Getting together

The Hallelujah Dialogue at the YMCA, the latest IPCRI coexistence initiative, allows participants to choose from a diverse program.

The Jerusalem Youth Chorus performs in Hebrew, Arabic and English. (photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
The Jerusalem Youth Chorus performs in Hebrew, Arabic and English.
(photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
We all know it isn’t easy making peace, and Riman Barakat is clearly – and painfully – aware of the effort that must be invested in trying, at the very least, to defuse some of the animosity that Jews and Arabs often display towards each other.
For the past couple of years Barakat, the co-CEO of IPCRI (Israel-Palestine: Creative Regional Initiatives) organization, has put in plenty of footwork and engaged abundant energy in virtual and physical networking activities to keep the IPCRI show on the road. The nonprofit think tank’s stated mission is “To engage policymakers and the public at large in ending the occupation and promoting a just and sustainable end to the conflict.” That, of course, is easier said than done, and things are not getting any easier for organizations that, to a large extent, rely on grants and philanthropy to pay the bills.
Last Friday, IPCRI launched its latest initiative to try to “create some kind of positive dialogue and contact among various groups in this conflicted city.” The city in question is Jerusalem, where Barakat was born and lives, and last week’s initial installment of the Hallelujah Dialogue project took place at the YMCA.
For Barakat, the choice of venue was natural.
“This place symbolizes a sort of meeting point among different religions,” she said.
Although Hallelujah Dialogue is not a religious or interfaith initiative, there were members of various religions, ethnic backgrounds and nationalities among the small but enthusiastic gathering at the YMCA. The program for the session was left loose, and people could choose from among an eclectic range of activities, which included an address by Barakat called “My Personal Story – a Palestinian Jerusalem Woman,” which was followed by discussion with the attendees. There was also a slot with American artist Max Budovitch, as well as a Palestinian artist and an American writing teacher, who read and discussed various poems. An all-female jazz dance lesson was also on the list of optional activities, as well as a game of Frisbee. While the latter may seem like a strange means of bonding, the project background material noted that “Ultimate Frisbee builds bridges of understanding and friendship between youth and adults who live in communities divided by conflict, using the character-building sport of Ultimate Frisbee as their tool.”
The day’s program began with a concert of works in Hebrew, Arabic and English by the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, under director Micah Hendler, which recently returned from a tour of Japan.
In his opening address, Israeli Hallelujah Dialogue co-founder Jonathan Kis-Lev revealed that he was particularly enthused by the opportunity to achieve some personal closure through the sporting endeavor.
“I remember walking through Sacher Park a few years ago, when I was hit quite powerfully by a flying Frisbee,” he recalled with a hint of self-deprecation.
“I would really like to get a more positive perspective on playing Frisbee.”
In fact, you could say that the personal curative element is a mainstay of Kis-Lev’s motives for setting the Hallelujah Dialogue wheels in motion and harks back to his early childhood.
“My parents taught me that this is our land and that we deserve to be here,” he recounted. “I didn’t know who Arabs were.”
He said he gained some more insight into his ethnic neighbors when he was five years old.
“I remember my father taping up the windows and the door of one of the rooms in the house, and I remember thinking it wasn’t fair that I wasn’t allowed to draw on the walls but that my father could put tape on them,” he said That was in 1991, when the threat of Saddam Hussein’s missiles was palpable.
“That was the first time I heard the word ‘Arab’ and the name of Saddam Hussein. The sirens went off, and we went into the room and I felt fear. I didn’t understand why this man called Saddam Hussein didn’t like me,” he continued.
It was a formative experience for Kis-Lev.
“The more I grow and meet Israelis and Arabs from the whole region, the more I realize that many of us are driven by fear, out of this traumatizing painful experience of fear,” he said.
Once aware of that, Kis-Lev decided to opt for a change of tack.
“My life could have continued in this very narrow way, continuing to hate and fear Arabs. Fear leads to hatred,” he said.
Seven years after the First Gulf War, Kis-Lev said, he had a transformative experience.
“I was 12 and I really liked drawing. I didn’t have any friends, I just drew all day long. My art teacher said she wanted me to go on an art weekend,” he recalled.
However, his parents were not well-to-do, and the youngster wasn’t sure if they’d be able to afford it. That particular obstacle was overcome when the teacher informed him that it was free. Then the fear factor came into play.
“The weekend was taking place in Nablus, with Jewish and Israeli kids, and my mother said I couldn’t go because it was dangerous, so I told her that if I couldn’t go, I wouldn’t eat,” he said.
The hunger strike lasted for three days, with him sneaking bites of his sister’s sandwiches outside the house until his mother eventually caved in.
The ensuing trip, Kis-Lev said, was a life-changer.
“I promised my mother that if there was any trouble I’d run to one of the guards. I was really scared to begin with. Then we started doing a mural together, and after a day I could no longer tell who was Jewish and who was Arab. We couldn’t speak the same language, but we kind of bonded,” he said.
Kis-Lev was well aboard the peace train, became involved in various Israeli-Palestinian activities, and when he moved to Jerusalem four years ago, he decided that he wanted to help set up a framework that would bring the two sides together but in an informal way.
“I wanted it to be about having fun together rather than having heavy politics or religion,” he said. “I think that makes it easier for people to communicate.”
That is a notion to which Barakat fully subscribes.
“Jonathan is a friend of a friend of mine, and he contacted me and told me he had this great idea [for Hallelujah],” she explained. “Things feel so desperate right now. So many initiatives on the higher [political] level are not working, and we need to try different things.”
Barakat divides her peace-seeking energies across various avenues. In addition to being co-CEO of IPCRI, she is executive director for BTI – Breaking the Impasse. That initiative comprises Palestinian and Israeli businesspeople and civil society leaders working to achieve a peaceful regional solution based on a “two states for two peoples” ethos.
“People work to get closer to one another, then a war starts and people – politicians – stop talking to each other, and that is frustrating because these are precisely the people who should take an attitude of ‘Hey, we know everything around us is crazy, but we need to do something. They keep falling into the same hole, just like everybody else,” she said.
For Barakat, Kis-Lev’s idea hit the nail on the head.
“Jonathan came up with his initiative, and it is a great time to do something like this because everything – especially Jerusalem – is becoming so insane, with violence and everything else,” she said.
Barakat said that Hallelujah Dialogue is, first and foremost, about simply getting together.
“This younger generation in particular has not had the opportunity to interact. If you can attach a face to the term ‘Arab’ or ‘Israeli,’ it makes both sides more human and accessible. There are all these debates about normalization and BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions], but I think that at this time there is nothing more important than meeting each other,” she asserted.
Hallelujah Dialogue sessions will take place monthly.
The next YMCA gathering is scheduled for December 5.