Cooperation on the fly

Jewish and Arab youngsters from the Galilee team up, train and trapeze their way to another circus production.

acrobat 1 88 224 (photo credit: Bill Glucroft)
acrobat 1 88 224
(photo credit: Bill Glucroft)
They come from across the Galilee, from areas that, though close in kilometers, are often light years apart in culture and politics. But when 50 young Jewish- and Arab-Israelis gather at the community center in the northern town of Karmiel, longstanding questions of identity are overshadowed, if only briefly, by a more immediate concern: who will catch me if I fall? The evenly split group of 10- to 17-year-olds comes to the twice-weekly after-school program, known as the Galilee Circus, to learn the arts of juggling, trapeze and acrobatics, and to form relationships with those they might not otherwise ever encounter. "We don't want Jewish stuff or Arab stuff; we want neutral stuff," said Marc Rosenstein, the director of Makom Bagalil, a non-profit organization in the Galilee that promotes Jewish-Arab contact through informal education. "With a circus, there is no advantage and no majority" because, he said, the circus concept - a traveling band of diverse performers - is native to many cultures. The Galilee Circus, which began in 2003 with 10 Jewish and 10 Arab participants, is an outgrowth of the October 2000 riots that ended with the deaths of 13 Arab citizens. In response, Makom Bagalil decided to use performing arts as a means of bridging the Jewish-Arab culture gap. The original idea was a "magic bus" - a mobile community center - for which Rosenstein secured a double-decker bus from England. But the costs and logistics of operating it were prohibitive, he said, so the idea morphed into a stationary initiative based in Karmiel. The circus has grown steadily since, last year touring Israel with a youth circus from the United States. For the kids who participate, the immediate enjoyment of twisting in the air and meeting new people outweighs any grand sense of changing the Jewish-Arab social dynamic. "It doesn't matter" who is Jewish and who is Arab, said 15-year-old Noam Davidovitch of Karmiel. He's been a part of the Galilee Circus for five years, more because he wanted to improve his juggling skills than to meet Arabs. And that is exactly the point. "Between dialogue and circus, we decided we were just going to do circus. We don't talk about Jews and Arabs," Rosenstein said. "If I fall and you catch me, that's enough." Among the kids interviewed, however, there is a sense they are involved in something unusual. Asked about others' reactions to the notion of a Jewish-Arab effort, "some people are like, 'Whoa,'" Davidovitch said, with his fellow jugglers and acrobats nodding in agreement. "It's a bad whoa." For 14-year-old Manar Asdi, who travels between Karmiel and her home in Dir el-Asad on a bus that the circus charters, the program offers her a chance to make new friends and meet more Jews. "It's not enough," she said, hoping the circus is only a first step. "It's more difficult for Jews to mix with Arabs than Arabs with Jews," said Gilad Finkel, the circus manager and one of its four paid staff. Whereas the Arab participants must come to a Jewish area each week, he said many Jewish participants over the years have been initially afraid to perform in Arab areas. "It takes time to mix." But it does happen, he said, citing his own daughter as an example, a circus participant whose best friend is an Arab. Each year as the program progresses, he said he notices growing comfort and deepening relationships among the kids, which in some cases develop into lasting friendships that transcend social stigmas. The Galilee Circus is far from the only effort in Israel bringing together Jews and Arabs, but it is one of the few that use circus training as the means to do it. For Finkel, who has been organizing the program since 2004, the circus is an ideal way to accomplish their goals. "Circus requires support and teamwork. You don't need words because a circus is an international language," he said. "It requires an inner attention" that helps people learn about themselves and others. The program, which coincides roughly with the school year, consists of beginner and advanced levels, with those in the beginner level leaving half way through the sessions. Everyone meets as one group to stretch before breaking into one of three smaller groups that focus on juggling, trapeze or acrobatics. Participants can rotate among them, though most stick with one activity. During the year, the Galilee Circus puts on about six performances, mostly for parents of the participants as well as for Jewish and Arab schoolchildren in communities throughout the region. The circus's audiences usually number in the hundreds and overall receive a positive response, Finkel said. "What will be on the longer scale I don't know," he said, likening the circus to planting seeds that may or may not grow and blossom in the future. "But I can try." Getting and staying involved requires commitment and a cost - 900 shekels for the year, with remaining expenses covered by philanthropic organizations. Those who can't afford the full sum - which Rosenstein, the non-profit's director, said is more often Jews from Karmiel than Arabs from surrounding villages - pay what they can. The circus is not an end in itself. Rosenstein envisions it as the first step toward a future multicultural center in the Galilee, which would offer a variety of opportunities for young Jews and Arabs to mix and mingle, and develop a shared culture. "Erase the hyphen" between the Jewish- and Arab-Israeli labels, he said. "Even if for only a minute."