The play's the thing

Through theater, Peace Child Israel sets the stage for dialogue between Arab and Israeli students.

pci graduates 224.88 courtesy (photo credit: Courtesy)
pci graduates 224.88 courtesy
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"What we teach is that it's not what you say but how you say it. Anything can be said if it's done respectfully." Melisse Lewine-Boskovich is talking about the work of the organization she directs - Peace Child Israel (PCI), now marking its 20th anniversary of repair work, using theater and the arts to bridge the gap between Arab and Jewish teenagers in Israel. But the 55-year-old long-time American immigrant might well have been referring to herself. A former member of the Jewish Defense League under the late Meir Kahane, Lewine-Boskovich spent a fair share of time in the 1970s undergoing paramilitary training and doing time in US jails after arrests for disturbing the public during demonstrations for Soviet Jewry. "I was very active, to the point that I can't even mention some of the things I did," she told The Jerusalem Post. "I had a need to nurture something, and at that time it was the Jewish people, at all costs." When she made aliya in 1971, she spent the first three months living with then-Right wing leader Geula Cohen. She recalls teaching karate and selfdefense to Cohen's nine-year-old son, future cabinet minister Tzhai Hanegbi. "My moment of transformation was the birth of my child. I understood what every mother feels for her child. In the old days, I was following the line of 'The only good Arab is a dead Arab' - and I decided I had to find a way of letting go of that," she said. "My previous strategy meant there would be mothers who would wind up as victims. And that would no longer fly for me." Considering herself "walking, living proof of the possibility for social change," she underwent a slow transformation from rabble-rousing Kahanist to peace-loving coexistence activist. So when she joined Peace Child Israel as managing director 10 years into its existence in 1998, after the death of founder Yael Drouyannoff , it felt like a good fit. Her academic degrees in theater and music and her years of expertise as teacher, director and performer were further proof that she possessed the credentials for the job. But even more than the means, she also grew into the ends - the raison d'etre for Peace Child. "My goal when I joined was the same as it is today - to contribute to a more positive relationship between the majority and the minority in Israel, which is in a deplorable state of affairs," she said. "Peace Child was the first to use theater as an advocacy tool to change attitudes. Yael, and David Gordon, who founded Peace Child International, were the visionaries behind the idea in 1988, at the height of the first intifada. At that time, it was trendy to be doing cross-border work, and it was much easier to raise funds for programs like that. But Peace Child recognized the issues that existed between Israeli and Arab residents in Israel and decided to try to reach youth through theater work." Each Peace Child workshop includes 20-30 ninthand 10th-grade students from neighboring Arab and Jewish schools. Each group is co-facilitated by an Arab and a Jewish professional, one with a background in theater and the other in group facilitation and social work. "During the group process, there's safety in the stage. We use a lot of improv and psychodrama. There are things said on the stage that are very strong, but we are able to process it by going through a debriefing after every scene. It makes for a safer, richer form of expression." During the two-year program, Arab and Jewish teens from the partnering schools around the country meet weekly for eight months before creating original dramas about coexistence and its challenges. The plays, in Arabic and Hebrew, are performed for the public; in a second year of activity, the group goes nationwide. "Originally, the program lasted for a year and the group would put on bilingual plays that would be presented for family and friends at the end of the year. Now they continue on and present the plays in schools around the country - so what they do is now exposed to over 5,000 students. It's a huge effort and expense but well worth it," she said, explaining that the participants and the audience undergo fundamental changes in their way of thinking. "I'm not saying it changes every stereotype and prejudice, but we've learned from external evaluations done with our alumni that they go through a transformation. We've also conducted evaluations on the influence of the plays among the audience, and there's some change made in these kids who were dragged by their teachers to see some show." For two recent Peace Child graduates, 16-year-old Naama Sharon from Tel Aviv and 16-year-old Angie Maasher from Jaffa, the program instilled in them not only knowledge about 'the other side' but a newfound respect. "I found out that the Arab kids were a lot like me; we had a lot of fun with them," Sharon told the Post. "I think it's a very important thing to do, and it helps connect the two sides. I think I came out of it more open to hearing what the other side says. We're not going to be best friends and we don't go to each other's houses, but we're in touch," she said. For Maasher, the benefits of the program weren't only in the coexistence sphere."Through the use of the theater, I got the self-confidence to go on stage and not be afraid to express myself. At first it was hard to connect with the Jewish kids, but little by little we got to know each other. I really think it helps Jews and Arabs connect to each other in a way they're not going to get in regular society." According to Lewine-Bochovsky, there are apprehensions on both sides of the divide, which has caused some friction over the years. "At the Ziv School in Jerusalem, we auditioned 12 kids.We called for a meeting the next week with them and their parents , and only three families showed up. The kids said their friends hadn't returned because other kids had said things like 'What, you're going to talk to those Arabs?' Being in the program sometimes carries a stigma," she said. "And it's just as bad, but different, in the Arab sector. The parents are concerned about how their children's participation is going to dilute their developing national narrative and their still-pending grievances." By agreeing to participate with Jews, are they weakening their case? "In 2004, we stopped rehearsals for a play because one Arab parent from Sakhnin thought the play didn't have a suitable political message. It was about a dispute over a tree, and the parent said it was clear that the tree belonged to Sakhnin and not the nearby Jews. Ultimately, the issue was resolved. Today, that parent has already sent his third child to the program." Earlier this summer, Lewine-Boskovich undertook the task of organizing Peace Child's first alumni reunion. Despite having not kept a record of the participants during the organization's first 10 years, her staff managed to find more than 400 graduates and bused them in from all over the country. "It was amazing. The justification for the effort and expense was that we were able to engage an external evaluator to study the long-term impact of the program, the results of which we'll have in September." And gearing up for the next 20 years of Peace Child, 80 teen participants from paired communities of Sakhnin and Misgav, Nazareth and Yagur, Ramle and Petah Tikva and others continuing with their second year of the program recently met in Beit She'an to rehearse their original plays ahead of monthly performances in schools beginning in September. Lewine-Boskovich is excited about the organization's third decade and is hoping to fulfill her next dream - institutionalizing the organization's methods into a state-sanctioned curriculum. "Education Ministry officials have attended our performances and workshops. They were so impressed, that there are plans for an accredited course to train teachers and principals how to use theater. My dream is to see a Peace Child bicultural arts center, which would include teachers' courses, productions, cultural series in the evening - a way to institutionalize this coexistence mechanism." And for Lewine-Boskovich's personal coexistence mechanism, it's doing just fine. "People think of people in this field of coexistence as being traitors, willing to sell out their country. But I'm something of an anomaly, a strange Jew, which in some ways gives me more credibility in Arab eyes. I'm not willing to give up the Jewish majority of the country, and they know it," she said. "But just as there was a transformation in the US regarding blacks - now there's a Martin Luther King Day, and whites have internalized that we had been nasty to blacks - one day in Israel, we'll have to be able to talk about Nakba. But the right conditions are needed, and they're not there yet. We need to continue trust-building, like we do with Peace Child."