Defiant Dreamers of Arab-Jewish Coexistence

06/22/2011 10:31 am ET | Updated Aug 22, 2011

Is it remotely possible to close the gaps between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel?

62 percent of Palestinian Arabs who live in Israel believe that Israeli Jews "are foreigners who do not fit in this region, and they will eventually leave the country," according to a recently released poll by Haifa University's Jewish-Arab Center. A similar proportion opposes Israel's continued existence as a Jewish Zionist state.

Meanwhile, 68.1 percent of Israeli Jews told the pollsters that they oppose public commemorations of what Arabs call the Nakba, the "catastrophe" that occurred when Palestinian refugees fled or were expelled in 1948. 53 percent say the state has the right to encourage Arab citizens to emigrate, and 62 percent say as long as the conflict continues, Arab voters should have no say in Israeli foreign policy, according to another poll by the Israeli Democracy Institute.

Gaps in the narratives are matched by disparities in income and educational achievement, as well as systemic discrimination against Israeli Arabs. How in the world can these people ever live together?

That is the kind of Big Question that Nazia Masrawa, the mayor of the Arab Israeli town of Kfar Qara, and Chaim Gaash, the mayor of the nearby Jewish town of Pardes Hanna-Karkur, refuse to answer. Instead, last Tuesday evening at Congregation Ansche Chesed in New York City, they described a project that appears to be less ambitious but is in fact extraordinarily difficult: their townspeople are working together to solve the concrete, day-to-day problems shared by both communities. It is an initiative of Givat Haviva, an Israeli institute that works to promote coexistence and equality between all Israeli citizens.

Until recently, few people from Pardes Hanna-Karkur and Kfar Qara had anything to do with each other, although these towns in Israel's Wadi Ara region northeast of Hadera are ten minutes apart. But thanks to the "Shared Communities" program, groups of women, teenagers and elderly men from each town have been meeting to choose and then plan joint projects that will help improve daily lives.

Masrawa votes for Hadash, the left wing Arab-Jewish party, and said, "I cannot sing Hatikva." Gaash votes for the centrist Kadima party. "We will never agree on the history, or on politics," according to Masrawa. If their constituents had started talking about politics and The Situation in the occupied territories when they first met, there would have been "a big fight... But they can work together to make small changes."

Both display a modesty that is almost defiant, a message that is the antithesis of spin. "We don't use the word 'coexistence.' That's a word from the 'peace industry,'" said Gaash. He used to be part of that industry, the civil society groups that strive to find grand diplomatic solutions. He was the executive in charge of building grassroots support for an agreement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reached by Sari Nusseibeh, a moderate Palestinian nationalist academic, and Ami Ayalon, former head of Israel's internal security services. He gave up and became a small town mayor. "We are just trying to help people get to know each other and improve their communities."

There used to be more interaction between Israel's Arab and Jewish citizens. But since 2000, when the intifadeh begun by West Bank Palestinians sparked riots and turmoil in the areas of Israel proper where many Arabs reside, the mutual isolation has deepened. Nearly 68 percent of Israeli Jews told the Haifa University pollsters that they avoided driving through Arab towns and villages. By encouraging contact and joint projects, both Gaash and Masrawa hope they can reduce tensions and slowly develop a sense of a shared future.

Thus far, aided by facilitators from Givat Haviva, the women's group has decided to bring professionals into both communities to deal with a range of problems confronting female children, from eating disorders to parental conflicts. They will also create a joint cookbook. Needing productive after-school activities, the teenagers will start a joint theater group. The retirees are working on finding recreational activities for elderly men. They decided to encourage joint games of pétanque, a French game that resembles bocci.

But the tensions are so profound that even those seemingly simple activities have met with resistance in both towns. "Many people don't want us to try," said Masrawa, a lawyer. And that is why, he said, "we dare not fail."

The resistance and skepticism comes not only from local people. In recent years, some NGOs in Israel as well as American Jewish donors concerned about the plight of Israel's Arabs have grown very skeptical of dialogue and coexistence programs. Getting people together to chat and sing "Kumbaya," I have heard them say, does not address the second-class citizenship of Israeli Arabs. More systemic change, more economic opportunity and political empowerment for Arabs is necessary.

Of course it is. But it's also true that if these two peoples have no contact and no common language to address everyday challenges, and if they assume that their dramatically different narratives make it impossible to share their country, and if nothing is done to dispel tension and fear and hatred, "it will just take one match to make a big explosion," Gaash told me.

Givat Haviva has been doing the seemingly old-fashioned work of Arab-Jewish dialogue -- among other things -- for decades, and now it is more important than ever. Already, mayors from six other neighboring towns -- three Jewish, and three Arab -- have asked it to start similar programs. Riad Kabha, the former mayor of the Arab town of Ba'arta who runs the organization's Arab-Jewish Peace Center, hopes this is the beginning of a "grassroots movement" of collaborative problem-solving that will expand to many other divided communities.

Masrawa bristles at the idea that the program involves dialogue for the sake of dialogue. In an interview with me, he was a bit more ambitious than he had been in public. He said discrimination against Israeli Arabs was terrible and beyond his ken to address. But if he and others could show Israeli Jews that it was possible to work productively with their Arab neighbors, that Arabs were responsible citizens, it might wear away stereotypes. And that, in turn, might make political support for far-reaching change more likely.

Meanwhile, politicians, academics and activists keep proposing more comprehensive solutions. Some Israeli Knesset members and NGOs insist that Israel should be defined as a state for all of its citizens, not a Jewish state. Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman favors the ugly idea of transferring Israeli territory with mostly Arab residents --including part of the Wadi Ara region -- to a Palestinian state. In the latest Forward, Ilan Peleg and Dov Waxman offer some sensible policy suggestions, such as aggressive affirmative action to help Israel's Arabs, ensuring that Arab institutions are included in "the state's decision-making processes" and recognizing the Arab community "as a national minority with collective rights."

It is hard to believe any of these will be implemented in the near future. But no matter what happens, these two peoples need to figure out how to live together. Maybe, just maybe, tangible change could start from the grassroots, from ordinary people willing to ignore their differences, from shared community programs insistently spreading throughout the country, defying the extremists who despise coexistence and the cynics who mock it.

Originally posted @ Realistic Dove.