music – they may sound like ingredients for a typical spring break. But this gathering of over 1,000 rambunctious teens had a different flavor and purpose.
Called alternatively a “Friendship Jam” and a “Peace Intifada,” the three-hour festival held on the grounds of the SodaStream factory just outside Rahat in the Negev on Wednesday arose out of an initiative by a handful of children of Jewish and Beduin SodaStream employees following a terrorist attack two weeks ago.
The “stabbing intifada” had stayed clear of the Beduin city and its surroundings, including the Jewish community of Lehavim in the Bnei Shimon region. That changed on February 6 when 65-year-old grandmother Shlomit Gonen from the area’s Kibbutz Mishmar Hanegev was lightly wounded by an unidentified assailant while she was shopping on a Saturday night in Rahat’s open market.
The Beduin community immediately condemned the attack and Rahat Mayor Talal al-Krenawi told reporters after visiting Gonen the next day that “Shlomit’s stabbing was a stabbing of every Rahat resident.”
It was only natural that a solidarity event with Beduin and Jews from the area would take place at SodaStream, the international home carbonated water kit company that last year opened a huge, state of the art factory just outside Rahat According to Krenawi, the company has brought “oxygen” to Rahat by providing more than 400 residents, including many working mothers, with badly needed jobs.
On Wednesday, that oxygen was on clear display, as the plant’s workers – Jews, Arabs, Palestinians and Beduin – mingled under big white tents with teens in traditional Beduin garb and Jewish students in shorts and Red Hot Chili Peppers T-shirts from the area and from the Thelma Yellin High School for the Arts in Givatayim, near Tel Aviv.
Jazz fusion combos, Hebrew hip hop and Arabic pop streamed live one after the other, wafting in the unseasonably sultry February air – as the participants wolfed down kosher burgers and chip and popsicles compliments of SodaStream and eyed each other like teenagers do everywhere else.
SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum was busy posing for photos with families of workers, shaking hands with visitors and overseeing the event.
“As a result of the stabbing this month, the children of the workers here decided to get together to say it’s wrong for children to be running around stabbing people. Children should be doing other things, like playing, meeting each other and making music together,” the American-born Birnbaum said.
“Here’s a message about coexistence that has nothing to do with politics – it’s only about people,” he added, standing near marble that was brought from the company’s former factory in Mishor Adumim, with the inscription, “They will beat their swords into plowshares.”
A tour of SodaStream’s immense facilities bears that aspiration out. The company employs some 1,200 people – including the 400 from Rahat, 74 Palestinians who worked at the closed-down Mishor Adumim plant and are in danger of losing their work permits at the end of the month, 300 immigrants from the former Soviet Union and about 100 Ethiopian olim and Israeli Arabs, respectively.
Somehow, that potential tower of Babel works and employees had nothing but praise for the company and its work conditions. The sense of community and mutual respect is palpable.
Birnbaum repeated his credo that he frequently uses that SodaStream’s main product is peace, and that it also happen to make soda on the side.
But that’s selling the soda short. Since its 1978 arrival in Israel, SodaStream has positioned itself as the world’s top homemade sparkling water brand, with its compact product sold in 45 countries and bringing in annual revenues of $450 million.
But the real value is in seeing 18-year-old Sami Ashwi, from Rahat, and 17-year-old Nitzan Birnbaum – Daniel’s son – stand with their arms around each other inside the factory and explain why they created the Peace Intifada.
“The situation in Israel has gotten so bad, we just needed to do something,” said Nitzan, who met Ashwi on a school trip to Rahat two years ago from his Tel Mond school.
Two weeks ago, he suggested the concept to Ashwi, who picked up the ball and ran with it.
“Look outside, there’s almost 1,200 teenagers here who are saying to the world and to the people and government of Israel that we can live together,” said Ashwi. “Teens are the leaders of tomorrow and if we want to change things, the ideas must come from us.
“This factory is giving a chance for the Beduin here to work together with the Jews and hope for a good life together. If we don’t get to know each other, we’ll always have a problem. Once you start to know each other, it creates the beginning of a solution. That’s what happened with me and Nitzan.”
Back outside, the music had finished, the leftover burgers were looking forlorn and teen volunteers were being handed trash bags to pick up the refuse on the ground. Most of the young guests had left the campus and the SodaStream workers were returning to their stations to continue the workday.
The first Peace Intifada had passed peacefully. Now the difficult part begins... to keep it going. The SodaStream community seems to have found the secret.