twisted sports arena, and we see hatred rearing its ugly head in Europe and even in the United States, reminiscent of one of the darkest times that the civilized world has ever known that culminated in a conflagration that almost consumed us.

Against this backdrop, I was approached by a former coworker, now working in a young, international residential school in Givat Haviva, Israel, YOUnited, to take part in a project with former students. A group of alumni, Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and Jewish citizens of Israel as well as international students are about to embark on a project that shows dialogue is possible, even for them, even here and even now. The plan? Alumni from the school will travel to Europe and North America and engage in an open, public conversation about their experiences and their perspective, one formed by living together for two years of high school.

Grandson of Holocaust survivors, originally a music educator, now the head of a school devoted to shared society education, Yuval Dvir decided that he could no longer stand back and do nothing while the world kindled fires of hatred once more. He calls the project, “A Talk About Hope in Conflicts.” Hope? Now? After interviewing these alumni and Dvir, I decided to write about my conversations with them and let any readers I might have decide for themselves.

I was curious what brought these students to this alternative education, and I found out that they only wanted a better, more interesting experience in school. Most had come with a set narrative about the conflict, one that had been reinforced in school and in their communities. One young man, Avi, raised in a Modern Orthodox Jewish community, described his perspective on the conflict as having been “hypercharged” when he arrived. But, after a while, at the end of the day, tired of talking politics, they ended up playing soccer on the grounds of the school.

When I asked him if he had any particular moment when he started to release his “hypercharged” narrative, he said no: “It just kind of happened organically, living together, being together, breaking rules together like any kids from anywhere would do.” Avi described a moment when, already in his second year, he looked on as a younger cohort of students engaged in a heated political debate and he saw his younger self in them. He said arguing like that was the kind of thing he would do all the time when he first came and that now he would never do it. After graduating, Avi went on to serve in the IDF and then to university in Israel.

Mohammad, raised in a small Arab village in the north of Israel, related a similar experience. He said that he came to the school with a very established “pro-Palestinian” narrative and that in his first year he got caught up in a lot of heated debates. Later, as an older student, he watched two first-year students getting very worked up about the subject of Palestine not being labeled as a country on the map. He said that watching them he had a “kind of a third person experience” and thought, “Is it worth it? We are all like puppets, brainwashed. At the base level, we are the same. We can all have our own opinions but still live together.” He talked about how at the school, he forged authentic friendships. “I honestly had hate for Zionists when I came to the school,” he remembers. “Now, I do not have a side. I see both sides. Everyone thinks they are betraying their side just by having an open conversation. Everyone is terrified. Is it better we kill each other?”

Mohammad is now living in Switzerland, studying finance: “Now, I feel I have a role to play in this. I can have an impact on society. And, when I piss everyone off, I know I am doing a great job.” Mohammed talked with some discomfort about being screened harshly by airport security when he flies home to Israel because he is an Arab. He also told me that his little sibling in Israel, only 8 years old, went on a school trip where they ran into a group of children from a Jewish school and they all ended up fighting while the teachers just sat back and let it happen. He said how sad it is that all they will remember from that field trip is the fight. Now that he has experienced living away from all of that, I asked him if he sees himself coming back to Israel, raising his own family in Israel. He said he is not one to run away from conflict.

I asked Mohammed if anything changed for him in Switzerland after October 7th. He answered: “Yes. No matter which stance I take, I take a hit. I am either a Palestinian terrorist sympathizer or an Israeli baby killer. I am ashamed to be a Palestinian and I am ashamed to be an Israeli. So many lies and misinformation. There has been a paradigm shift and now the image is crooked. It stinks. And once you get into politics people start to avoid you.” He even tried telling people he was from Jordan to avoid the fuss, and then, breaking out into laughter, told me about the time he was busted by an actual Jordanian who grilled him about where exactly in Amman he was supposedly from.

Noga, raised in a small, Jewish town in the North of Israel is also a graduate of the school. She said she chose the school because she needed a change of environment. She talked about how most of the experiences that were transformative for her came from just everyday life: in the dining hall, decorating living quarters together, living together. She talked about how there isn’t just one truth and it’s easy to portray the enemy as just an enemy. Noga is now serving in the IDF. She zoomed in with me from her base, along with Issam, a Muslim alumni from the school Noga’s age from East Jerusalem now studying in The Hague. He is now roommates with a Jewish Israeli former classmate in the Netherlands. I asked both Noga and Issam if they see a danger or a downside to opening themselves up to another perspective. After some thought, they both answered yes. Issam said there are many times that he wishes “he didn’t know now” what he didn’t know before attending the school.

Noga’s voice was strained, filled with sadness but also a kind of resignation to reality. She said that absolutely the experience has isolated her from her peers. She is now serving in a combat unit. She said her army service is much harder because of her experience at the school and that there has not been a single day where she has not felt alone. She is sorry that all of her peers in the army did not have this experience. She talked about the pain and difficulty of “holding two truths in your heart” at once and how she knows that there are other communities in Israel with their own narratives, not just Muslim and Jewish.

When I told Yuval Dvir, head of school, about what the graduates had said he just nodded. “It’s like the movie with Keanu Reeves,” he said. What he meant was that in the film The Matrix, the hero, Neo (Keanu Reeves), can either take the red pill which opens your eyes to the illusion of the Matrix or the blue pill which allows you to go back to seeing only the illusion and continue living in virtual happiness and oblivion. The students of the school, both Arab and Jewish, have taken the red pill and now that their eyes have been opened to the other side’s narrative, they cannot go back and be like they were before. In real life, there is no blue pill. There has always been a price to pay for knowledge.

Hannah Arendt said, “The things of the world become human for us only when we can discuss them with our fellows. We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human.” It is with this hope that the project, “A Talk About Hope in Conflicts,” begins. They do not plan on addressing the conflict or taking a side. This, according to Dvir, Head of School, would only be giving in to the “mechanism of the conflict.” What they will show is that it is possible, even if for now only in a small, controlled environment, to live together and to talk to each other despite it: to humanize. Are the students hesitant to expose themselves in this political climate, outside of their own country? Yes. Are they afraid of being asked accusatory questions? Yes. But, as Mohammad said, they have a unique perspective and are in a position to make an impact on the world; now that they have had this experience, they have “a role to play.”

When I came to see the school for the first time, I was skeptical of the idea that there could be any hope after the events of October 7th. The mistrust and anger, even between the communities who hold citizenship of Israel, seemed to only be widening, and people’s opinions, on both sides, were getting more extreme. But after I spoke extensively to the alumni, I couldn’t help but feel that the way we are going now is not sustainable.

On the first Zoom I had with the school, which included both the staff and the alumni, Issam called in with his Jewish Israeli roommate, together from the same phone, sitting outside their university in The Hague. They looked as natural and comfortable together as any close friends turned roommates can look. After the graduates had left the call and only the staff and I remained on Zoom, Nurit Gery, Managing Director of the school, with an expression like we all have now in Israel, one of prolonged exhaustion and worry, breathed a kind of sigh of relief and smiled. She said: “When I saw Yotam and Isaam sitting together, I remembered that there is hope after all. It will be ok in the end.” Whether it will be “ok in the end” is, of course, unclear, but the initiative “A Talk About Hope in Conflicts,” is not about finding a solution or making it “ok.” It is about the humanness of the people who live here from both sides of the conflict; it is about being able to talk to each other with the hope that we all remember each other’s humanity and keep our own.

About the Author
Hepzibah Alon received her Masters degree in English literature from Bar Ilan University and her Bachelors degree in English Literature and Linguistics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Having been a teacher for nearly two decades, she currently heads the English department and teaches English at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel.
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