Can we talk?

Israeli Arab and Jewish children participate in an interfaith dialogue and strive to become 'a window which is a mirror.'

They look more or less alike, but it's a mixed group of pupils in the auditorium. They're all in eighth grade, but what else they have in common remains to be seen. Up on the screen at the ORT Dafna School in Kiryat Bialik, some basic facts about circumcision appear - what its religious basis is, when it occurs, etc. The text is all in Hebrew and a teacher quickly runs through the details. The next slide has the same pictures, with one difference - the text is in Arabic. This time, a different teacher runs through the material in Arabic. The next slide - baptism and communion. The same drill - once in Hebrew and once in Arabic. The procession continues as the pupils, from the Kiryat Bialik school and a Catholic school in Nazareth, look on in a mix of interest and boredom. Bar mitzvas are compared with confirmations and the pupils learn that Muslims do not have an equivalent ceremony. Jewish, Christian and Muslim wedding customs are shared and compared. After getting all the way through marriage in the lifecycle, the pupils are broken down into smaller groups where each has prepared a personal perspective on a lifecycle event in his religion. This is the third of four meetings two organizations have arranged as part of a singular dialogue program between Jewish schools and Catholic ones in the Holy Land. The program is a joint project of the TALI (Hebrew acronym for "Enhanced Jewish Studies") Education Fund and the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations (JCJCR). Eight schools, four from the TALI network and four from the Catholic network, sent selected volunteers to attend the program in its first year. The groups of pupils, each meeting their peers from fifth to eighth grades, met several times throughout the year, working through a program focused on comparative religion. The pilot year was preceded by a year of training from Ma'arag (the Association for the Advancement of Education for Living in a Multicultural Society) for the teachers who run the sessions. Though predominantly Jewish and Catholic, there are also some Muslim kids who are taking part and their traditions have been included. It was the first time the Muslim kids could bring their religion to a school activity in their Catholic schools, project director Eva Halahmi told The Jerusalem Post recently. In a nutshell, "the goal of the project is to provide a window which is a mirror," Halahmi said. "We hope to provide a basis to understand the other, and stir curiosity about your own culture. If I see that my culture is variegated and complex, I can begin to believe that the other is that way too. And visa versa. If their culture is rich and complex, then perhaps mine is too." TALI has a lot of experience getting secular Jews interested in Judaism, she said, and felt secure in its expertise. It started to look around for some way to expand and apply its experience. "I did a survey of dialogue groups," Halahmi said. "There is religious dialogue elsewhere. What is unique about this project is that it is not aimed at leaders, but at the grassroots. It is aimed at the teachers and the pupils. Here, teachers are the group leaders, not outside professionals." WHILE CERTAINLY noble sounding, dialogue groups are tricky. In addition to crafting a program that does not offend anyone's sensibilities, and draws on similarities, one has to continually figure out how to turn the program from a flash in the pan with no lasting effect, to a force for change. As Prof. Ephraim Ya'ar, head of the Evens Program for Conflict Resolution and Mediation at Tel Aviv University, told The Jerusalem Post, dialogue programs have generally been found to have positive effects, but also several limitations. "Dialogue groups have certain value because they break down stereotypes. Especially between Israelis and Arabs," he said. "Participants see that the others are people just like them. They have the same personalities, the same values. We know from research here and abroad that face-to-face meetings change reality." However "there are limitations - the principal one is that there is no spillover effect. For it to be effective, it needs to be a wide initiative that exposes many youth. In general, effects are usually limited to the participants. People go back to their own milieu and if they don't continue to act in these areas, then the effect is short term." As a pilot project just finishing its first full year with its first groups of pupils, these are the issues which the project coordinators and teachers face. They are struggling with a dilemma - how to expose as many people to the project as possible, while making its effects long-lasting. The project coordinators are not unaware of the difficulties. One of their first choices was to make the program an encounter between school networks, rather than between two schools, to widen its effect. "There will be new groups next year. It'll be the same eight schools and either fifth, sixth, or seventh grades. We've had such a positive response that those who didn't go through it begged to be admitted to the program," Halahmi said. Eventually, she said, we want to expand the program to the entire TALI network, which will number 80 schools next year. While challenging, "it's a good problem to have," Halahmi noted. "Teachers, students and parents are all raising the issue of continuity." In fact, teachers from both schools told the Post that continuity was very important. Vered, one of the two teachers who ran the project in ORT Dafna, worried whether the groups had spent enough time together. "It was a good project; they learned about others, about themselves, but it stops here. They are not meeting over the summer. If we continue to meet with the same pupils, maybe we will get somewhere," she said as the pupils worked together on an arts and crafts project tied to the program's topics. Basma Salman, of the school in Nazareth, echoed Vered. "I think the project has succeeded. But if we don't continue then it's as if we didn't do anything," she said. Hussam Elias, one of the program coordinators for JCJCR, also noted, "it's a pilot program, it's always being modified as we go along." In response to the request for continuity Halahmi allowed that "we might offer one pair of schools a pilot program of continuity." To reach more people, she said they were also thinking about training more teachers, even if the teachers did not then participate as group leaders in the program. Salman also stressed the importance of good lines of dialogue among the professional staff. "We have to communicate. If we [the teachers] can't, how is it going to work for the kids?" For this project, that issue is not theoretical. Last year, during the training sessions for the teachers, an issue arose which led one of the Arab coordinators to leave. According to Hana Bendcowsky, program director at JCJCR, in one group the Jewish teachers brought two pictures to one of the sessions. One was of the Madonna and the other was of a naked woman posing. The purpose was to discuss various portrayals of women in society, she said. However, it quickly became clear that the juxtaposition of the two photos was deeply offensive to the Christians in the room. While potentially a useful dialogue tool, the Arab coordinator, however, chose to continue to harp on the issue, and turned it into a bone of contention instead. Eventually she decided she could not be part of the program and left. Salman had urged her to stay. "I was opposed to her leaving and I'm sorry she felt she had to leave. We need to deal with these issues," she said. DURING THE smaller group sessions, the kids presented more basic information, but also were bold enough to question their compatriots about their traditions. One Jewish boy asked his Christian counterpart, "What if someone reaches the age of majority and wants to convert and become a Muslim?" To which the calm reply was, "He will always remain a Christian and he can return [to practice] at any time." Walking around during the arts and crafts exercise and talking to the kids revealed that the program seems to be working, according to Prof. Ya'ar's criteria. "I thought that all Arabs were not all right, but now I see that they are nice. I would want to stay in touch with them," Sapir said. She said she had volunteered for the program because it seemed "cool." Gal concurred. "They are not so different from us. I had stereotypes that were not right, but we can cooperate," he said. Peter Hanna, a Roman Catholic from the Nazareth school, discovered that Jews did not think badly of Arabs. "I didn't know what Jewish children said about Arabs. I saw that they have no problem meeting with us. And I didn't see any problem being in a group with them or being friends," he said. "I thought they didn't like Arabs, but now I see they have no problem." Hanna said he had learned about Jewish customs, which he hadn't known anything about before. "I knew they had a bar mitzva, but I didn't know any of the details," he said. He said his parents had a lot of Jewish friends because his mother works for the local council, but that there were no Jews in his village. In addition to positive responses from teachers and pupils, Halahmi said they had received a lot of support from the parents as well. "At one school, the parents asked to meet with parents of the other school. This was the Alona School on Moshav Amikam. They ascribe to Jabotinsky's philosophy - not leftists by any means, and the request came from Alona," she said. Going into its second year, the program directors and coordinators seem well aware of the hurdles they have to overcome. But with a successful year behind them, they are eager to tackle those challenges and turn their program into an educational bastion.