A change of heart

The story of Melisse Lewine Boskovich and Peace Child.

jewish and arab teenagers 311 (photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
jewish and arab teenagers 311
(photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
From being an active supporter of Meir Kahane and the Kach movement to becoming a peace activist of such passion that one feels the Arabs must have their “Nakba” day of mourning is quite a metamorphosis.
It happened to Melisse Lewine Boskovich, today director of Peace Child Israel, an organization that brings together Arab and Jewish teenagers to get to know each other, dispel stereotypes and perform plays in Arabic and Hebrew which are often expressions of the yearning for better understanding between the protagonists.
At the end of May the company will perform their latest production, Pocahontas, John and Me at the Kfar Saba Theater. In the audience will be proud parents, both those who live locally and those coming into town from nearby Tira. For Boskovich it will be the culmination of years of work, very hard work. The hardest part is getting the teenagers from both sides to agree to take part. Then there are the logistical problems of where and when to meet, transporting the kids to the towns of their opposite numbers, casting and rehearsals.
They are the headaches of any amateur dramatic/school production with the added dimension of nationalistic feelings, preconceived ideas, hostilities and sensitive no-go topics. Boskovich takes it all in her stride, a veteran singer and actress with a lifelong commitment to activism – even if the particular ideology has gone from one extreme to another.
Peace Child was founded in 1988 by David Gordon (brother of singer Cat Stevens) who at the time lived here and was married to an Israeli, and the late Habimah actress Yael Drouyanoff. It was created to teach coexistence using theater and the arts.
“We educate for democratic values, tolerance and mutual respect,” says the organization’s Web site. “We teach compassionate listening, critical thinking and non-violent communication. Workshop participants get experience in dialogue and conflict resolution. They address issues of identity, stereotypes, mutual respect, equality in a democratic society as well as cultural similarities and differences.”
In practice it means that as a facilitator (as well as director of the project) Boskovich sits in a room with 30 Arab and Jewish teenagers and gets them to talk about their prejudices, fears and hopes before they can even think of putting on a play together. She’s been doing it for 12 years now and there have been many times when she faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles – but she perseveres, knowing that, in the long run, changing socially learned stereotypes is a worthwhile goal.
“Being in a project like this is no longer in fashion,” she says. “And even 22 years ago, when Peace Child was founded, it was considered far more sexy and trendy to be developing cross-border projects in Israel. Peace activists tended to look past the issues facing majority/minority relations, which was the basis for Peace Child.
“Today a program like ours has become stigmatized. It’s becoming harder and harder to recruit participants. It was always difficult to get Jewish participants – not because they had ideological objections but because they had greater demands on their time, were busier than the Arab kids who didn’t demand the same degree of instant gratification, so they were harder to attract.
“A change in Arab attitudes was precipitated by the riots of October 2000. They started to deal with their national identity and demanded dialogue of existence before coexistence, to address the whole problem of discrimination. The whole dynamic of peace-building in Israel has undergone a huge change, especially since the Left disappeared in the country and the Arabs are seen more as a fifth column because of their demand to identify with their Palestinian brethren.”
Still, there are enlightened school principals who encourage their 10th-graders to join the program, and for the current production Boskovich is working with Herzog High School in Kfar Saba and Amal Technological High School in Tira. The Jewish school was originally intended to be Katznelson High School and 15 students had signed up to audition.
“Only six showed up,” says Boskovich. “It was the first sign of disaster as we need a minimum of 12 kids to start.”
The chosen pupils begin activities with a three-day seminar which usually takes place in the Jewish-Arab village Neveh Shalom. It is the first real encounter between the two groups and each learns that the other is not a monster. Eventually real friendships develop.
In past years the plays were written specifically for the performances and were usually based on the experiences of the youth involved. But this year they decided to perform a known work.
“We hoped it would make it easier, not only to attract Jewish teenagers but to be able to
get bookings for our performances,” says Boskovich. “In previous years when we approached schools and were asked what the play was about, they wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole when they heard that it dealt with issues of injustice or the occupation. This way, if we offer Don Quixote or The Little Prince they know what they’re getting. But these are still scripts which have something about values and act as triggers for awareness-raising.”
They also provoke discussions among the kids. They explore the parallels, for example, the so-called “savages” in Pocahontas, and reveal that the only other encounter between Jewish and Arab teenagers had been at three in the morning in the local mall where everyone is drunk.
“Then they each see that the others are ‘nice’ kids and totally not ‘savage’ – it’s an awakening,” Boskovich points out.
Like putting on any show, there are difficulties – sound, lighting, stage direction – and Boskovich has to contend with another problem: Jewish kids dropping out.
“It reflects the difference in the two cultures,” she says. “The Arab kids stick to commitments and appreciate the opportunity to do something different. The Jewish kids are less responsible, and if something more attractive comes along, they just leave. Often it’s as simple as being disappointed at the level of production. OK, it’s not Broadway, but so what?
“It’s the ‘me’ generation in action. The Arabs have different values – something about honor which is missing in the Jewish community. It’s not ideology; they just can’t be bothered, and it embarrasses me as a Jew.
“We also had to eject two Arabs, but for behavioral issues. They were disruptive, noisy and disrespectful and the way they acted shocked the Jewish kids. But it’s also a terrible rejection if Jewish kids leave; it’s like saying ‘you’re not good enough for us’ and it blows their minds.”
Peace Child Israel is financially supported by some European pro-child organizations, such as Warchild Holland, which works all over the world to improve the lives of children in conflict. USAid also gives a grant.
“Many donors didn’t want to get involved in projects within Israel but have changed in recent years, knowing that if they don’t the programs just won’t exist,” she says.
In 2008, the organization held a 20-year reunion and 500 graduates turned up at the Jerusalem Theater to renew acquaintance with fellow actors from bygone years. Research projects on the alumni showed that the program had had only positive results.
A future project is Don Quixote with schools in Baka al-Gharbiya and Petah Tikva.
“This wasn’t easy,” says Boskovich. “After Gaza the Arabs had a real hard time sitting in the same room as Jews. Peace-building is a struggle and being in the middle of it is being in a battle zone,” she sighs. “but I’m not ready to give up yet.”
BOSKOVICH FEELS that being overweight has made her an activist.
“Whenever you see an activist – that is someone who wants to bring about a change in society – you can assume there is a screwed-up childhood in the background.
“I think I got into Kach because I wanted to nurture something in a way that I had not been nurtured as a child,” she says. “My parents were ashamed of me and I was taunted at school for my size. Instead of telling me not to pay attention to the other kids and that I was a great, wonderful kid, they just reinforced the feelings of inferiority.
“So I was open to it and being a supporter of Kahane and the Jewish Defense League answered a need for me. Kahane gave the Jews pride – a Jew who stands up for himself – and there is no doubt that they kept the issue of Soviet Jewry on the front page for years.”
She first came to Israel in 1971, having graduated high school in her native Philadelphia, and almost immediately got into hot water.
“The Israeli government under Golda Meir was getting very friendly with various African states and one of these leaders who had been invited was Yakubu Gowon, the general who had been responsible for the genocide of the Biafrans. A group of us went to the airport to demonstrate. I was screaming ‘he killed millions of children’ and was arrested and spent three days in prison.”
Back in the US she studied opera and theater, gaining a master’s in both. She would often visit Israel for holidays and in the late Seventies came back to live on a kibbutz for a while, commuting to Tel Aviv once a week to sing with the Cameran Singers under the name Lisi Lewine. It was about this time that she became friendly with former Knesset member Geula Cohen and even had the distinction of teaching her nine-year-old son Tsahi Hanegbi karate.
In 1981 she returned to the States and married Israel artist David Boskovich, whom she later divorced.
She came back in 1993 after the birth of her daughter Alex, today 18and serving in the army as a film editor. It was this experience ofmotherhood which finally pushed Boskovich over to the other side of thepolitical spectrum.
“It wasn’t an overnight change – the process had already begun – butonce I realized that instinctual hormonal connection of a mothertowards a child, I couldn’t justify ever wanting to see anybody’s childgo through any kind of pain.
“I think the Jewish people are suffering a form of child abusesyndrome. After so many hundreds of years of persecution and sufferingwe are reacting to that by the way we treat others. The only otheroption is that the Jews are born evil, and I don’t accept that.
“I’m not very optimistic. It will take five generations to fix what’sbroken. If there’s any consolation it’s that we are not the only peoplein conflict. And it is heartwarming to see that there are still people,like our youth and their parents, who find the inner strength do beactive in Peace Child.”