All kidding aside

A Jewish-Arab arts conference uses laughter to build bridges.

dialogue thru art 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy photo)
dialogue thru art 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
The sight, sad to say, is extraordinary: A room full of Israelis and Palestinians animatedly walking up to each other, grasping one another by the arm and collapsing together in peals of laughter. The idea of a laughter workshop might seem surreal, but if ever there was a city that needed this catharsis, it is Jerusalem. A remarkable trust-building conference of dialogue through the arts opened with full-bellied gusto at the YMCA last month. The sessions of workshops and seminars - entitled Speaking Art - brought together 60 Jewish and Arab practitioners in music and theater from across the country for two days of exchanging ideas and professional development. What makes this initiative particularly interesting is that unlike many of the other artistic coexistence projects in Israel and abroad, the organizers of this event, like Jerusalem Inter Cultural Center project manager Yusef Abd El Gafer, come predominantly from a social work background. "Social work is built on being with people who suffer in some way," he says. "You work with them - not exactly to empower them - but to give them a sense of control over their life in some way." The parallel with grassroots social activism is clear: One defining characteristic of Jewish-Arab cooperation projects is, and has always been, helplessness. Every time a small step is taken forward on the ground and a small amount of trust established, you can be sure that the banana skins of politics and violence are lying in wait underfoot. "One point that was critical for coexistence programs," recounts Abd El Gafer, "was [the outbreak of] the second intifada and in particular the incident with Israeli-Palestinians when 13 people were killed [by the police in October 2000]. It created a very big gap between Jews and Palestinians inside Israel, according to their loyalties. This was a very tense time. I think it was like a mirror for the whole coexistence program, because if you have thousands of meetings and groups, all working for many years, and one sudden day you feel that you have done nothing... I think that was a point where a lot of facilitators started to wonder 'What have we done wrong?' "When the shock passes, though, you start doing what you did before, what you know best. But I think people are more aware that activities like bringing people together to go to the zoo and to see elephants is not relevant anymore. The idea that if you put Jews and Palestinians together without talking about the conflict, that they can get to know each other and see that they are not this monster they imagined... this idea is also less relevant today." The pain of never feeling in control of the wider situation, and the predictable way in which it seems consistently to obstruct positive work means that dedicated coexistence activists have had to develop thick skins - and a dark sense of irony. "The political situation is a great challenge to our work, because the [security] wall is being built, and Palestinian and Israeli politics is very dynamic," explains Abd El Gafer. "We used to have our meetings on Wednesdays, and every Wednesday in the morning something happened. Every time, something big happened... the assassination of [Hamas spiritual leader] Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, of [Hamas political leader] Sheikh Rantisi, bombs... our group was very passionate anyway and people would come with a lot of tension. So we realized that we need to change the day, and have our meetings on Tuesday! Somehow or other they knew that Wednesday was our day." The Speaking Art conference - sponsored by the Jerusalem Foundation, run by the Jerusalem Inter-Cultural Center (JICC) and produced by the Watar Music Center in East Jerusalem - is in its third year. "In the first year," recalls Nadim Shiban, projects director of the Jerusalem Foundation, "we had to work hard to get people to come here. Now we are turning people away." Despite the current atmosphere of political stagnation in both Israeli and Palestinian circles, the conference was oversubscribed this year by almost 100%. The program followed the pattern developed in the previous two annual encounters: One day with all 60 artists together, and another day with musicians and theater practitioners split up into specialist groups Some of the participants were coming back and deepening ties forged last year, and others were new to the initiative, like Ilan Toledano from Haifa, a primary school teacher in the Gesher Ala Wadi bilingual school. His school is a rare example of dialogue in action with obvious long-term results. "Normally in a Jewish school people have no chance to hear Eastern music, Arab classical music and Arab schools don't teach traditional Jewish songs," he says. "My school is a meeting point of cultures and traditions, and through music the children learn about each other. Most importantly, the school is a whole community, involving parents, the families... the school is about much more than just the children." This is the goal of the conference too: Not just to spark professional creative relationships, but to create concrete examples of successful coexistence that can have a continuing effect long after the conference has finished. Bringing artists together for these kinds of activities is of course not a new idea. Sometimes it seems that hardly a month goes by without another "arts for peace" initiative being launched. And at a time when cynicism has seemingly become such an integral part of the political process on both sides, it is easy to wonder what benefit coexistence and dialogue projects can possibly bring at all. Dozens of questions spring to mind. How can a two-day conference have any meaningful long-term impact? Why do it now? What difference can artists make when there is so much fear and hatred on the streets? Isn't this just preaching to the converted without addressing any real problems? "Although this is a two-day conference," says Shiban, "we realized after the last two years that people continue talking, and keep on trying to find ways and programs to work on together. "You know, the political parties in Israel and Palestine have been struggling for 100 years to find a way to overcome conflict in this region. I believe that people from the bottom can influence the politicians. When I was a young man I [thought I] should enter politics and have an influence through the Knesset... but now I see that politicians take care only of themselves, and not of their societies. The only thing we should do in this region is to build up society so that society can influence politics. And this is the aim of the conference - not just to have 60 or 70 people coming in but to have many hundreds being influenced by those people in the future."