‘God meant for us to be friends’

At coexistence dance event in Jerusalem’s YMCA, Arab teen tells Israelis: ‘I like people no matter what culture or religion they are from.’

‘RACISM IS not me,’ this image from the Bokra Facebook page promoting coexistence proclaims in Hebrew and Arabic. (photo credit: BOKRA.NET)
‘RACISM IS not me,’ this image from the Bokra Facebook page promoting coexistence proclaims in Hebrew and Arabic.
(photo credit: BOKRA.NET)
The children walked out from behind a partition and took their seats around a semicircle at the end of the room.
Their parents, a diverse mix of secular and religious, Jewish and Arab, clapped enthusiastically.
While much of the city has been on edge during a wave of violence including Palestinian attacks, none of the characteristic sidelong glances and suspicious stares were in evidence on Sunday evening at the Jerusalem YMCA.
Placing one of his tan boots on a chair, a boy with a small knitted kippa atop a mass of curly black hair began strumming a guitar as an Arab youth began drumming on a darbuka and singing in Arabic.
“We should be at peace and not in pieces. God created us to become friends,” a young woman said in Arabic- accented English. Then another young woman, wearing a hijab, sang an American song with distinctly New York pronunciation.
Organized by the Machol Shalem Dance House and funded by the Jerusalem Foundation, the program, called Art Club, brings together youths ages 13 to 15, in a “multicultural group composed of members of the three religions, [from the] east and west of the city” to create art and break down barriers.
“Coming here today after the morning we all had in Jerusalem is not as easy as one might think,” the YMCA’s Efrat Eyal Hatchwell told those assembled, alluding to two stabbing attacks in the city the same day, that wounded a woman and a policeman, and led to an assailant being killed, and a separate attack in the West Bank in which a soldier was killed.
“Each one of the youths has to come from a special house and special parents with a pluralistic approach, urging their sons and daughters to get to know the other. We can only wish we had more families like this,” Hatchwell said.
“We are not only talking about Arabs and Jews but [we have] quite a multicultural group that you will meet here. The YMCA and youth department provides a safe place for everybody to meet based values of equality, respect, listening, getting to know each other and developing relationships which can then enable them to become friends,” she said.
Sunday’s brief show took years of effort to get off the ground, said Katherina Vasiliadis of Machol Shalem.
After approaching Arab and Jewish schools in the capital to recruit students, they ended up with 17 participants, who worked for eight months meeting three hours a week before they were ready to perform their first show.
As they practiced their song and dance routines they discovered cultures and languages they had previously known little about. Many of the youngsters said they had befriended people they once never imagined meeting.
“It’s always so energetic. I love these people. Are you kidding, they became like family,” said Israa, a hijab clad fifteen year old originally from Brooklyn now living in Issawiya.
“My friends at school found it hard to believe that so many Arabs and Jews sit together and nothing [bad] happens and then I explain and they go ‘that’s really cool,’” she said.
Such activities should be promoted, it makes a stronger community, her brother interjected, smiling.
An Arab boy wearing high leather boots, flowing pantaloons and a billowing purple shirt agreed, asserting that he liked to meet people from other cultures and that “the fact that we are Arabs and Jews doesn’t matter. We should be together.”
One Arab father said that he originally had not intended to send his daughter to such a group but that when she found out about it while attending other programs at the YMCA they decided to give it a try.
Now he says he is very proud of his daughter and that their family has “started a dialogue with the other parents who are Jewish” and that friendships, both among the children and their families, have begun to develop.
“This is a successful thing and we need it,” the father said, pointing to rising tensions around the country.
Nachman, whose daughter Enya participated in the program, said that as a Jew he believes “we are basically all human” and that “most civilians, Jews and Arabs, are good. Some are destroying [things] but we believe in good.”
Israa agreed, telling the audience that she “like[s] people too much no matter what culture they are from, no matter what religion they are from.”
Despite all the warmth among those comprising the small crowd, in a sign of the kind of opposition such efforts can face as tensions persist, organizations requested that any pictures published of the children blur their faces.