Shared society in Israel
Israel at 75Guest Columnist

Shared society in Israel

Meaningful connections can defuse some of the distrust and animosity that festers at the surface for many.

A photo from ACAT displayed at Rodef Shalom in 2019 highlights coexistence (Photo provided by Mark Frank)
A photo from ACAT displayed at Rodef Shalom in 2019 highlights coexistence (Photo provided by Mark Frank)

My 11-year-old twins, Gal and Maayan, are fifth-grade students at a local elementary school in Misgav, located in Pittsburgh’s Partnership2Gether region.

I remember how they waited in suspense for months to find out who would replace their teacher when she went on maternity leave. They recently learned that Samach would be their teacher, and they jumped with joy upon receiving the news.

Samach got to know my children over the years, having taught them science and filling in as a substitute teacher. She is kind, patient and has a strong command of the classroom. The fact that Samach is an Israeli Arab was completely irrelevant to both me and my children. We were all thrilled that they were going to be taught by a teacher they loved and respected, and who loved and respected them as well.

My children’s and my reactions may not at all seem obvious. The events of May 2021, when civil unrest erupted throughout Israel including in Karmiel and Misgav, left deep scars on the field of shared society, or “co-existence” as many refer to relations between Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis.

The violence, which was predominately directed against Jews, was widespread during those horrible 10 days, leaving many Jews feeling betrayed by their fellow Arab citizens. Many Israeli Jews wondered whether we had fooled ourselves into believing that Arab citizens were good neighbors or even friends.

How does a society recover from such a traumatic event? It recovers day by day, little by little, one conversation at a time. It recovers because of interactions with people like Samach.

For years, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh has supported efforts that bring together Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs to connect meaningfully with one another. These mifgashim are crucial to breaking down stereotypes, humanizing (rather than dehumanizing) the other and engaging in important yet often challenging dialogue.

These relationships are built at the Akko Center for Arts and Technology (ACAT), supported by the Federation, where Artium, a Jewish student from Akko met Jabril, an Arab student from Abu Sinan. The two became fast friends. Jabril shared that “Artium teaches me tricks with the camera and helps improve my Hebrew,” and Artium noted that “before I met him, I didn’t know a word of Arabic, and today I manage to chat in Arabic for the first time.”

Givat Haviva’s Children Teaching Children (CTC) program and Hand in Hand’s Galilee School, also supported by the Federation, strengthen connections between Arabs and Jews as well. CTC brings together students from Misgav and students from a neighboring Arab village for monthly meetings over two years. One of the CTC’s Jewish participants, Shaked, noted that, “We (Jews) and Arab society have a common language of life. I think that if we just look around and not settle on first impressions, we will discover so many things that will make it possible for us to live together. This is what the CTC program gave me.”

Hand in Hand’s Galilee School brings together Jewish and Arab students every day, forging friendships in a society where Jewish-Arab friendship is far too rare. Mounia, a sixth grader from Sachnin, an Arab village near Karmiel and Misgav, shares the impact of these connections by explaining that the school has taught her “not to be scared” of her Jewish peers and to look past their differences to their commonality as people.

Pittsburgh’s Partnership region of Karmiel and Misgav is in the lower Galilee, an area in which the majority of the population is Israeli Arab. Interactions between Jews and Arabs in this part of the country are commonplace — at the grocery store, at the doctor’s office, on the roads and more — but often these interactions are merely transactional and don’t allow people to connect on a more meaningful level. Meaningful connections can defuse some of the distrust and animosity that festers at the surface for many.

As a resident of Misgav, the idea of living through another round of civil unrest like we experienced in May 2021 is frightening, and we must do everything in our power to reduce the likelihood of this happening again. I am convinced that meaningful interactions like the ones my family has with Samach, and like the ones Artium, Jabril, Shaked and Mounia have experienced, are the key to doing so. PJC

Kim Salzman is the director of Israel and Overseas Operations at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

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