Coexistence Bowed, But Not Broken, By War
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Coexistence Bowed, But Not Broken, By War

Strain on dialogue groups in wake of Gaza conflict, but participants aren’t giving up.

Jerusalem — Six times since the start of the Israel-Hamas war this summer, students, parents and teachers at the Hebrew-Arabic Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem marched together along southern Jerusalem’s walking and bike trail, which meanders through Jewish neighborhoods before reaching Beit Safafa, a scenic Arab neighborhood near Malka.

Although small, the marches were a way for the Hand in Hand community and its supporters to proclaim their commitment to coexistence despite the tension, distrust and outright bigotry that surfaced during the months preceding the war’s start in early July.

Once the war began, Arabs from Beit Safafa threw stones at pedestrians and cyclists using the trail, and Jews scrawled “Death to Arabs” on the walls of the school. The school decided to fight the hate through coexistence.

“We needed something that sends out the message of living together, and that the future of Jews and Arabs is in the same place. Our message is mostly that we are living together, whether we want it or not,” Efrat Meyer, Hand in Hand’s Jerusalem Community Organizer, told the Times of Israel at the time.

Jews and Arabs involved in coexistence through formal programs and/or in their daily lives say they’ve had to work harder to maintain good relations, but that they aren’t giving up.

“I think that for many of the dialogue groups that discuss politics there has been a great deal of strain put on what are still very fragile relationships,” said Bob Carroll, director of communications at the Israel Interfaith Encounter Association.

“Those tensions do, of course, exist as an undercurrent for our participants, and perhaps people have been walking on eggshells a little because of it. But on the other hand many of our members have become close friends with each other, and there is also a large degree of personal trust and concern, which allows us to continue to have fruitful encounters even when we can’t agree on political questions.”

Although more than a few Jewish-Arab groups have cancelled scheduled meetings due to the tensions, according to Gershon Baskin, the peace activist who negotiated the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, many others have taken place.

“I’ve been to a number of recent meetings that have taken place,” despite the fact that “there’s a lot of resistance on the Palestinian side to meet and talk. People on the Palestinian side are much angrier” than most Jewish Israelis,” Baskin said.

That any meetings are going on at all is remarkable, according to Amnon Sulitzeanu, the Jewish co-director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, an organization focused on bringing equal rights to Israel’s Arab citizens.

Sulitzeanu said many Israeli Jews are misdirecting the anger they feel toward Hamas toward the country’s Arab citizens, and that his organization has received “dozens” of complaints.

“We are witnessing a very wide variety of manifestations of hate and discrimination ranging from verbal attacks to actual physical attacks in shared spaces and the street” all over the country.

Sulitzeanu said it has come to the point where “many Jews” have “cursed and threatened” people speaking Arabic on public buses, and that “a small number” of Arabs have been fired by their Jewish employers “for expressing support for Hamas or not expressing enough support for Israel’s soldiers.” Other Arabs are at risk of losing their jobs.

Thabet Abu Rass, the Abraham Fund’s Arab co-executive director, said Jewish Israelis find it difficult, if not impossible, to grasp the “two components” of Israeli Arab identity.

“We are Israeli citizens but at the same time are part of the Palestinian people,” Abu Rass said. “I myself have half my family — my mother’s family — in Gaza. Two have been killed during the war. I’m promoting Jewish-Arab relations and believe we have a shared future. At the same time my country is fighting a war against my people.”

Abu Rass said his organization has aired the dueling narratives at weekly staff meetings.

“While I have family in Gaza, I know that some of my staff had soldiers serving in Gaza. It’s a delicate period for all of us.”

Staff members have maintained rapport “by respecting the emotions on both sides. Our staff works for shared society but we cannot disconnect our lives from what’s going on around us,” he said.

The yearning for respectful dialogue isn’t confined to the coexistence arena.

On Saturday night an estimated 10,000 Israelis, according to organizers, gathered in Tel Aviv for a peace rally carrying signs proclaiming “Yes to a Diplomatic Solution” and “Jews and Arabs Refuse to Be Enemies.”

David Grossman, a best-selling Israeli author and peacenik, shared his dream “to build true amity between Arabs and Jews.”

Despite the heightened enmity between Jews and Arabs, there are an unknown number of Israeli Jews quietly supporting efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in Gaza.

Baskin, who is spearheading a humanitarian campaign, said he “is receiving several e-mails every day from [Israeli] Jews who want to help, including a couple of psychologists who want to offer their services and do something positive.” He told the latter “to wait until the war is over.”

In the meantime an Israeli women’s organization has contributed a large amount of supplies for new mothers and their newborns, which were delivered to Gaza via a third party.

The organization did not want to speak on the record “because we fear Hamas officials won’t allow the items into Gaza if they know it’s from Jewish Israelis,” an organization official said last week, just prior to the delivery.

Father Raed Abusahliah, director of the Catholic humanitarian aid group Caritas Jerusalem, said about half of the 600 to 700 donations to Gaza residents — sealed food, toilet paper, diapers, and other essentials — have come from Jewish Israelis, the other half from Arabs in Israel and the West Bank.

“I admit that I am somewhat surprised,” the Palestinian Catholic priest said. “Many Jews have also sent us messages of solidarity and donations.”

Reading through his e-mails in his Jerusalem office, Abusahliah noted that one Israeli, a former army medic, had offered her medical expertise to wounded Gazans. Another offered two bags of children’s clothes.

“It is good to see that people want to help,” he said.

editor@jewishweek.org

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