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(photo credit: Daniel Roth)
School is now officially out for the summer, and looking back on my year at Barta'a Junior High School, the experiences that I had there are still clear and present in my mind, the central component being the people I met. The connections we made with the youth we worked with are what matter most at the end of this school year.
I arrived in September with a group of graduates from the North American chapter of the Socialist-Zionist youth movement, Hashomer Hatzair. The eight of us - three women and five men aged between 21 and 25 - came here only knowing that we wanted to work in Barta'a: What we were about to embark on was an unknown quantity.
The kvutza (group) was adopted by the nearby, still collective, kibbutz Mishmar Ha'Emek where we lived while we connected with the community in Barta'a. After months of talking before our arrival, we agreed that the most Zionist thing that we could do as a socialist kvutza was to work in a sector of Israeli society that does not often gain the attention of the Jewish community, both in Israel and abroad.
As North American Jews, we felt that we had a unique opportunity to make connections with the people in Barta'a that may be harder for Israelis to make. Living further from the front of the conflict gave us a chance to meet "the other side."
We even drafted a statement so that we could better understand why we had embarked on this particular journey: We recognize a great need for dialogue between Jews and Arabs, particularly in Israel. We want to learn more about facilitating this process and we aim to participate in this through engaging in a mutually educational project with the youth of this community. We hope to build meaningful and lasting partnerships.
Barta'a, an Arab town in the Wadi Ara region, has been split in half by the Green Line since 1948. Yet there is no border crossing between the Palestinian side and the Israeli side. The separation fence, or barrier, runs on the eastern side of the town, uniting Barta'a as one, with half the population holding Israeli citizenship. The other half are Palestinians, blowing in the wind, unable to legally enter Israel while having to endure a checkpoint to enter the West Bank. Even with the shadows of the conflict creeping through the town, all that stands between the two sides is one more step on foot. Confusingly, and despite the citizenship discrepancy, most of the town hails from the same family.
When we first arrived in Barta'a there were those in the group who were simply excited to be there, while others were afraid in a town that might be hostile toward us for being Jewish and Zionist, but we pushed through those fears. We spent our first few weeks learning names, meeting teachers and playing games. Almost as soon as we got there, and after setting out a plan with the head of the English department, Sahar Jamal, we also began teaching English as a second language, as well as darma. We also ran coexistence activities, based on our own experiences at Hashomer.
Our days were spent teaching English in the classroom, and we found that working in small groups was the best way to teach and further our personal connections with the students. We taught an after-school drama program, which gave us a great deal of room to work and play with the students, to get to know them and to create something that resulted in amazing community recitals. We also got to work with them on a regular basis in an informal setting and talked about everything from coexistence to our visions of a utopian society.
It was in these classes that we began to really meet the amazing youth that comprise the Barta'a Junior High School. They were excited to see us - even now I remember the smiles and extended hands waiting for a handshake when I reminisce about the students, my friends.
Only about half-way through our six months there did we begin to discuss who we are, as Jews, Zionists and socialists. We had decided to just be there as people first, holding back our deeper traits for future discussion. The trigger for these talks was an activity during which the discussion led to one of the students telling us how uncomfortable it was for her to feel like we were beginning to build connections. She explained that she was confused - she had been brought up in a house where she was taught that we (presumably she meant Zionists) had stolen her people's land. Now she was beginning to know the people she had been taught about, and was beginning to see us as human beings, as unique as she is.
It was through that conversation that we realized that it was time to start discussing ideas of dialogue and coexistence in a more personal way, not only between people, but also between Jews and Arabs.
It was at that moment that we began to understand what that girl understood - that each of us in that school was a unique human being, we are part of different communities, and we were trying to learn about each other's communities. And more importantly, perhaps, that getting to know each other as people was the greatest educational experience we could have hoped for.
Even with the personal connections that I have gained, the politics surrounding Barta'a spin a web in my head, creating questions that don't stay silent for long. Should the barrier be built? If so, where? Is it a wall or a fence? What happens to the people of Barta'a? These questions remain unanswered.
My group is moving to New York in September to continue our work in Hashomer Hatzair in North America, mostly in Toronto, New York and Montreal. We are going to continue living as an intimate collective, sharing our learning time, our money and our lives.
The other day I walked by the school, which sits on the western side of town, next to the beautiful, green-roofed mosque. During our last month there we worked on a number of artistic projects with the students. One of them was painting an enormous mural with the graduating ninth-grade class. The mural is now up in the front courtyard of the school, with the word "unity" in Arabic, Hebrew and English. The class decided to make this the theme of their mural because of well-founded fears that the barrier is going to be built directly through the town soon. At least one house has already been destroyed in preparation for this.
Large-scale national politics leave many questions for me, and I am sure for the students we had the opportunity to teach and learn with. Nevertheless, I depart from this school year confident that I, my group and the people at Barta'a Junior High School know each other. That may be the only way to move forward on the large-scale politics - and close the distance between us as human beings.
You can write Daniel Roth at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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