Tuesday, February 5, 2008

My Trip to Israel

Shalom All,

Having just returned from nine days in Israel in which I visited Des Moines' partnership region, the Western Galilee, I can tell you that in Israel there are many programs that seek to bring Israeli Jews and Arabs into dialogue. Unfortunately, Israel does not do a very good job of letting people know about those efforts and the media is often all too quick to seize upon conflicts while ignoring peaceful coexistence. Our Partnership 2000 region consists of an area called Matei Asher, which is basically the equivalent of a county and consists of a number of villages and a small city, Akko. The region is about 50% Jewish and 50% Israeli Arab of which there are relatively equal numbers of Druze, Christians, and Muslims. The Western Galilee Hospital that was shelled in the last Lebanon War is directed by an Israeli Arab Christian, has a significant mix of both Jewish and Arab doctors and serves a population that is very heavily Arab. It is the primary hospital for Israel's Druze population.

At Western Galilee College, no small percentage of the students are Israeli Arabs from local villages. The director of the college told us that the college has to work its course schedule around the religious and social needs of the Arab population including making certain that classes end no later than 8 pm so that Arab women may be home at a respectable hour, enabling their families to allow them to attend the school. 75% of the Arab students are women.

The director of the community centers in Matei Asher oversees not just centers in Jewish neighborhoods, but in Arab neighborhoods and has board members from several Arab villages on his governing board.

We visited a program called Hafooch al-Hafooch. Hafooch is a "latte" in Hebrew, but also means turned over. It is a program that helps teens in need. The location in Akko which we visited opens after school and remains open well into the evening. The program which is funded by many Jewish organizations including ultimately the Jewish Federations of Des Moines and other cities caters not only to Jews, but in large part to local Arabs, Muslims and Christians. The night we happened to visit was "Arab student night" and about 30 Israeli Arab teens were the only ones in attendance being helped by Israeli Jews who were providing a safe environment for them to act like kids. There are numerous Arab board members helping to oversee the program and working alongside their Jewish partners.

We visited a program called "Wings" that helps disabled teens learn to live independently as much as possible. The program takes place in several locations in the Partnership region, including at least one Arab village.

We visited the Ort High School in Akko and met with students and teachers participating in a program called Tri-Wizard, after the Harry Potter story in which Israel Jewish teens and Israeli Arab teens dialogue with American High School students and even visit their schools in the states to learn about co-existence. The Tri-Wizard program operates out of both Jewish and Arab schools in the region and has staffing from both. Student representatives from both the predominantly Jewish High School and the predominantly Arab High School spoke to us about some of the many things they learned in their interactions.

We toured the Old City in Jerusalem and shopped in the Arab Christian and Arab Muslim Quarters. Hebrew speaking Israeli Jews were both touring in large numbers and also shopping and buying from the Muslim and Christian Israeli Arabs in the Shuk (the market) who were alternately speaking Hebrew and Arabic to one another. Israeli Jews learn to speak Arabic as well as English. Most native Israelis are relatively fluent in Arabic and Israeli Arabs can speak Hebrew and English well. The current economic interaction between Israeli Jews and Arabs in the Old City is something that people could not remember occurring over most of the last 17 years. One could actually find Judaica being sold all over the Muslim Quarter and there was virtually no concern of violence anywhere. One guide told me that it is now not a big deal for Jews to enter the Old City through the Damascus Gate. There were years, in fact most of the last two decades, when even the suggestion would have sent shivers down the spine of most Israeli Jews, a time when stabbings were commonplace. Now, one can find Hebrew speaking Israeli tour groups walking through the Muslim Quarter and buying from shops that a decade ago they would never have approached.

I visited the Barakat Antiquities Gallery on the Via De La Rosa. I mentioned to the man there that I had visited his family's stores in Scottsdale, Arizona. They own several Jewelry stores and other stores including a restaurant in Old Scottsdale. He asked me if I had visited their family's store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

Right now the Israeli economy is booming, especially in Jerusalem and on the central coast, and many of those Israeli Arabs living there have become very wealthy. Up in the Western Galilee, things are more difficult financially for both Jews and Arabs, but it was abundantly clear that where Jews and Arabs worked together, they were finding success.

I am hoping that in the not too distant future, we can arrange a trip to the Western Galilee on which many others could attend and see places where Jews and Arabs can actually get along and how they go about doing it.


No comments: