Galilee Diary #531, March 30, 2011 Marc Rosenstein
How did Rabbi Akiba get his start? Until the age of 40 he had never studied Torah. Once he was standing by the mouth of a well and said, "Who hollowed out this stone?" They answered, "The water, constantly falling on it every day." ...Akiba said, "If that which is soft can wear down that which is hard, then certainly the words of Torah, which are as hard as iron, can wear down my heart which is only flesh and blood." And he went off to begin the study of Torah. -Avot D'Rabbi Nathan, version A chapter 6
Yemin Orde is a youth village/boarding school located at the foot of Mt. Carmel along the coast south of Haifa. The campus was badly damaged in the recent fire. The institution is highly respected for its work with Ethiopian immigrant youth and its liberal Orthodox orientation. Several years ago Yemin Orde established a post-high-school pre-army preparatory year program for boys, based in the out-of-the-way development town of Hatzor, near the Hula Valley. Over the years, we have been asked to provide a program for these kids on the topic of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. This year we started with a session for the boys at their dorm, consisting of a background history lesson and an activity on stereotyping. A week later, they arrived at the community center in the village of Dir El Assad. There were 47 boys, and the sullen way that many of them sauntered into the meeting room did not inspire optimism. The program director told me that some had tried to refuse to participate, but he warned them that refusing to listen to "unacceptable" opinions could be viewed in the army as "poor coping skills," and might affect their chances of being accepted in elite units.
Their interlocutors were 15 kids, mostly girls, from the village, who are doing a year of community service after high school, volunteering in the local schools and after-school programs. As usual, we set up small groups, so each Arab teen was assigned to a group of 3-4 Jewish kids. We suggested topics for discussion, but only as suggestions. Initially the room was sort of quiet, but it didn't take long for the circles to pull together and the talk to become animated and the listening intense. The best picture was the girl in the Muslim headscarf and the blue uniform of the socialist Zionist youth movement (with which the village community center is affiliated) in an intense discussion with four sons of Ethiopian immigrants about what it feels like to be a minority. The Arab kids had told us they had to leave for an SAT prep class after 45 minutes. An hour an a half later most were still with us. Meanwhile we switched to a frontal meeting, in which the boys had the chance to fire questions at Iman Kadach, a young religious teacher (22) who has been participating in these encounters since she was in high school. Her charm, articulateness, and knack for being painfully honest without being confrontational, enabled her to field and defuse hostile questions without fudging them. Waiting for the bus, one boy came up to apologize to Iman for the way he and his friends had "attacked" her. I assured him that no apology was necessary, as their questions were appropriate and asked respectfully - such dialogue is not an attack; another came up to Iman to tell her that the day had undone all his stereotypes. But of course I'm sure many went home still hating Arabs; one doesn't change a culture in two hours.
At the end of the session with Iman one of the kids asked her, "What do you think is the solution of the Arab-Jewish conflict?" She answered, "Just what we're doing right now; trying to get a sense of who the Other is and how he thinks." Sounds so naïve. We all know that there are deep chasms of history and belief separating us. But how can we cross the chasm if we can't even speak to the person on the other side? The program director reminded the boys that the vast majority of Israeli Jews have never had the experience that they just had - of a few hours of conversation with their Arab fellow citizens. A drop in the bucket...