Breaking bread together

Does the Israel Museum's peace initiative for youth really cross cultural barriers?

Israel Museum 298 88 (photo credit: Courtesy photo)
Israel Museum 298 88
(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives have become very popular in recent years - especially those aimed at the younger generation. The organizers usually boast about their ability to generate friendship and understanding where hatred and suspicion once thrived. The Youth Wing at The Israel Museum also promotes such activities, but the participants' expectations are relatively modest. "The museum has been involved with art programs for the Jewish and Arab population of the city from as early as 1968 and lately I have met a Palestinian artist who graduated that program. Nonetheless, these were different times," says Eldad Shaaltiel, art courses curator at the Youth Wing. "I initiated art courses for mixed groups of Jewish and Arab children in 1993 after Israel signed the Oslo Accords, but once the second intifada broke out in 2000 the program was put on hold. Two years ago after realizing our relations with the Palestinians were not getting any better I decided to give the program a second chance." The museum decided to target children from east Jerusalem, "where the gaps are wider and the hatred and anger are relatively stronger," Shaaltiel explains. "At first the groups were relatively small and after a few meetings some of the Arab children stopped coming. Only then did we realized our mistake not to include the children's parents in the process. After a few of the mothers arrived at the museum and realized their children were in good hands all the children returned." This year, however, along with the course's Arab instructor, Hanan Abu Hussein, Shaaltiel spoke with the parents first and involved them in the process. The program was designed for two age groups - an older group of nine-year-olds and a younger one of six- and seven-year-olds instructed by Israeli and Palestinian artists. The Arab participants are from A-Tor and the Jews are from the Masorti and the Beit Hinuch schools. The children come to the museum twice a week straight from school and are provided with food, conversation and art. The program focuses on different art techniques and moves during the course of the year from the "individual" to the "group." In one session, for example, the children visited the museum's African exhibition and afterward made their own masks. They then performed a play together, despite the language barrier. "Our initial objective was merely to supply the opportunity for the children to meet and let them decide whether they wish to become friends," says Shaaltiel. On a recent afternoon the course participants gathered at the museum for their graduation ceremony which was followed by a guided tour through a new exhibition, "Bread: Daily and Divine." At the end of the tour the students, accompanied by their parents, baked bread together in the Youth Wing's Bakery Yard, a feature of the exhibition. The breaking of bread together has, of course, additional implications. "Joining this course was important for me, not just because of my interest in art but also for the opportunity to meet Israelis," says Leena Abu Ghosh, a timid nine-year-old student of a girls' school in east Jerusalem who had never visited the museum before. Like the rest of her classmates, Leena is wearing a black dress, which is her school uniform. "We tried to forget about politics and only concentrate on art." "We realized the Israelis are quite similar to us in many ways," adds Yasmin, her friend. "I feel I have learned a great deal about art and at the same time enjoyed being with Israeli students like me. In spite of the fact that our relationships have not become strong, I would like to keep in touch with them. There were times when we helped each other during the course," says Sami Abulhawa. The language barrier made it difficult for the children to connect, despite a genuine will to bond. The only solution was broken English or communicating through instructors. "The relations between the students remained strictly superficial as they are not even familiar with each others' names," says Helen, whose child (from the Jewish group) participated in the program. "I know my daughter would not approve of my critical views but I feel somewhat disappointed with the program's achievements." Hanan Abu Hussein, an artist and one of the course's Arab instructors does not accept Helen's criticism and claims the students gained from the program. "There were great differences between the two age groups as the younger ones could hardly communicate, but on the other hand the older ones mixed more easily. Their attendance wasn't compulsory - that they all attended of their own free will and never missed a single meeting proves their dedication. For the Arab students we were addressing a true urge to study art and visit a large museum since they do not have similar opportunities in east Jerusalem," she says. "Even though it was impossible for them to have heart-to-heart conversations the mere chance of meeting each other makes a difference - even if it's just a small one." "My father first disapproved of the course and was a bit concerned for my safety," admits Margalit Barel from Beit Hinuch. "But I reassured him there is no need to be worried. Most of my communication with the Arab students was via hand gestures since we had no other common language. Sometimes they paired us with an Arab child and it was fun to work together. In the making of art there is no need for language. Getting a smile from your partner makes all the difference." When Shaaltial summoned the students and their parents for some final words, two of the Arab mothers responded, "What about an art course for us mothers? We too want to come and learn here at the museum." Shaaltiel smiled and pondered.