The security barrier on the outskirts of Jerusalem she expected to see. What surprised her was the corner grocery with signs in Arabic in the mixed neighborhood of Abu Tor.

Here more or less as an accidental tourist (she sings in a New York choir that happened to be performing in Tel Aviv en route to a festival in Europe), my cousin’s image of Israel had been formed far more by CNN than by me. I suppose that’s my fault, for not having taken greater advantage of visits to the old country to share with her and the rest of the family the realities of the Israel I know.

She had no idea that Arabs and Jews actually lived as neighbors around the corner from me, was surprised to hear from my wife, who works at the Hebrew University’s School of Education, that Arabs comprise such a high percentage of the student body there, and didn’t realize that there were so many Arab doctors working at Hadassah- University Medical Center, that there are Arab justices on Israel’s Supreme Court, and that Arabs (including Druse) comprise a full 14 percent of the members of Knesset.

Of course, that is only part of the story that I might have told them. If I were to have revealed everything I knew, I would also have had to share with them disturbing statistics regarding scant government spending on education, infrastructure and services in Arab communities, anecdotes regarding the difficulties Arabs have in renting apartments and securing employment in the “Jewish sector,” and countless episodes of prejudice experienced by Israel’s Arab citizens at the hands of their fellow countrymen.

In short, I’d have had to tell them that the glass is both half empty and half full, that as the nation state of the Jewish people responsible for all of its citizens we have a great deal to be proud of – as well as a great deal to improve on. And to illustrate the point, I’d have told them about the annual Succot Fringe Theater Festival in Acre that I recently attended, a remarkable happening that is at one and the same time terribly disturbing and extraordinarily inspiring.

First of all, there is the audience. The more than 150,000 Israelis who flock to this festival represent an exceptional cross-section of the country’s population. Young families with little children, elderly pensioners, high-school buddies, middle-aged couples and twenty-somethings seem to feel equally at home in this alternative universe, where Arabs and Jews, secular and religious, and Ashkenazim and Mizrahim all mingle freely in a spirit of camaraderie and acceptance.

During the very full two days and two nights my wife and I spent there as part of this human horde, we didn’t hear a single voice raised or witness a solitary instance of pushing, shoving, or impatience – unusual enough for Israel under the best of circumstances and extraordinary given the heat, the crowds and the sheer diversity of those assembled.

Secondly, there is the city itself. Most of the festival takes place in the area of its ancient fortifications, with the underground caverns of its historic citadel serving as stage and backdrop for most of the performances. Given that the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, Turks, British and Jews have all fought to rule these ramparts, it is both ironic and heartening that the venue now serves as a bastion of coexistence in a society fraught with disharmony and conflict.

This is especially so as it was only four years ago that the festival had to be postponed in the wake of violent clashes that broke out between the city’s Arabs and Jews on Yom Kippur. It appears that great efforts have been invested since then in alleviating tensions among its 53,000 residents, some 30% Arab and 70% Jewish.

Thirdly, there is the entertainment. Nearly 500 performances of 70 different shows concentrated into four intense days. Plays, street theater, musicians, magicians, circus acts and acrobatics – many of them free, all of them different. Eleven of them were formally competing for festival awards. Of these, four dealt directly with the matter of coexistence. First prize went to a play called Polio.

It doesn’t just take place in an Arab school; it is actually staged in one. It deals with the role of collective memory, historical consciousness, and commemoration in the Israeli school system. It ponders the meaning of education and suggests that what goes on in our classrooms might have more to do with indoctrination than with teaching young people to think. And it advises us that all those ceremonies we hold so sacred – for Memorial Day, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the anniversary of Rabin’s assassination and the like – may actually engender more cynicism than Zionism among our children.

It does this in part by casting young Arabs who actually attend the school as actors. In one particularly jolting scene a dozen of them belt out a popular children’s Hanukka song about Jewish determination to repel the darkness of Hellenization – but in Arabic translation! It leaves the audience wondering about what it means to belong to the collective as well as the responsibility that the majority bears for enabling the minority to nurture a culture of its own.

7 Boom raises similarly disconcerting questions. It is a theatrical event performed by a young cast of three Jewish women and two Palestinian men, all of whom grew up in neighborhoods on Jerusalem’s periphery in a period dominated by the intifada.

Entering the hall, the audience is divided into small groups which then rotate among the actors, each of whom shares a dramatized recollection of childhood experiences.

The women recall the fear of being shadowed by (imaginary?) Arab pursuers on their way home from playing with friends, and the need to seek cover when shots were fired from across the wadi. The men recall the humiliation of living under constant suspicion while watching helplessly as Jewish Jerusalem encroached upon the open spaces around their homes, cutting them off and closing them in.

All of the narratives are dispiritingly punctuated by loud, unnerving choruses of “boom, boom, boom” and “bang, bang, bang.” A shared childhood memory in a divided Jerusalem, despite our insistence that things are otherwise.

So why did I find the festival to be both disturbing and inspiring? Disturbing because of the subject matter of the plays.

Inspiring because they are being staged – and watched – by a mixed population unwilling to reconcile itself to a future that merely mimics the past.

It is a reflection, then, of both the security barrier separating Arab and Jew, and the corner grocery where they mingle. It is the glass both half empty and half full. And it is the signpost at a junction of two roads leading to disparate futures. It remains to be seen which will be the one not taken, if what is now at the fringe shall become mainstream. The choice is ours. All of ours.

Arab and Jew alike. Boom, boom, boom.

Keep dreaming.

The writer is deputy chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of The Jewish Agency executive. The opinions expressed herein are his own.


Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger