Galilee Diary: Balancing act
Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid… -Micah 4:4
The riots by Arabs in the Galilee in 2000, and the deadly response, gave rise to a lot of joint discussion groups and conferences, seeking to find what went wrong and what could be done about it. At one of these, I happened to be in a group charged with thinking about how the arts could serve as a cultural bridge in our context. One of the ideas the emerged from that discussion, after a few years of incubation, blossomed into the Galilee Circus, a youth circus currently numbering about 50 kids aged 6-21. There are generally twice as many Arabs as Jews in the circus, apparently because the Jewish communities offer a richer variety of after-school activities – and because Jews tend to be more afraid of Arabs, whom they don’t know so well, than Arabs are afraid of Jews, whom they, as a minority, know very well. While we’ve had our ups and downs and are constantly starved for resources (the families pay, but it doesn’t cover the costs), it has been gratifying to see how the project has grown and succeeded, how kids have stuck with it and invested time and effort, so that the quality of the performances has gone up year by year to a truly professional level. I have no circus skills, so am not involved on a daily basis, but this spring we’ve had a jump in requests for performances (school and community events, visiting groups from abroad), so I’ve had the opportunity to watch them in action a lot (we’ll be performing for four days in Philadelphia later this month, moving on to St. Louis for two weeks of training and performances with the St. Louis Arches youth circus).
I’ve learned a few things about youth circus over the years: that it’s a world wide movement that connects kids across continents and cultures (besides the above trip, we’ve just received a grant for an exchange program with a Dutch youth circus); that it is non-verbal, so we can take kids at an age when they don’t have a common language (except circus); that it is about trust, about overcoming fear, about making people laugh; that it is a noncompetitive sport; that its impact is not just on the participants but on the audience as well. The circus has the ability to create, if only for brief moments, a model of a shared cultural common denominator, when kids lose their hyphen (Jewish-Israeli, Arab-Israeli) and are seen for what they can do and not for who they are, when they model intense mutual trust and unqualified, unconditional support for each other.
And yet, it’s important to remember that the circus and similar projects have their critics in the world of peace and coexistence education. One of our early funders started insisting that we move on to “dialogue.” There is a school of thought that says that if we don’t actually grapple with the conflict, with the historical issues, then all we are doing is playing games. Eating humus together, it is said – or juggling together – can’t resolve a century of deep resentments and fears. This approach certainly has merit, and can’t be dismissed out of hand. There is no question that superficial, slap-on-the-back coexistence often covers, thinly, racist attitudes: Some of my best friends… On the other hand, sometimes I get the feeling that if all we have in common is the conflict, then we have a perverse interest in preserving it. Perhaps if we could create a space of shared identity, of personal acquaintance, of acceptance of each other as real human beings and not ideologically defined caricatures, then we might be able to talk about the conflict in different tones, and actually to hear each other’s narratives of victimhood sympathetically.
Not to mention the fact that the kids who joined the circus came to juggle, not to dialogue. It seems that we are destined to live together here. We might as well try to enjoy it.
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah