Givat Haviva rebuilds its projects for coexistence

Programs that drew 50,000 before the first intifada are again attracting sizable participation.

class Arab Jewish 88224  (photo credit: Xanthe Steen)
class Arab Jewish 88224
(photo credit: Xanthe Steen)
"We celebrate Independence Day as all Jews celebrate everything - with food, food and more food. A mass of barbecue smoke will stretch from Metulla to Eilat as Jews go to the forest to cook and celebrate," Lydia Aisenberg is telling a group of Brooklyn teenagers. "But 20 percent of the population won't see it that way." Aisenberg has worked for peace education since 1968. "I was born in Caerphilly-Llanbradach, in Wales," she says. "I was the only Jew in town and finally got sick of adverts in London saying 'Jews, blacks and dogs need not apply' back in the '60s." Aisenberg immigrated to Israel in 1969. Her role as an international peace worker here is to educate groups from abroad in the political, historical and cultural dilemmas Israeli Jews and Arabs deal with on a daily basis. She takes tour groups into the Amir Mountains to gaze down on the barrier separating the West Bank from Israel, pointing out the pre-1967 Green Line splitting the buzzing town of Barta'a below down the middle. "You could be living on one side and your brother on the other and rarely ever meet," she notes. On Thursday, Muhammad Shalabne, who works with Aisenberg at the same Givat Haviva peace charity in Wadi Ara, will not be celebrating Independence Day, but rather ruing the "Nakba," the Catastrophe of Israel's establishment. Shalabne lives in the small village of Iksal, near Nazareth. "In my village there might be a small [Nakba] memorial walk, but nothing too major," he says. "I prefer not to think about it too much. In our culture, land is a question of honor, and to have a strange people living on your land is dishonorable, but we deal with it." Shalabne says his family lost 750 dunams (75 hectares) back in 1948. "My cousins, who are still farmers, watch the Jews plough the fields nearby that belonged to my grandfather." "We might live OK compared to those in Gaza and the West Bank, but we live like sheep: We are fed, we are clean, we have houses, but we don't' have access to jobs that others have access to. Have you ever seen an Arab electrical engineer or flight engineer? It just isn't allowed," he says. Givat Haviva was founded in 1949 as an educational center for the Kibbutz Ha'artzi federation and the Hashomer Hatza'ir youth movement. Based in the northern Sharon Valley, its overriding goals are to educate for peace, democracy and social solidarity, and to foster greater understanding between different groups in Israeli society. Over the years, various centers have evolved within Givat Haviva and today there are six, each with its own goals and initiatives, unified in the pursuit of social justice and coexistence. "Before the first intifada [began in late 2000], over 50,000 people from Israel and abroad participated in our activities [annually]. Today we are recovering. Last year we were back to 30,000," says David Amitai, director of public relations at Givat Haviva. "There is now an Arab branch in Sakhnin in the North which mainly works with the local Arab population," he adds. Shachar Yanai is a vibrant facilitator and the joint head of one of Givat Haviva's Arab/Jewish Peace Center's "Face to Face" project, which promotes dialogue between Arab and Jewish high school students. "Teenagers come here for two-day seminars to share experiences. Many have never had the opportunity to just hang out together," Yanai says. Political realities, however, often bring things to a halt. Says Fahad, the head Arab facilitator at the center, "We had to cancel the sessions just after the Gaza bombings and yeshiva killings. How can we lecture about peace when even we, as a binational staff, feel confused by our reality at times?" One of the participants, a teenager from Daburiya near Nazareth, comes from a liberal Arab family and has met many Jews before, but she knows her classmates haven't. "These meetings are a beginning," she says. "It is good to have this opportunity for us to sit down and talk to each other. There should be more meetings like this so we can effect change from the bottom up." A Jewish 12th-grader from the Keshet school in Jerusalem's Katamonim neighborhood agrees. "I have not done something like this before. We were all embarrassed, and didn't want to say our true feelings on issues like Arab rights and army service, but it was good to hear views from the mouths of real people rather than politicians," he says. Adds one of his classmates: "It's been really difficult for us all, but the isolated, peaceful environment here helps us to relax. There are very few places like this in Jerusalem. What is funny is that we [Jews and Arabs] are very much alike really - we even look the same!" Etti Amram, head of the Art Center, is busy collecting equipment for her "Through Other's Eyes" project, which is now in its eighth year. Each week she takes Jewish teenagers to neighboring Arab towns. "They learn a skill - in this case photography - all together. And the Jewish students are photographing Arab students' homes in Kafr Kara this term. It promotes discussion and cooperation." An Independence Day exhibition of their work is being held at the center. Miriam, the director of the Noa/Nuha Center for Women and Gender Studies at Givat Haviva, promotes women's empowerment. "We are still a new county and discovering for ourselves the role of women in our different communities. Many women are stuck in traditional roles," she says. For many women in this area, access to these types of courses have affected them deeply. Rula Fatma, from Faradis near Zichron Ya'acov, says "The Women in Community course completely changed my life and opened my eyes to things I have never thought about as an Arab woman. I feel totally empowered as a woman now."