Building Peace at Givat Haviva

Rose Vennin
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.

A Conversation with a Falafel Vendor

Aaron Simons

As I turned down towards Jerusalem’s Ben Hillel Street, a familiar scent floated through the air.

“What would you like my friend?”

Now I don’t often skip meals, but circumstances meant that I had missed lunch. It was early evening and I was gripped by a belligerent hunger, the sort of hunger that demands your attention and doesn’t let you walk past a falafel stall without putting up a fight. I’m a sucker for falafel after a three course meal, let alone in circumstances such as these.

“Go on then. Falafel in pitta please. With all the salads.”

This chickpea temptation was the produce of a kind-looking Mizrahi man, probably in his mid-50s, wrapped up in a scarf and hat against the sharp Jerusalem cold. He refused to serve me the lukewarm falafel sitting under his heat lamp, rolling some fresh mixture instead. Falafel, he insisted, was best served hot.

“So what brings you to Israel?”

“I’m doing some research” I explained. “I’m investigating how British Zionism reacted to the Holocaust.”

He raised an eyebrow and gestured towards the radio in the corner. My Hebrew wasn’t good enough to make out what was being said, but tone alone made clear that the radio host was delivering a harsh invective. I realised that it was international Holocaust Memorial Day.

“The right are complaining. He’s attacking the left. He says that the left keeps comparing the right to the Nazis, by saying that the new law is like forcing the left to wear a yellow star. He’s saying that this is an abuse of the memory of the Shoah.”

In Jerusalem, I imagined, this was a popular radio show. Jerusalem is not a city on the left.

“Do you agree?”

“The right are always complaining. They never admit their own faults. I’m not sure the new law is a good idea. But the left are always exaggerating and talking like the right is the world’s biggest evil.”

I thought about offering my own opinion, but I figured that his would be far more interesting. Caricatures of Israeli politics are so easy to find, but this was a rare opportunity to hear the unfiltered views of a native Jerusalemite.

“And what about you? Where are you, left or right?”

He shrugged sheepishly.

“If I am being honest, I am on the right.”

I put on my most convincing blank face, but he saw straight through it. He could see my disappointment.

“Not the right like that, not the right that is always in the news. Not like the guy on the radio. I’m on the centre-right. I believe in peace, I want peace. I was there with Rabin in the 90s. I was on the streets with him, I believed in him and in the end of the conflict.

But since then things have changed. The Arabs, they do not want peace. They see this as a religious war, this isn’t about land or politics to them. Look, if an Arab wants to stand outside my shop and talk or smoke, he can. But if a Jew were to go to Bethlehem or Hebron and stand outside without the IDF there, he would be dead within 10 minutes.

It is sad. Things are much worse now. I want to be on the left, but I look around today and I can’t be, so I am centre-right. Maybe one day there will be peace. But not today.”

Much has been made of the rise of the Israeli right. Academics, analysts and journalists debate the ideological influence of Jabotinsky’s Revisionism, the left’s historic racism towards Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews, the secular-religious divide, and the impact of sustained exposure to terrorism on Israeli society. Anti-Zionist polemicists argue right-wing dominance reflects a society dedicated to West Bank settlements, violence, and racism.

But this was not a settler, a religious radical, or a member of Lehava. Nor did this Jerusalemite mention religious tensions or Ashkenazi condescension. The rise of the Israeli right is perhaps less complicated than it first appears. Would-be Israeli moderates and peaceniks are gripped by one single, powerful, narrative that took root in the early 2000s and continues to resonate strongly today. Many Israelis simply believe that the Palestinians do not want peace.

It is not a narrative that I think tells the whole story, nor is it one that I completely agree with. But I can see where it comes from. Even West Jerusalemites live in a world where the occupation feels distant but Palestinian violence feels immediate. Rightly or wrongly, Israelis read their recent history as one where offers of peace were returned with nothing but increased violence: Ehud Barak’s Camp David proposals resulted in the second intifada, the Gaza withdrawal lead to Hamas rockets and tunnels.

The dominance of the Israeli right may not be that complex at all. In a political spectrum that places security at one end and peace at the other, Israelis vote for hawkish parties because they simply believe they have no partner for peace.

My new friend was right on one thing though. Falafel is definitely best served hot.