Multicultural language

A Jerusalem author highlights the challenges of Jewish-Arab dialogue in a tumultuous country.

tamar verete-zahavi 298. (photo credit: Courtesy)
tamar verete-zahavi 298.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Tamar Verete-Zahavi, a religious Jerusalemite and mother of three, has been troubled by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict since she was a teenager. She grew up in a moderate-left-wing house in Rehavia, and remembers a continual family argument about whether or not the Arabs were exiled from their homes during the War of Independence. "My brother was a member of Matzpen, a radical left-wing movement, back then. After the Six Day War the house was filled with political arguments, and this is how I was first exposed to the conflict," she says in an interview leading up to Hebrew Book Week. But it wasn't until she was studying in Paris during the 1980s with her husband, Reuven Zahavi, a well-known plastic artist and a lecturer at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, that she found a unique way to promote the dialogue - by reaching out to children. Verete-Zahavi, 48, specializes in coaching future Arab and Jewish kindergarten teachers. For the past 15 years, she has been lecturing at the David Yellin College of Education. The students who attend the course, entitled Education for Peace, are both Arabs and Jews and they are responsible for arranging meetings among Arab and Jewish preschoolers and elementary school students all over the country. "I define myself as humanist. Left or Right are external definitions, even though people tend to define me as left-wing. Nonetheless, religious people who know a little more about my work appreciate it because they know it's all about the value of loving the human being. I have never been condemned," she explains. In her third and most recent book, After Shock ("Sruta" in Hebrew), the first one she wrote alone, she sends a message of strength and coexistence to teenagers who can read Hebrew. However, once negotiations on translating the book are completed, this message will be accessible to those who read other languages such as English, German and maybe even Arabic. Verete-Zahavi delivers this message via Ella, a 14-year-old who was injured in a terror attack and overcomes paralyzing fears, anger and depression over losing her best friend in a suicide bombing in the neighborhood supermarket. Through Ella's eyes Verete-Zahavi deals with an all-too-common fear - the death of a loved one - following her son's fears as they became clear to her during the violent years of the second intifada. Nevertheless, Verete-Zahavi keeps promoting encounters between Arab and Jewish children, youths and students, regardless of the security situation in the region. Her first two books, Yussef's Dream (2003, Am Oved) and Rim, the Girl from Ein Hod (1999, Kibbutz Meuhad), were written together with her colleague Abedalsalam Yunis, an educational psychologist. Both books were written in Hebrew and Arabic, sending a message of coexistence. "I started arranging meetings between Arab and Jewish children informally, almost 30 years ago when I was a kindergarten teacher. Then I felt that serious preparatory work before those meetings was necessary. I didn't want people to leave the meetings with their prejudices strengthened. After my studies in Paris I thought I should use the educational tools I had acquired to help Arabs and Jews to 'speak right' to each other." According to Verete-Zahavi, "speaking right" means learning to speak in what the professionals call multicultural language. "People should know that their culture is not necessarily the right one and learn to avoid expressing arrogance and supremacy, or at least to be aware of that," she says. "When I came back from Paris in 1989 I started working with Abedalsalam on those meetings. I suggested we bring in animals to those meetings. I thought animals would encourage non-verbal communication, especially among children. I had in mind bunny rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs. When Abedalsalam asked me how we would bring them, I said, 'What is the problem? In cages, of course.' Abedalsalam said he was thinking of donkeys and sheep. I remember thinking to myself that it was typical for an Arab to suggest that and Abedalsalam thought I was arrogant for acting as if I knew better than him. We use this example often in our meetings, as an example of cultural differences and the need to speak right." The idea for After Shock was born in 2000, when the shooting from Beit Jala into Gilo began. Verete-Zahavi was driving her son Hillel, then nine years old, home from school and he told her that some of the children in his class said they could not sleep because of the shooting. "He asked me, 'Why doesn't Israel drop a nuclear bomb and get it over with?' I was shocked and didn't recognize that he was scared. I asked him, 'Hillel, what is wrong with you? We have friends over there. Don't you remember?' Hillel said he didn't care and that he wished they would all die. After a short silence he said, 'You know Mom, at nights I pray that if we are in a terror attack we will all die together.' We are religious and when my son says he prays, he means that literally. I realized then that to say something like that he must have thought about it a lot and decided to do something about it. It became clear to me that children must be terribly afraid to think thoughts like that." Shortly after that conversation there was a suicide bombing in a supermarket in Kiryat Hayovel, which provided source material for the book. "I wrote the first draft in one breath and then had a long and interesting process with the book's two editors, Dalit Lev and Debora Hanegbi," explains Verete-Zahavi. ELLA, THE book's protagonist, is defined by her classmates as a leftist, before she is thrown into a terror attack scene. "I wanted to demonstrate through Ella how one can overcome a trauma and become stronger. A crisis is not only a bad thing. I gave Ella reasonable conditions to grow. She meets Maher, the Arab teenager who helps her to get in touch with the suicide bomber's family and uses her experience to write a story about a Jewish girl who survived a terror-attack in order to be accepted to college abroad. Ella becomes closer to Eitan, the boy she likes, who is drawn to her because of what happened. All the characters in the book gain something from that experience. It doesn't matter if a person is left-wing or right-wing, it has to do with his tendency to accept the other and how open-minded and curious he is." Before writing the book, Verete-Zahavi asked Jewish and Palestinian children to "draw" the second intifada. Even though she describes an entire process of physical and mental recovery from a terror attack, she says the only research she conducted was those drawings. "I used those drawings in meetings with Arab and Jewish parents to show them how messed up our children are. And I used them in my writing when Rania, the suicide bomber's niece, answers Ella's letter with a drawing that shows sadness and remorse for both their suffering as a result of terror," she says. Verete-Zahavi believes that despite the relative calm of the past several years, the efforts to maintain dialogue must not be frozen. "I think we have earned an illusion of security, because we are scared. But the fear leaves its marks and the body remembers. The need for total revenge is legitimate and it's okay to express it, because it is natural to want to remove a threat that hovers over our lives." For the children of Sderot, who live under constant threat and often develop an inhuman image of their Palestinian neighbors in the Gaza Strip, she recommends that their parents step in and fulfill their role as strong and responsible figures. "We hosted a family from Sderot during Shavuot. I expected their five-year-old daughter to be frightened and anxious. Surprisingly, I met a girl with no fear symptoms. I asked her if she was afraid. She said, 'No, I am brave.' I asked her if her friends from kindergarten were afraid. She said, 'No, we are all brave.' When I told her parents the story they were completely surprised to find out that their approach worked, and I got another proof that parents are really their children's filters. Parents and adults can control their children's mental strength."