Galilee Diary: Distance

August 7, 2013Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein
Asher did not dispossess the inhabitants of Acco or the inhabitants of Sidon, Ahlab, Achziv, Helbah, Aphik, and Rehob. So the Asherites dwelt in the midst of the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land, for they did not dispossess them.
    – Judges 1:31-32

For over twenty years, our education center at Shorashim has been running "Neighbors," a program that facilitates encounters between Jews from English speaking countries and Arab citizens of the Galilee from the villages near us. Generally we offer an informal weekly English club after school in high schools in a few villages, through the school year; then, when the onslaught of summer tourists arrives, we have groups of Arab teens who are ready to participate in panels or in small group meetings. The teens come for the English, for the fun of meeting new people, with a mission to break down stereotypes, out of curiosity about Jews, and to escape the boredom of summer in the village. The ones who participate tend to be the better and more serious students - those who are weak English students generally drop out in frustration. In any given year there about 30-40 Arab participants – and at least 2,000 guests from abroad, who come for half-day seminars.

The past few weeks have been our peak season, with as many as 5 busloads of visitors a day. The program generally includes a background lecture, an hour or so of loosely structured conversation between the locals and the visitors in small groups, and a wrap-up debriefing for the visitors. I am always struck by the consistency of the comments during the debriefing, along the lines of: "We had been taught by the media to think of Arabs – and Muslims – as foreign and threatening, as totally Other; it was moving and eye-opening to discover that these kids are just kids; they worry about the same things, listen to the same music, have the same hopes – they are just like us." Living here, that is obvious to me; I'm a little surprised every time anew to discover how not obvious it is to people who don't live here.

We prefer to conduct the sessions in the villages, in a school or community center, so the guests can get a feel for the Arab teens' environment, and the teens can feel like hosts. However, sometimes, for logistical reasons, it is more practical to bus the kids to Shorashim and hold the program here. Recently we brought a group of teens from Dir El Assad and Nachaf for a couple of morning encounters, and then they had several hours to kill before the arrival of an afternoon tour group. We occupied them with games and English discussion for a while, and gave them time just to hang out and rest (it is Ramadan – they were fasting). Then it occurred to me to suggest an informal introduction to our synagogue, for those who were interested. I took out the Torah and chanted from it while they were busy filming me on their smartphones. And I discovered that these top students, who live as a minority in the Jewish state where the symbols of Jewish religion are all over the media, who attend schools run by the Israeli ministry of education, who have been participating in our "Neighbors" program for at least a year – had never been in a synagogue and had no idea what a Torah is. As a product of American public schools, I know my Christmas carols. These kids don't know Chanukah songs. Cultural autonomy is a two-edged sword: By allowing the Arab citizens of Israel to attend separate schools and live in separate communities we allow them to maintain and nurture their own language, culture and identity. But in doing so we reduce the possibilities of shared knowledge, shared experience, and shared loyalty. Is it possible to sustain a nation whose citizens do not share a national identity?

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