July 2015: As I am shown around the Givat Haviva campus in Northern Israel, I walk past a three-meter high wooden sculpture similar to a totem pole. Curious, I ask Lydia Aisenburg, educator at the center, whether it is indeed a totem pole. She swiftly corrects me: it is a peace tree, sculpted by a group of Israeli and Arab children in one of the day-long sessions organised by the kibbutz to bring the two cultures together and further dialogue. It has symbolically stood there for a decade, persisting throughout the innumerable acts of violence in the region.
A year and a half later, this visit has a special significance to me: that of a tiny light of hope at the end of an increasingly darker tunnel. In the past eighteen months, the prospects of both an international agreement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and an improvement in the treatment of Arab Israelis by the state have furthered.
Months before my visit, Netanyahu had already sparked great upset among the country’s 1.7 million Arab citizens when he had asserted “The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out” on March 2015’s Election Day. Following international condemnation and Netanyahu’s two apologies, I had hope that the Israeli right would seek to mend the situation, maybe even make a commitment towards treating all citizens equally. Instead, the divisive rhetoric has prevailed. Most recently, in December 2016, coalition chairman David Bitan’s statement that he would prefer that Israel’s Arab population didn’t vote was telling of the further deterioration of relations between the official Israeli right-wing establishment and the Arab citizens of the state.
What is more, there have been little signs of inclination towards a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Last month, the Knesset voted to approve the draft legislation of a bill which would retroactively legalize four thousand settler homes in Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli military control. In the same month, the UN resolution condemning settlements as lacking legal validity led to outrage among the Israeli right, with Prime Minister calling out the Obama administration for “colluding” with a “gang-up” against Israel. Netanyahu, caught between his domestic competition with right-wing leaders and his supposed support for a two-state solution with the Palestinians, appears to be focusing the former rather than the latter.
The Palestinian leadership is no model either. Its President, Mahmoud Abbas, is desperate to cling to power despite being in his eighties, suppressing any opposition to his rule. Abbas was once again elected head of Fatah at the party’s most recent conference, using undemocratic practices such as preventing dissenting members from attending the conference and disqualifying others. He is now in the 12th year of his rule, despite having been elected to serve only four years. In this quest for survival, Abbas has been leading a sort of double act: declaring that he is promoting a two state solution, while refusing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and implicitly inciting violence towards the latter. On multiple occasions, Abbas has failed to publicly condemn Palestinian terrorist attacks. Other Palestinian officials taken the rhetoric a step further, glorifying this type of violence: in October, chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat praised terrorists incarcerated in Israeli prisons “for their acts of heroism, and for their ongoing battle with the occupation”.
With such tensions mounting, discussing local efforts to foster harmony, such as the work of Givat Haviva, seems particularly relevant. When considering the matter, most think that peace building is a top-down affair, that authorities will be the ones bringing an end to conflict. Yet is a peace deal possible if Israelis and Palestinians simply don’t trust each other? If there is both division in Israel between Jews and Arabs, and division between Israelis and Palestinians, how long would peace last? While mutual trust and support may not be a sufficient condition for a just and permanent peace, it is a necessary one.
Hence, more than ever, long-term stability in the region needs to come from local communities, with Arab and Jewish civilians working hand in hand, starting with Israel where profound separations remain. This is where an organisation like Givat Haviva comes into play. Founded in 1949 as a national education center, it is a recipient of the UNESCO Prize for Peace Education for its longstanding work in promoting Jewish-Arab dialogue and reconciliation. During my visit, I met with Yaniv Sagee, the Executive Director, who detailed the center’s strategy: striving for a shared society, the programs created aim to enhance cooperation, equality and understanding between what are today divided groups in Israel. Although this may appear to be an impossible goal in a region with such tumultuous history, Givat Haviva’s record is quite convincing at showing that change on a societal scale begins with the socio-political unit closest to the people – the community level. Projects like the implementation of common educational programs and the establishment of Arab-Jewish municipal cooperation are small steps in the longer stride towards regional peace, developing interaction and understanding between the two groups.
Although it may sound idealistic and trivial given the current conflictual situation, it is these small steps that matter today. By instilling shared values at an early stage in Arab and Jewish children’s political maturation, concrete programs like these lessen the separation between the two. In 99 per cent of the encounters Givat Haviva organizes between students, it is the first time a Jewish child has met an Arab child, and vice-versa. As witnessed during my two-week trip to the region, hatred of the “other” is instilled from a very young age on both sides. Arab and Jewish communities can live 5 kilometers from one another, yet a world separates their views regarding the region, its history and the future they envision. The Racism Index, resulting from a poll conducted by Tel Aviv University, is an embodiment of this gulf. Jewish and Arab children are asked if they would be willing to live in the same apartment building as an Arab or Jewish family: in the most recent poll, 68 per cent of Jewish kids and 52 per cent of Arab kids said no. However, when the same question was asked to participants of Givat Haviva’s programs, the percentage dropped to below 10. Through positive engagement, these programs humanize the other: by giving children the experience of human interaction, they can relate to their counterparts through Arabs or Jews they have personally met. Not only do these perennial educational processes build a basis for trust, but they also promote equality and integration when politics fails to do so.
Hence, as Arab-Jewish relations are put to a test and the peace process appears at a standstill, “the time to build a society of dialogue and understanding between all groups, has come, and not only at the governmental level, but even more importantly between local communities and civilians,” concludes Lydia Aisenburg. It is time to put the work of organisations like that of Givat Haviva further into the spotlight, promoting the notion of a shared and fruitful peace between two societies. And then only will the peace tree stand firm for centuries.