Soup kitchen 521.
(photo credit: Courtesy Be’er Sova)
In the playground of a religious school in Jerusalem a group of nine-year-old boys are arguing over local sports teams. The disagreement quickly escalates as the boys start hurling insults at each other. All the usual terms a nine-year-old would use and then, out of the blue, “Arab” and “Nazi” are thrown out. It’s shocking to hear these extreme invectives from such small boys. For these boys, it seems that “Arab” is synonymous with “Nazi” or “terrorist.”
On the other side of town is a tiny soup kitchen with a starkly different atmosphere. Here, the environment is one of peace, inclusion and open-mindedness. In the soup kitchen, Israeli Arabs and Jews work together to feed Jerusalem’s hungry. Many of them are there as part of a community service sentence. In an ironic twist, I learned more about coexistence from these would-be jailbirds than from any other of my volunteer programs.
If there is one thing that my experience as a volunteer made abundantly clear it is that volunteering is one of the most effective means of bridging relationships - in particular, those between Arabs and Jews in Israel. As such, it is high time that incentives are employed on a national level to make volunteering a part of every youth’s development. This will bridge the cultural and linguistic divide and, with any luck, bring this conflict-ridden country one step closer to peace.
The current climate prevents integrated schools from becoming a reality in the near future - not least of all because of the challenges that arise from having different languages, cultures and of course, the conflict itself. However, this should not prevent the government from creating initiatives outside the education system. External efforts must be made to prevent exclusionary behavior of the type witnessed in the schoolyard.
There are two primary ways that the government can get involved. The first is to institute volunteering as part of the mandatory national curriculum. No doubt this would prove to be a difficult bill to pass in the Knesset, so the second option would be to heavily incentivize volunteering programs. For example, rewards for being a volunteer at high school level could include university scholarships, grants for living expenses, trips abroad and later on, tax deductions.
The ripple effect of such initiatives is endless; they have the power to draw citizens of Israel together and would counteract xenophobia, fear of the unknown, and other symptoms of the current climate.
Needless to say, the aforementioned schoolboys never met a Nazi, but it is a sad state of affairs when the same can be said of never meeting an Arab. No doubt they had heard about the violence of Arab extremists, but they had never been given the chance to meet a regular Arab who probably didn’t live that far away from them. Had they been exposed to an environment in which they could work together with Israeli Arabs towards a common, altruistic goal, chances are that they would no longer be hurling the same insults at each other.
The motley cast of characters that worked in the soup kitchen made for the ultimate mixing pot. There were Arabs and Jews from all ends of the spectrum: religious and secular, young and old, rightwing and leftwing, everyone there had his or her own unique opinions and was more than happy to share them. But the thing that united everyone was the need to work together. After all, no one wanted to end up looking a hungry patron in the eyes and telling him or her, “we’re sorry, there’s no food for you today.” As the divides fell down and we learned how to function as a unit, we also learned that no matter how we identified ourselves we were not that different after all.
But the question was, could my newfound friendships withhold the strain of war?
It was Operation Pillar of Defense that put my volunteering theory to the ultimate litmus test. On the day that the news broke, I walked into the soup kitchen very nervously. I was unsure of how anyone there would react, but even more so, I was uncertain of how I was supposed to react. If confronted by one of my Arab co-workers, what could, should, or would I say?
As I was chopping potatoes a siren went off. Our soup kitchen turned into a bomb shelter as people from the streets ran inside. We all waited in complete silence. When ten minutes had passed everyone sighed. We were safe. And then it started: chants of “Salaam!,” “Shalom!” and “Peace!” filled the room. They say there are no atheists in the foxhole - well, there are no enemies in the bomb shelter. No longer was everything so black and white. We still had our differences, but we could talk about them in a rational, peaceful way. We had passed the test, with flying colors.
But the colors only fly so far. The bittersweet aspect of this is that the only people that are lucky enough to experience these bonds are the “bad” guys. Most of the felonies that brought them there with were pretty minor, tax evasion and the like, but still, the group represents a very limited and largely non-influential aspect of Israeli society.
Volunteering should never be regarded as a “punishment” for criminals. Such an attitude will only narrow the opportunities for Israeli Arabs and Jews to interact in a positive way. If the religious schoolboys - ostensibly the “good” kids - had been exposed to interactions with Arab kids their age, and moreover had they had the opportunity to volunteer together, who knows what kind of repercussions that could have?
The more education a person receives, the less likely he is to become an extremist. Volunteering is the best educator outside the classroom. It forces stereotypes to melt away, preconceived notions to be examined and century-old divisions to be dismantled. A national incentive program for young volunteers would better Israeli society for both Arabs and Jews. My experience has taught me that giving is the best gift of all and is the surest path towards achieving a vision of Salaam, Shalom, Peace.
The writer is a Masa Media Fellow who has spent the last year learning and volunteering at Midreshet Yeud in Jerusalem. She is a native New Yorker graduating SAR High School and will be attending Johns Hopkins University in the fall.