Methods for Creating a Shared Society

Jewish and Arab students participate in an improv class together in Nazareth as part of The Abraham Initiatives' Shared Learning program. (© 2020 Dana Schmerzler)

For the past nine months, I have been living in Lod, one of Israel’s seven mixed cities. In the beginning, I viewed its ancient walls and modern buildings with many questions. How does the history of Lod affect the present? How do Jews and Arabs live in one city together? What does this community look like and how does it relate to where I am from? I quickly began learning about these complexities and how to bring society together through working at The Abraham Initiatives.

Half of my time was spent photographing The Abraham Initiatives’ various programs. In doing so, I was forced to look at the details of every interaction. Without knowing the language being spoken and the issues at hand, I forced myself to capture a more honest and truthful perspective. I went from being a fly on the wall to someone who can interact with the content and get a closer look. The other half of my interactions consisted of the things that are never documented – conversations with colleagues on the car ride to programs, hours of research behind many computers, staff meetings with an abundance of snacks, and mundane interactions between Jewish and Arab coworkers.

Through these experiences, I learned about how to cultivate shared society and the different challenges it faces. I first began learning about the multiple narratives that make up Lod and Israel at large. Someone’s identity is usually not represented with one word but by a description that encapsulates the history of this land, family experiences, and current perspectives. Hearing these stories have helped me break down the barriers of my assumptions and knowledge I had that was mostly based on media perspectives. The personal stories gave answers to the current state of Israeli society and why there is a need for it to be shared.

These multiple narratives are highlighted in Lod. The city is mixed with Arab families who’ve lived in Lod before 1948, Bedouins from the Negev, Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, Jews with Russian background, and religious and secular Jews. Knowing the difference between these contrasting narratives paves a way for creating a space where they can both exist. From these narratives come different needs within the community. It is important to understand that there are many facets in society that need to be improved upon to generate a stronger community and in Israel’s case, strengthen Jewish-Arab relations.

The main areas that need to be improved upon are government and policy change, community safety, and education. I attended a mixed cities conference in Acco which included leaders from each municipality and community members. This is the first time Arab and Jewish municipal leaders were brought together from each mixed city to direct their focus on Jewish-Arab relations and create a network within themselves. Although there are a lot of initiatives within the community, municipalities and the national government must adopt and fund programming to create sustainable change and reshape the system. Hopefully, through these efforts, there will be more attention paid to Arab communities and the specific challenges they face that are often not experienced within Jewish communities.

Personal security and safety within the Arab community is an important issue that strongly affects the wellbeing of Arab citizens. Due to systematic racism and neglect within Arab society, violence and crime have become an epidemic that is not controlled by the police or government. There are now many initiatives to bring police, government, and religious leaders together to combat these issues. The main areas that need to be improved upon are creating trust in the police and educating the police about Arab society. I saw this happening in the Negev where there are few police stations within Bedouin communities and religious leaders are losing influence. They started coming together to begin the conversation on how to work together. It is important to understand how religion plays a role in these issues and the power it has to improve them alongside the police.

Education is a main factor that perpetuates separation but it can also be a solution for improving Jewish-Arab relations. Most Jewish and Arab children do not live in mixed cities and attend separate school systems. It is deeply problematic that many Jews meet Arabs for the first time when they are in the army. This separation allows for deep-rooted assumptions and othering to happen within both communities. Many shared learning initiatives are being created to counteract this issue. I photographed a shared learning class in Nazareth where Jewish and Arab high school students learned improv theater and English. This class was part of a three-year program where these kids would be learning together. The mere act of putting these students in the same room, observing each other’s actions, learning new information, and sharing ideas can lead to enormous change within Israeli society if it is implemented everywhere.

My experience at The Abraham Initiatives makes me question how this type of community and relationship building can be implemented in America. When I came to Israel, I left a deeply fractured society behind. I am now going back to those fractures, larger and magnified. The problems are more exposed and there is a new urgency to change them. When I observed the ancient walls of Lod nine months ago, I knew I was trying to find answers about my own country as well. The needs are similar – local organizations and people within the community need to come together to create change on the ground that will inherently change policies and the system while increasing community safety and growth. As I go home, I am returning to a community that is not only ready to see this change but holding themselves accountable for leading it. 

About the Author
Dana Schmerzler is from Brooklyn, New York. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography and minor in Psychology from SUNY New Paltz. Throughout college, Dana tutored at the local juvenile detention center, volunteered for an arts-therapy program and worked with developmentally disabled adults for three years. Since then she has focused on pursuing her art career, working for leading art institutions such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dana has always been passionate about human rights and conflict resolution and how art could be used to promote these issues. She is currently living in Lod, Israel, participating in a social-change fellowship. Through the fellowship she is interning at The Abraham Initiatives, a non-profit organization that aims to create shared society in Israel. She also teaches English at a local elementary school and volunteers at The Young Adults Center in Lod.
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