In the summer of 2000, 10,000 teens came to Israel on "Israel Experience" programs. In 2002, there were 820. This summer has seen a 100% increase over last year: about 1,600 kids. Out here on the periphery, we too have experienced this little recovery, as the number of groups turning to us for encounters with Israeli Arabs has increased significantly over last year, to about 20.
The program lasts about two hours, and generally consists of an introduction consisting of a brief role playing exercise to get the participants thinking about key issues in the relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel, followed by a short lecture reviewing the history of the topic and clarifying the situation and status of the different populations: Moslems, Chrisitans, Druze who are citizens of Israel (since 1948), those living in the West Bank and Gaza, and those living in refugee camps and elsewhere. Following this introduction, guests from a neighboring village are introduced (since the fall of 2000, the Jewish Agency will not permit these groups to travel to Arab villages, so we have had to move the encounter to our own dining room, eliminating the experience of seeing the village from inside). The guests are either teenagers from our leadership training program in Sha'ab, or a teacher. The floor is simply opened for questions, and it seems that no matter how small the group, we never run out of questions before we run out of time.
Here is a typical list of questions asked by a group this summer: How do you feel about serving/not serving in the army? If there is a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, would you go live there? If you feel like a second class citizen here, why dont you go live in a country where Arabs are the majority? How do you feel about suicide bombers? How do you feel when you hear on the news about a suicide bombing? How do you feel about the fact that Arabs are also killed by suicide bombers? Why don't you speak out against suicide bombers? Are you embarrassed as a Moslem by the religious claims of the suicide bombers? If you are opposed to suicide bombing, why don't you do something about it? Do you think that suicide bombers are martyrs? And so on.
Sometimes, when I can't stand it any more, I as the moderator interject some questions of my own: about singing Hatikvah, about boy-girl relationships in the village, about career plans, about personal experience of discrimination, about experiences of travel in Israel and abroad, about school. Without such intervention, there are many groups that would never move off of their fascination with terrorism. It seems that despite our complaints that the media are prejudiced against Israel, the message has come through loud and clear to American Jewish teenagers that Arabs are terrorists, or that the topic "Arabs in Israel" begins and ends with suicide bombing.
I think of this experience as one more example of the effect of the combined impact of mass media and Jewish philanthropy, both of which are sustained by bad news. Terrorist bombing has entered the Holocaust zone: since it is absolute evil, and since we are helpless victims of it, any more nuanced, richer discussion of value conflicts in the complex reality of Jews and Arabs in Israel is simply shut down. "They" are systematically and irrationally killing us soldiers, settlers, women and babies. All we want is to be left in peace. And you want to talk about discrimination, about multiculturalism, about building a civil society?
We don't delude ourselves into thinking we can change this mindset in two hours; but at least we can send these kids home a little bit more thoughtful and curious, a little bit awed by the complexity and enormity of the challenge we face here.