This was the best experience of the summer so far for me; this was the only time when I was really challenged to rethink basic assumptions about Israel. When I go back home, I will now read the news differently, understand Israel from a different perspective
-participant in NFTY summer tour after an encounter with Arab teens at Shorashim
Every week, M., a young informal educator from our staff, goes to the high schools of Shaab and Kabul, two nearby Moslem villages, to conduct a leadership training workshop for 10th and 11th graders, in English. The kids come for the English, and stay because the program opens horizons for them and offers them contact with the world outside. When we received an order from NFTY to arrange Arab-Jewish encounters for 350 participants in teen summer tours, M. had the idea of running an English day camp program for the Arab teens for the week of the NFTY visits, integrating the encounters in a full week of fun and English practice. We began to work on a plan of activities, and to sign up the kids who evinced great enthusiasm for the idea. However, our staff is small, and past the age of day-camp counseling; what to do for camp staff? After a lot of phone calls, M. hit pay dirt: we located a group of six graduates of Netzer Australia/South Africa (the equivalent of NFTY there), here for a post-high-school year program, looking for a volunteer project. They jumped at the opportunity, but since their lodging for the week would be home hospitality in the villages, convincing their parents took a little longer. To calm their concerns, Tami and I offered to stay in the village (and did), so there would be someone to turn to in case of any problems (there werent any). Once the counseling staff was lined up, all that was left was to find local volunteers (and a couple from abroad) to help out with specific program activities, and a businessman in one of the villages to donate camp T-shirts.
The week went by in a whirlwind. We made models of our dream houses, and we prepared and ate sushi for lunch (they loved the preparation they hated the results); we watched Shrek without subtitles or dubbing, and we learned Tai Chi; we played mock Olympic games, and we went on a nature hike and to a workshop at a business incubator. All in English. There were 35 Arab teens, all nominated by their teachers based on their English achievement; 29 girls and six boys. The six Netzer counselors had an amazing experience themselves, and made the camp work with their youth movement experience, their enthusiasm, and their openness. It was only a five day camp, but there were plenty of tearful farewells at the end.
What happens when a NFTY group arrives for a 2 hour encounter? Can we really have an impact in such a short time?
Upon arrival, we provide a 30-45 minute rapid-fire lecture on the historical and sociological background of the Israeli Arabs or as they prefer to be called, the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel. There is a lot of confusion out there about the connection and disconnection between the Arabs who are Israelis (since 1948) and those who live in the West Bank and Gaza, who have never been and most likely never will be Israeli citizens. Then, the Arab teens enter the room, usually a group about a third the size of the American group. After a few minutes of icebreaker games, we begin an hour or so of guided small group conversation, with the groups remixing several times during the hour. The discussion questions escalate from topics like family, school, career plans, and social life to George Bush, Ariel Sharon, Yasir Arafat, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden, and on to democracy, being a minority, and the Jewish state. Because of the eagerness for and ease of human, teen-to-teen contact between the two groups, the move to more political and fraught questions occurs without anger or sloganeering. They listen to each other. This doesnt mean, however, that they like what they hear, or that everyone walks away feeling warm, fuzzy, and optimistic. The Americans and the Arabs both learn that the others do not match their stereotypes, that (surprisingly) no two others are the same, that complex problems dont have simple solutions and perhaps most importantly - that first of all, you have to listen.