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Galilee Diary: Neighbors

Galilee Diary: Neighbors

From the top of the mountain I see him, from the hills I behold him; a people that dwells alone, not reckoning itself among the nations.
    –Numbers 23:9

In 2003 Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh was assassinated; in 2005 the Anna Lindh Foundation was set up in her memory, bringing the nations of Europe together with those around the southern shore of the Mediterranean (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, Palestine (!), Jordan, Syria, and Turkey) to foster intercultural projects and to strengthen civil society - and democracy - in the region. The Galilee Circus (Jewish-Arab youth circus) received funding from the foundation for an exchange with a youth circus in Holland, so I was invited to the Anna Lindh triennial conference in Marseille, with over a thousand other representatives of NGO's and governmental agencies from over 40 countries. It was exciting and a little surreal to leave the Israeli bubble for a few days. Here are a few experiences, and takeaways:

  • Pleasant encounters with people from Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Morocco, and Tunisia, including conversations on possible joint projects.
  • The angry presence of the Palestinians, who would/could not relinquish their identity as victims. They have adopted a policy of boycotting cultural projects involving Israel, so as not to acquiesce in the symbolic normalization of the status quo. I understand their thinking; maybe it will help them in the long run. Maybe it won't.
  • The loudest applause in the opening plenary session was in response to the statement by Andre Azoulai, president of the foundation, a Moroccan Jew and advisor to the king of Morocco, that all of our efforts at cooperation would be incomplete until two states were established for two peoples in Israel/Palestine.
  • A very warm response to my presentation of the Arab-Jewish youth circus; it was singled out in the closing plenary as a model project of intercultural education.
  • Sometimes I think about how many of the social and economic conflicts and difficulties besetting the United States can be seen as "payback" for the sin of slavery, decades later. And so it is with Europe, as the Africans and Asians the European nations colonized so cruelly for so many years are now immigrating to their cities, posing difficult challenges to their economies, their social fabric, and even their national identities. These challenges were major elements of the agenda at the conference, and at the sessions I attended on culture (representing the circus), I learned about project after project seeking to use the arts and sports to build cultural bridges between native European societies and non-European immigrants. The parallels to our situation here in Israel are only partial - but they definitely exist. An important difference is that in Europe, the issue of integration is a focus of government concern and political discourse - and significant public resources are invested in it (for example, impressive youth circuses funded largely by local government as a tool for creating a shared culture). Here in Israel, because of our ethnic-religious self-definition, there is no popular consensus that integration is even a good idea - so there is certainly no significant public investment in it.

We take for granted here that we are a vulnerable outpost in a hostile environment, seen (and seeing ourselves) as outsiders in constant danger of being driven into the sea. Our culture of reference is Western Europe or the Western Hemisphere - even though 20% of Israelis are Arabs, and the majority of our Jewish population is descended from immigrants from the Middle East, and even though we have peace treaties with both Jordan and Egypt. My Marseille experience led me to wonder if perhaps we should work harder at strengthening our roots in the Mediterranean neighborhood where we actually live.

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