The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its inhabitants. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size...; we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them. -Numbers 13:32-33 (the report of the spies)
For twenty years, the "flagship" project of our educational center has been setting up encounters between Diaspora Jews and Israeli Arabs. While the visiting groups include adult synagogue and community tours, the vast majority of the guests are teenagers or birthright participants. There have been years when we have hosted over 3,000 people in July alone; in recent years the numbers have been in the range of 1,500-2,000. The standard program consists of a 45-60 minute background presentation surveying the history of Jewish-Arab relations in the land of Israel, and trying to explain the current reality and the dilemmas we face here - both the Jewish majority and the Arab minority - as we try to live together in the democratic Jewish state. Then, either the group reboards their bus for a 15-minute drive to a nearby village, where they meet Arab teens in the school; or, if the group's tour operator forbids entry into Arab villages (there are still some who do), we send a bus to bring the Arab kids to Shorashim.
This year, we are working with groups in three villages; it varies from year to year depending on logistics, local politics, school leadership, etc. - also, some years we are able to provide a weekly after-school English "club" for the Arab teens, in addition to their one-time encounters with visiting groups. In any case, in a typical summer, each Arab participant will have had the opportunity to converse with Diaspora Jews for an hour or so at least a dozen times, and many return for two or even three summers. They do it for the English practice, which is crucial, especially for the better students with academic ambitions; they do it for the fun of meeting other kids; they do it because it's something to do; they do it out of a commitment to try to build understanding and correct stereotypes. Some of them are stars and it is a pleasure to watch them shine; others struggle to communicate, but they stick with it. At the end of the summer the overall improvement in English fluency and in self-confidence is evident.
And the tourists? Their first comment is usually that they found it surprising and interesting to discover just how "normal" the Arab kids are - universal 21st century teenagers. Not what they expected from what they "knew" about Arabs from the media. (Actually, the first surprise comes in the introductory lecture, when they learn that one out of five Israelis is an Arab, and that the Arabs of Israel and those of the West Bank and Gaza, while they share an ethnic identity, are very different in their history, status, politics, and prospects). We have found that it is important to structure the encounter to focus mainly on the personal, on family, community, school, social life, etc., opening up more "political" questions as the hour goes on (what is it like to be a minority? What do you like and dislike about the place in which you live, etc.), as jumping into heavy political conversations generally means just lapsing into defensive positions, so that no real conversation takes place. There are always a few in the American groups, usually boys, who insist on steering the conversation immediately toward a debate in which they seek to overwhelm the Arabs with proofs of Israel's righteousness, and get stuck there for an hour. But since we work in small groups, and remix them a few times in the hour, they generally don't derail the learning of the rest of the group. And there's nothing wrong with the Arab kids' having to learn to hear these arguments and think about them and their responses to them.
The season has begun and I myself have already facilitated a few groups this week. Are we making peace? We have no illusions of that. But we figure that sending the Americans home with a slightly more nuanced understanding of the reality here may be useful in the long run; and if we contribute our small part to nurturing a self-aware, self-critical, self-confident, worldly young leadership in the Israeli Arab community - dayeinu!