We were engaged to "do" a day-long seminar on Arab-Jewish relations for 10th graders in our local Jewish high school this week. About 75 kids signed up to participate, and chose from among five different interest options: lands/zoning, women, sports, Acco, and a peer encounter. Each group met at school for an hour-long preparatory lesson, followed by an assembly addressed by the founding county executive of the Misgav county, a thoughtful, charismatic, and highly respected leader in the community. Then each group left for its particular schedule of activities and experiences over the next four hours.
I was assigned to the peer encounter group. The Arab partners were a group of teens from the neighboring Moslem village of Sha'ab, participants a weekly English enrichment group we run there (the idea was to conduct the meeting in English - neutral turf where no one would have an advantage or feel disenfranchised). We had met with the Sha'ab kids the day before to prepare, and had had an interesting and difficult session with them, as they wanted to bring videotapes of Israeli atrocities in Jenin, to convince the Jewish kids to oppose Israeli policies. Finally, through role playing, we got them to accept that their plan was guaranteed to backfire and cut off any possibility of open communications and developing trust with their Jewish peers.
Both groups met here at Shorashim, starting off with icebreakers so kids could learn each other's names and feel less uncomfortable together. Then we used a lottery to create mixed groups of four each; after various small tasks to get them talking together, each group was given a bag of miscellaneous supplies (cardboard, tape, straws, sticks, etc.) and instructed to build a tower -- to be judged for height and stability -- without talking. And a great time was had by all, even the incompetent groups. It was clear that everyone was invested in making this exercise in cooperation work, and there was no group that did not function as a group.
After a short break, we got organized for the hike across the Hilazon Valley, through the olive groves, to Sha'ab, about a 30-minute walk. As expected, they immediately separated into separate groups (Jews with Jews, Arabs with Arabs). After 10 minutes or so we stopped, divided into the mixed groups, and sat under the olive trees doing an exercise involving talking about home. After a few minutes more walking, we stopped again. Each group of four was given two blindfolds, with instructions to blindfold one Arab and one Jew. Then we told them to keep on walking. Of course, they had to help each other, walking on across the valley holding hands in various combinations, laughing a lot. When we had almost arrived, they were allowed to remove the blindfolds - but almost all of them continued to walk in their mixed groups.
In Sha'ab, in a classroom of the newly constructed high school, we tried to study together Lanston Hughes' poem "A Dream Deferred," but it was too abstract, and it soon became apparent that we were getting nowhere. So we simply told them that for the last half hour they could talk in their groups about anything they wanted. Now was the Arab kids' chance to push their agenda -- which they did, calmly. Looking around the room, seeing them all leaning into their circles, listening intently to each other, was quite a moving experience for me.
Later, in our debriefing (separately), everyone agreed that the day had been important and fun and successful -- but each side expressed disappointment in its discovery that the other side was firm in its commitment to its own "truth," and that convincing each other, arriving at a common perception of the reality, was not going to happen.
Of course, we are left with lots of interesting and difficult questions; e.g., why did the Arab kids only want to talk about Jenin, and not about their own situation as Arabs in Israel? Why were the Jewish kids willing, in a number of cases, to express regret and take responsibility for wrongs that may have been committed by Israel,. whereas the Arab kids, when confronted with questions about terrorism, could only mouth formulas about being against all violence? Despite these and other concerns, the day was deemed a great success by the kids and their teachers. We all understood that something important had happened. We had allowed the human, for a few minutes, to push aside the political. We had - briefly, hesitantly, doubtfully -- listened.