Coexistence and Hope in the Shadow of Occupation

Emma Brand

Last time I wrote for Zionish, I was quite critical of Israel. I received a fair amount of positive feedback from fellow 20-somethings, many of whom had difficulty articulating the conflicting feelings they had towards the Jewish state. But one response stands out. I was told I had omitted to offer a sense of hope for the future. I had said a lot of negative things, but left out some of the positive steps that are being taken to make changes in Israeli society.

If my last piece focussed too much on Israel’s inconsistencies and inadequacies, I would like to put a spotlight on some of the organisations working in Israel which inspire me and give me hope for the future.

There are a plethora of organisations working to improve the lives of those who find themselves at a disadvantage in Israeli society. But in the midst of another round of violence, I felt I should focus on the vital work of organisations set up with the aim of promoting coexistence in what must be one of the world’s most divided countries.

There are an inspiring number of groups that bring together Arabs and Jews to work on interfaith projects in which they share a common interest. Many of these groups are arts-focused; Jaffa boasts two interfaith theatres, the Arab-Hebrew Theatre and the Elmina Theatre, the second of which is headed by a husband and wife who are Arab and Jewish respectively. Both of these theatres promote coexistence in everything they do, from the writing, to the casting, to the audiences they reach. Also of note is the Western-Eastern Divan Orchestra, established by Daniel Berenboim and Edward Said in 1999, which brings Palestinian and Israeli musicians together for an annual tour. Similar initiatives abound in dance, film, and even clowning in the form of the Galilee Youth Circus, whose act requires Arab and Jewish teenagers to learn to trust one another and work as a team.

Sports initiatives have also been developed in response; PeacePlayers International, active in both Israel and the West Bank, brings together Jews and Arabs to play basketball, and the smaller-scale Soccer for Peace, is a residential soccer camp for boys in the north of Israel that was piloted this year.

The north is also home to the Sir Charles Clore Jewish-Arab Community Center in Akko, which is notable for its provision for women and children in particular, providing low-cost childcare for both Arab and Jewish children, and working to educate and empower Arab women.

Other incredible organisations also tackle the conflict head-on. The OneVoice movement seeks to empower the moderates on both sides, and has over 700,000 supporters in Israel and Palestine. In my last article, I mentioned the repulsive “Price Tag” – Tag Mechir, so here it is important to give a spotlight to the response; Tag Meir, an anti-racism campaign that acts as an umbrella for many other groups that are fighting the prejudice propagated by Jewish extremists in Israel. The Bereaved Families Forum, also tackles bereavement on both sides, with members promoting peace by standing as living examples of the human cost in continuing to fight.

Rabbis for Human Rights also tackle the injustice of occupation. They have recently been in the news for defending the Palestinian village of Susya from demolition, protecting Palestinian farmers during the olive harvest season, and being attacked by extremist settlers for it. Their work has inspired Jewish supporters to accompany farmers on the way to their crops as a sign of solidarity, but also to be a barrier against settler aggression. They put their lives at risk in doing this, because this is how they wish to enact Torah.

Givat Haviva, a kibbutz whose whole ethos is “a shared future”, is a particularly admirable organization. In line with this ethos it has established partnership programmes, twinning the Jewish town of Pardes Hanna-Kahur with the Arab village of Kfar Kara as an example. They are currently in the process of developing other partnerships due to the success of this trial. These areas are chosen specifically because of recent discussion of landswaps – the kibbutz seeks to promote coexistence in areas that might come under one rule or the other. Givat Haviva also promotes economic cooperation between Jewish and Arab municipal areas, and the NGOs and Special Interest Groups Forum supports local NGOs from nearby Arab and Jewish communities.

The people of Givat Haviva also operate on an incredibly human level. When I visited the centre, I was given a tour of a local Arab village, Barta’a, which was cut in half by the Green Line. We were really given the sense that our guide, Lydia, knew the village, and that she counted Arab-Israelis and Palestinians among her close friends. That their lives were driving some residents of Barta’a towards radicalism was clearly a source of personal pain to her.

These organisations, and many others, give me genuine hope. But this all feels trite when Israelis and Palestinians are dying in the streets. Whatever these organisations do, Israel has poison at its heart in the form of the occupation, and whilst these coexistence projects assuage its symptoms, that poison will always be toxic.

Could the friendship of an Arab actor and a Jewish actor, cultivated during interfaith theatre work, survive if the Jewish actor, now in a soldier’s uniform and following orders, raided the Arab actor’s home in response to other people throwing stones? And could it survive if the Arab actor, already vulnerable to radicalisation, joined the extremists stabbing Jews out of a combination of desperation and incitement? Probably not. And even if these two actors were not directly involved, would either be blamed for feeling suspicious or unsafe around the other?

These coexistence projects are absolutely vital for the future of Israel. They are a source of hope and offer a way for diaspora Jews who are aghast at the likes of Lehava to engage with Israeli society. But in order for Arab-Jewish relations to truly flourish, the occupation must end. The future of coexistence depends on it.