Young artists cross (invisible) borders

A smiling sun wearing sunglasses floats through fluffy clouds. Flowers bloom at the bottom of the tree’s trunk and a boy with a dog flies his kite. It is hard to tell which scene was created by an Israeli student and which was created by a Palestinian student.

Israeli and Palestinian students 521 (photo credit: Vadim Mikhailov)
Israeli and Palestinian students 521
(photo credit: Vadim Mikhailov)
A smiling sun wearing sunglasses floats through fluffy clouds, peeking between the branches of an orange tree heavy with fruit.
Flowers bloom at the bottom of the tree’s trunk and behind them a boy with a dog flies his kite on the beach.
It is hard to tell which of the scenes on the plastic panels were created by an Israeli student and which was created by a Palestinian student. In between the two “windows,” a shared space, a joint piece of art work, with mosaic stones and pink and purple modeling clay flowers created by both students, connects the two works and brings home the main message the “Through the Window” art project hoped to convey to the students: Though they may belong to two different worlds, they can find a joint space in which they can meet and relate to each other.
At times working on the two-year project was as easy as pointing to a specific paint color while at other times it required more imagination and some quick drawing with a sprinkling of English thrown in. But working together on the “Through the Window” art project, a group of Israeli and Palestinian eighth and ninth graders learned that they, too, could be an example of coexistence.
And it felt good.
“It is nice to know that other people can see something positive through us. To see how you can make a connection between two different peoples who may even have tensions and differences between them,” says Michal Bar-Efrat, 14, a student at the Hebrew University Secondary School in Jerusalem, and one of 40 Israeli and Palestinian students who took part in “Through the Window” over the past two years.
The Al-Quds High School for Girls in Jerusalem’s Old City and the Ibn Khaldun Junior High School for Boys in Beit Hanina were the Palestinian partners in the project, which was sponsored by Italy’s Province of Rome through the Jerusalem Foundation and carried out by the Israel Museum.
While the youngsters live in a world filled with boundaries that separate them, by working on the “Through the Window” art project the young people were able to overcome their fears and prejudices to produce collaborative artwork, which was exhibited at Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim cultural center. The individual work on the panels were later connected by a shared space each couple worked on together Over the Sukkot holiday, eight of the teenagers, two of the teachers and one parent traveled to Italy as the guests of the Province of Rome to present their project in workshops and meetings in the Italian capital. Their audience: students, teachers and co-existence workers coming to terms with the new Italian reality in which increasing numbers of foreign workers and refugees are becoming a part of their communities.
“In the meetings they explained what projects can help in communicating with others. In Italy and other European countries, there are lots of migrant workers now and they don’t know how to deal with it.
They are used to a homogeneous population,” Tamar Millo, Director of the Italian Desk at the Jerusalem Foundation, tells The Jerusalem Report. “Usually people give money for a project here in Jerusalem but in this case it has the additional aspect where [the Italians] can learn from it, too.”
And for the eight Arab and Jewish students who traveled to Rome – the four boys roomed together and the four girls roomed together – their shared experience abroad furthered cements their connections, she adds.
Though true friendship without a shared language may be difficult, the youth, as is the etiquette with most teenagers today, have all connected through new media and are now “friends” on Facebook.
But the “Through the Window” project was not without its hurdles. Just days before it was slated to begin, one of the Palestinian schools that had agreed to participate backed out. After a scramble to find another partner, the Al-Quds High School came aboard as the third partner school.
For the Palestinian students, some of whom are from the Shuafat Refugee Camp, in the north of Jerusalem, the prospect of bi-monthly visits to the Israel Museum, which they normally are not easily able to visit because of transportation difficulties, and the prospect of a possible trip to Italy sealed the deal.
Al-Quds High School art teacher Fatmeh Maheni saw the value art could have in dialogue.
“It is important to talk to the other in a language [the two can understand],” she tells The Report. Through the art, their dialogue became more memorable than any other sort of dialogue could be, though true conversation was very limited, she notes.
“When you sit at a table to talk, you forget immediately what has been said. But when you have worked together on a piece of art, that art remains and can reinforce what you have done more than mere talking.”
The project, says Yael Robin, project coordinator who works at both the Hebrew University high school and the Israel Museum, was made up in sections. In the first part the teens were asked to design their own window. Then they were paired up in couples to connect their individual windows through shared space. Finally, the whole group worked together on planning and painting what they would want in a joint city.
The children painted zoos, candy stores, clothes shops, trains, a museum, a lake with swans, trees and birds as well as a mosque, a church and a synagogue. Most interestingly, Robin tells The Report, it was the Palestinian children who said a synagogue should be in the city.
“When they started working in couples, that’s when the problems began, like in all couples,” laughs Robin. She has facilitated similar projects with Jewish and Arab students in northern Israel, together with project partner Hannan Abu Hussein from the Israel Museum, who also helped facilitate the project in Jerusalem. One problem was the language, Robin says, but also the difference in backgrounds came into play between the Israeli students, many of whom have been abroad, and the Palestinians, some of whom have lived all their lives in the refugee camp. The Palestinian students felt more like guests in the museum while the Israeli children felt they were on their home turf. “But kids on both sides really made an effort, the girls more than the boys.”
Towards the end, some of the Israeli girls even prepared a birthday surprise for one of the Palestinian girls in their group, she says.
For Beit Hanina teacher Omar Amira, the project also served as a way to expose some of his students to a different reality than they were used to in their daily lives.
“I was afraid they wouldn’t want to come after the first meeting, but by the second meeting even more children showed up than at the first. We had to explain that the project was only for a limited number of students,” Amira, who speaks both Arabic and Hebrew and served as an unofficial translator for the group, tells The Report.
“The kids came out of this knowing other people, seeing how other people think, how they live. The best was that the kids never entered into political discussions.”
The project also served to build professional connections between the teachers, he notes, and he and Robin are now almost in daily contact. Robin, who speaks no Arabic, and Maheni, who speaks no Hebrew and very little English, were roommates during their four-day trip to Italy.
Parental approval of the project was also essential in its success, notes Robin, and in addition to a joint visit to the Jerusalem Tisch Family Zoo at the end of the project, there was also a party where the parents were able to meet each other and all the children.
At first, says Riham Zaru, 14, a student at the Al-Quds school, as she stood in front of the group’s work at a presentation of the exhibit held in mid-September at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, it was very hard to imagine talking to the Israeli students, let alone sitting down and working together with them.
“We didn’t even speak but then we got closer and learned about each other. In the end, the thinking I had about Israelis since childhood changed. This will influence me in the future. Despite our differences we are all people,” Zaru tells The Report.
“In the end we all felt equal.”