Jews, Arabs walk for peace

Participants enter Umm el-Fahm during a 2002 peace walk in the Wadi Ara area. (Arik Kopelman/www.middleway.org)

Participants enter Umm el-Fahm during a 2002 peace walk in the Wadi Ara area. (Arik Kopelman/www.middleway.org)

BEERSHEVA, Israel, March 4 (JTA) — Like many of the people on Shvil Zahav’s Arab-Jewish peace walks, Muhammed got involved at the invitation of friends. He hasn’t missed a walk since. “On television all I see is hatred and violence,” Muhammed says. “But here people are all about peace and serenity. Being around this energy helps me feel more self-confident.” The lift Muhammed receives from the peace walks motivates him to influence his community of teen-aged friends. “There are people in my circle who say, ‘Death to the Jews!’ ” Mohammed says. “I tell them, ‘No, no, there are good Jews. Don’t say that.’ And they stop.” Shvil Zahav, or Golden Path, was conceived last year during a meditation retreat in Israel. “All around us a war was raging, but those of us practicing meditation felt peace and harmony,” recalls Galit Kimchy, one of Shvil Zahav’s organizers. “People felt the need to go out and do something engaged in society — the way we know how to do it, in a new fresh way, a way we have experienced in our own mediation,” adds Shpatz Cohen, another organizer. The idea of Arab-Jewish peace walks was inspired in part by the nonviolent walks led by Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi. “In times of trouble, they got up and walked the earth,” Kimchy says. “During the Cambodian war,” Cohen adds, “Buddhist monks went out of their monasteries and walked at the line of conflict — preaching, spreading the word of peace.” Shvil Zahav’s walks have a similar mission. Cohen believes that conventional peace demonstrations are often counter-productive, with their own type of aggression. “At demonstrations of the so-called ‘peace bloc’ in Israel, people shout slogans: ‘fascists,’ ‘occupiers,’ ‘murderers,’ ‘terrorists,’ ” he says. “At the last demo I went to, I felt the demo itself was creating conflict.” One regular walker from the Arab city of Umm el-Fahm agrees: “There are people who yell but don’t give the right message that they want people to understand.” Shvil Zahav sponsors monthly walks in Tel Aviv that last about four hours and attract about 150 people, organizers say. A monthly walk used to be held in Jerusalem, but it’s currently on hold. A few times a year there are walks in other parts of the country, which last several days. Shvil Zahav walks begin with participants gathered in a circle. A meditation gong rings out, bringing everyone to silence. When it rings again, everyone begins walking quietly in a single-file line. Participants wear a white sash that symbolizes peace. They hand out fliers to passers-by, explaining the walk’s mission to unite Jews and Arabs as human beings, beyond politics. People in the street sometimes join the walk, swelling the numbers of walkers and changing the demographics. Cohen recalls that when the first Arab-Jewish peace walk began only Jews were walking, but Arabs joined as walkers made their way through Arab neighborhoods. The walks now consist of equal numbers of Arabs and Jews, Kimchy says. “People are thirsty for this kind of action,” Kimchy says. “They are confused; they don’t know what to do. They don’t trust politics anymore. The walks are a calling from the heart, on a very simple basis.” Alla, a regular walker from Umm el-Fahm, says, “The walk gives a new hope that Arabs and Jews can live together, and that this state can be for all the citizens, Arab and Jewish,” In addition to bridging the Arab-Jewish divide, Shvil Zahav hopes to bridge the political, religious and ethnic gaps in the Jewish community. To date, Jewish participants have been mostly Ashkenazi, left-wing and secular. Cohen and others hope to see this reality — and others — change. “Change will come from the grassroots, not the government,” organizer Nastia Polansky says. “A walk like this can bring change. I believe in it. In my vision, one day the whole state will walk. All of us, together.” For more information about Shvil Zahav, visit http://www.middleway.org/English/index.html.

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