Two pixie-faced birthday girls, 4-year-old Yael, a Jew from Jerusalem, a 4- year-old Anwar, from the Arab village of Beit Safafa, sit side by side, cutting up their birthday cake.
Dressed in party outfits, they distribute the cake to the other kids in their YMCA “gan,” or preschool.
Mouths watering, the children crowd around, chattering in Hebrew and Arabic.
But for their different languages, it would be impossible to distinguish the Jews from the Arabs.
While scenes like this are still relatively rare in Israel, Jewish-Arab coexistence projects are slowly gaining ground here.
Thanks in large measure to the peace process – and in some cases accelerated by the Nov. 4 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin – new ventures are being launched and long-existing programs are getting some long-overdue recognition.
Although coexistence projects are certainly not new to Israel, many of the ones involving Palestinians from the territories were suspended during the intifada, or Palestinian uprising, according to program organizers.
Periodic closures on Arab towns and villages, coupled with the fact that the Israeli army routinely denied entry permits to many Palestinian youths, did little to foster good relations, they say.
“Due to closures, especially after terrorist attacks, we often had to wait weeks before we could reschedule a meeting,” say Chen Raz, director of Peace Now youth programs.
Peace Now, one of the leading national organizations supportive of the peace process, sponsors a dozen joint clubs for Israeli and Palestinian teen-agers.
Raz says that five years ago, “when Peace Now approached Palestinians, in Israeli eyes we were seen as traitors. Now we can see peace working every day.”
According to Rachelle Schilo, director of the Israel office of the Abraham Fund, an American-based organization that sponsored 64 coexistence projects in 1995, “since the assassination, people are talking more about tolerance. There’s a greater demand for some of our programs, especially for ones like the World of Difference project created by the Anti-Defamation League.”
First development for use in the United States a decade ago, the World of Difference tolerance program has been specially adapted for use in Israeli schools.
“Things have changed dramatically since the assassination,” agrees bruce Cohen, director of Interns for Peace, a community-based program aimed at enhancing Jewish-Arab relations in Israel.
“Black in 1984, we went to the Ministry of Education and asked them to incorporate tolerance programming into the curriculum,” says Cohen. But at the time, the department of religious education “vetoed the idea for religious kids.”
After Rabin’s assassination, Cohen says he approached the ministry again, and the official in charge of “Orthodox Jewish education okayed two pilot programs that will bring together religious and secular Jewish teen-agers, as well as Arabs.”
Cohen adds that “there has been more interest by schools in our programs. It’s very new and very exciting.”
At the YMCA preschool the excitement is palpable.
Established four years ago, and supported by grants from the Abraham Fund and other foundations, the two-year program is considered a model in coexistence education. Jewish and Arab children – both Israeli Arabs and Palestinians from eastern Jerusalem – who attend preschool at the YMCA are brought together at least once a day for playtime or arts and crafts.
On Fridays, the Jewish and Arab classes visit each other to learn more about each other’s culture and traditions. Story hour and puppet shows are presented in both languages.
Although the teachers of both classes happen to be Jewish, the head of the Arab class is fluent in both Hebrew and Arabic.
The Jewish children learn Hebrew and a bit of Arabic, while the Arab children are immersed in Hebrew. By the end of the end of second year, the Arab children are bilingual.
Although the programs was created to foster friendship across the cultural divide, the program’s administrators say they expend as much energy bridging gaps between parents as they do between children.
Dafna Bassewitch Ginzburg, teacher of the Jewish class, says, “The parents, as adults, already have suspicions, fears, stereotypes which the kids don’t have. We’re doing something to break those stereotypes.”
In addition to coming to class to celebrate their children’s birthdays, parents are invited to once-a-month workshops on parenting, where instructions is in both Hebrew and Arabic.
During these meetings, Ginzburg says, “they can see each other as human beings, as parents of children.”
One particularly successful part of the program are the field trips.
On one recent Friday, in honor of the month’s birthday girls, all 50 children went olive picking in Beit Safafa, the Arab children’s home village.
Situated directly on the Green Line – the pre-1967 border separating Israel from the West Bank – the village was divided from 1948 to 1967, with part of it in Israel from the West Bank – the village was divided from 1948 to 1967, with part of it in Israel, the other part under Jordanian control.
Reunited in the 1967 Six-Day War, the picturesque village still looks somewhat biblical, with high stones fences and ancient olive trees.
Bundled up against the chilly air, the children tap broken branches against the trees, hoping that olives will fall to the ground. Excited by the activity, and obviously happy to be outside, they sequeal with delight and horde their olives.
Watching from the sidelines, Yale’s mother, San Bernstein, formerly of New York, says she enrolled her daughter in the YMCA preschool “because it is a very good gan. It has a lot of facilities, and I have many friends who’ve sent their kids there.”
Asked whether she choose the program because it emphasizes coexistence, Bernstein shakes her head, but adds, “If Yale were in a neighborhood gan, we wouldn’t be here in Beit Safafa picking olives. I think it’s nice.”
Zuheir Abedrabbo, on the other hand, says he decided to enroll his 5-year-old son, Mustafa, “for many reasons. He’s my only child, and I want to give him the best. In spite of the cost – and it is substantial – this is the best.”
Abedrabbo, an Arab teacher of Hebrew, adds, “I really want Mustafa to learn Hebrew, to grow up with Jewish children, so in the future it will be easier for him. I want him to live in a democratic society.”
Referring to the fact that Jewish and Arab children in Israel attend different school system until university, Abedrabbo says, “Unfortunately, the children will each go their own way after this year. This will be divided.”