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For Jews and Arabs, a focus on friendship

Israeli teens learn photography, friendship at PC(USA)-supported program

September 7, 2010

NEW YORK CITY

A black and white image of a young man standing beside a photograph of a girl on a wall.

Islam Zeidan, an Arab teen, with a photo he took of a Jewish friend as part of the photography and friendship program. Photo by Doug Chandler

Neri Danon and Danielle Shimoni, both 17-year-olds from Israel’s north-central region, have spent the past year forming close friendships with Arab youth who, like them, are citizens of the Jewish state.

But both expressed pain and confusion last week over the idea that some of their friends don’t regard themselves as Israelis.

The two girls, at the tail end of a three-week visit to the U.S., participated in a program that brings together Jewish and Arab teens, allowing the two groups, both figuratively and literally, to peer through the lens at each other’s homes and communities.

The teens meet on a weekly basis throughout the school year to receive training from two professional photographers, one Jewish and one Arab, to take their photos and to discuss the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Sponsored by the Givat Haviva Institute, an educational organization devoted to bridging the gap between Israeli Arabs and Jews, the 11-year-old program, Through Others’ Eyes, always ends with a brief stay at a Hashomer Hatzair progressive Zionist camp in upstate Liberty, N.Y.

The two girls spoke of their experiences last week as the group visited the New York area. Their visit included a public event at the United Nations Office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which supports Givat Haviva through its Compassion, Peace and Justice Ministry, and a reception at the Puffin Foundation in Teaneck, NJ. The foundation, which has provided funding to Through Others’ Eyes, is hosting an exhibit of photos by this year’s participants through early September.

It’s during their stay in the Catskills, where the children live, work and play together, when the friendships among them deepen, as they did for 16 teens in this year’s program. It’s also the period in which their discussions become most intense, as Danon and Shimoni both discovered.

“We became very good friends at the camp,” Danon said, referring to the Jewish and Arab youngsters in the program. “But then, when it came to discussions about the conflict, we became very angry. They all the time said they don’t feel Israeli, but it hurts me because we want contact, because we’re both living in the same country and because we’re both Israelis.”

Shimoni agreed, saying that as a Jew, it’s hard for her to “accept” the Arab-Israeli narrative, which, she noted, includes references to the “nakba” — the “catastrophe” that many Arabs believe took place on the day of the State of Israel’s birth.

Later, though, Shimoni said that, while the teens differed from each other, each group understood how the other arrived at its feelings — “the first step to a good conversation. It opened my eyes.”

For her part, Danon said that, once the discussions were over, “boom, everything returned to normal and we were back to laughing together. For me, it’s very strange that we didn’t remain angry.”

Teens from both the Jewish and Arab communities told The Jewish Week how the program has, in some cases, allowed them their first contact with youngsters from across the divide and has provided a new perspective.

Danon, for instance, said she lives on kibbutz only 10 minutes away from an Arab village and yet knew nothing about the town’s residents. Unless they work together, she added, Jews and Arabs have little reason to visit each other’s communities.

The program has taught Danon that her Arab counterparts “are normal teenagers, like me and my friends. They have more rules and traditions in their culture — they can’t get together with boys on Friday night — but the way we think, talk and act are the same.”

Sahar Zeidan, a shy 17-year-old with braces and the only Arab girl in the group with a headscarf, said she had never met any Jewish children before the program. Meeting Jewish teens was awkward at first, said Zeidan, who, like the other Arab children, lives in Zemer, a village of about 5,000 in Israel’s Triangle region. “But we’re friends now.”

Dana Yasin, on the other hand, counts among her friends many Jewish teens, some of whom she met through other programs that promote understanding. Nevertheless, she, like some of the other Arab teens, had been anxious about spending nearly a month at a Jewish camp.

“I didn’t feel like there would be a place for Muslims” at the camp, said Yasin, 17, “but I felt so welcome there. Even though I’m Muslim, I felt like I belonged there.”

Islam Zeidan, 16 and a cousin of Sahar, expressed similar feelings, saying he was nervous, at first, about entering a Jewish home in Israel to take photos.

“But they made me feel like I was at home,” he said. “That’s a wonderful feeling.”

Some of the Arab children also discussed how they view their identity, the subject that generated so much anger in discussions between them and Jewish teens.

“I’m a Muslim, an Arab and a Palestinian,” said Obida Naasa, 17, who added, almost parenthetically, that he lives in Israel. Islam Zeidan echoed those views.

But, unlike his friends, Mahmoud Ghanim, 17, views himself as “an Israeli Muslim. I was born in Israel, so I’m Israeli — it’s that simple.”

Of the keffiyeh he was wearing, Ghanim said, “It doesn’t mean much. I wear it because I like it.” Danon once asked him why he wears it, he added, and he responded in the same way, telling her, “It’s not that deep.”

Yasin, meanwhile, admitted to being confused about her identity.

“I was born in Israel, so I’m Israeli, but my grandfather was born in Palestine,” she said, referring not to the Occupied Territories, but to pre-state Israel. “I consider myself an Arab, and then a Palestinian, and then a Muslim and then an Israeli. I can’t say I’m not Palestinian because it’s my history, my background.”

Yasin,who speaks fluent English, said some of the program’s Jewish participants told her that she can’t call herself Palestinian because Palestine isn’t a country. But she replied that “Palestine is in our hearts” and that “you can’t erase it. It’s in our identity.”

Discussing the question of Arab-Israel identity, Yaniv Sagee, Givat Haviva’s emissary in New York, said the organization believes its mission includes changing attitudes on the part of Israeli Arabs that they don’t belong to Israel. But he adds that it’s incumbent on Israeli Jews, those who hold most of their country’s power, to ensure that their society is a “shared and equal” one.

“One thing leads to the other,” he said.

Meanwhile, Maya Herman, one of the program’s counselors during the past few weeks, offered some context for the heated discussions that took place.

“It’s a complicated situation, because we’re dealing with 17-year-olds,” she said. “They’re coming to the subject with the perspective of teenagers,” whose views might not be as nuanced or sensitive as those of adults.

For many of the Jewish kids, said Herman, a 24-year-old Jewish Israeli, the conversations may have marked the first time they heard Arabs saying they don’t feel connected to Israel.

“But that’s a fact — those are their feelings,” Herman said. “Every side feels hurt from time to time, and every side feels its point of view is the only one.” But the program’s purpose, she continued, “is to show that there is another side” and that there are many ways to look at an issue.

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