Ben Zoma says: who is the mightiest of the mighty? He who conquers his evil inclination [but] others say: he who makes his enemy into his friend.
--Avot DRabbi Nathan A 23
From 1993 until 2000, I spent many days every July strolling in the streets of Shaab and Sachnin. Shaab is a village of 5,000 Moslems half a mile from Shorashim; Sachnin is a town of 25,000 a few miles farther away, about 90% Moslem and 10% Christian. All of the inhabitants of both communities are Palestinian Arabs who became Israeli citizens when the state was established and their children and grandchildren. They either fought the establishment of the state or passively acquiesced, but they did not flee. They carry Israeli ID cards and passports and drivers licenses and pay Israeli income tax and attend Israeli public schools. They represent one out of every five Israelis. Some (though not many) serve in the army last week several Israeli Beduin (Moslem) soldiers were killed in Gaza, defending the state. The dilemmas created for them and for us by their presence as full citizens of the Jewish state are fascinating and sometimes troubling, and many educators involved in educational tourism feel that some exposure to the reality of Israeli Arab life should be part of any serious Israel experience.
That is why our half-day or full-day Neighbors seminars have always been popular with visiting groups from English-speaking countries. During the 90s we often hosted over 3,000 visitors in July alone, for a program whose core consisted of an hour and a half exploration of an Arab village or town in small groups, in the company of local teenage hosts. The format changed over time and from group to group, sometimes more structured, sometimes looser, sometimes focused on political discussion, sometimes on simple personal interactions. In almost every case, the experience of freely entering the village and often the homes of the hosts was a moving experience for participants. There were of course disappointments and frustrations over language, over opinions, over conflicting cultural norms. But the overall experience was one of wow, I never imagined
In the fall of 2000 there were riots in those same two villages; in Sachnin two young men were killed by police gunfire. This obviously was not a great boon for educational tourism, and the number of visitors dropped almost to zero (probably even a more drastic collapse than the general crash of tourism during those years). But now as tourism is recovering, so is the demand for encounters with Israeli Arabs. Last summer we hosted 1,000 visitors, and projections for 2005 are much higher. However, except for a few private travel agents, most wholesale tour operators will not allow their groups to enter Arab villages in Israel (not ready yet how will we explain to their mothers back home that these are the good Arabs?), so we must bus the Arab teens to Shorashim for the programs. As the years go by since the events of 2000, this precaution grates more and more, both on the Arabs, who get the message, and on the educators who feel we are being used, in a way, to subvert our own goals.
What are the hidden messages of this policy?
To the Israeli Arabs: See, we knew all along we couldnt trust you; you arent really part of this country after all. We dont feel safe surrounded by you. Now, come along and prove that you are loyal citizens, and dialogue with us.
To the Jewish visitors: We cant avoid the lingering suspicion that these loyal citizens of Israeli democracy are really waiting to do us harm, so we shouldnt take any chances. Just a precaution, but you never know. Now, lets have a dialogue with them about coexistence.
Well continue the programs even on these terms, as we try to find a nice way to respond to the Arab teens disappointment, as for now, at least, even a distorted meeting is better than none. But it leaves us, as professionals, with a bitter taste.