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In Israel, Volunteer Project Tries to Build Understanding Among Youths

August 18, 2004
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Marek Mirek, 18, of Poland was walking through the semi-lit corridors of Yad Vashem when he stopped suddenly and pointed at a photograph of life in a Jewish ghetto. “It’s horrible all those ghettos. Why were they all in Poland?” he said. “I think it’s partly our responsibility.”

It was as if Mirek wanted to share the historic guilt with his German friends visiting Israel recently on a youth delegation. But it was a German, Karen Klein, 23, who shrugged off any historic responsibility.

“I like Israel, I came here several times in the past,” she said, “but personally I feel no guilt.”

It was an unusual youth delegation, comprising 10 Germans, nine Poles, eight Jews and three Arabs. They’re spending three weeks in Israel carrying a message of peace and non-violence.

The Israelis in the group are members of the International Award for Young People, an organization for youth volunteer work sponsored by Britain’s Duke of Edi! nburgh.

The delegation was unusual for bringing together representatives of peoples who have known — and in some cases, are still undergoing — bitter and bloody conflicts.

“These are young people with a common difficult past, who joined hands in a message against violence and racism,” said Renate Khoschlessan, initiator of the project. “We are all interconnected, Poles and Germans, Germans and Jews, Jews and Arabs.”

“I am an Israeli citizen,” said Aiman Zeidan, 20, of the Arab village of Kafr Manda in the Galilee. But, he said, “since I don’t serve in the army, I felt I ought to engage in local volunteer work.”

The group came here at the private initiative of Khoschlessan, a German married to an Iranian Jewish doctor who years ago emigrated to Germany.

An educator, Khoschlessan has engaged in volunteer work with youths over the past 10 years. Several years ago, on a visit to Poland, she and her husband spotted the remains of a Jewish cemetery in a park! in the town of Otmuchov.

With the help of friends from Germany, P oland, the Czech Republic and Israel, she organized a group of youths who spent an entire month in the Polish town last year, uncovering Jewish graves and renovating them.

This year, the group undertook a similar project in Israel. They came here at their own expense, each paying about $700 in addition to airfare.

This time, however, they dug much deeper into the past: This week they spent several days under the scorching sun taking part in an archaeological dig at the ancient site of Ein Rimon in the Negev. Ein Rimon was one of the few Jewish towns spared the exile to Babylon after the fall of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.

The youths found themselves uncovering layers of earth from the local mikvah and visiting the ruins of a synagogue at the top of the hill.

As El’ad Ben-Refa’el, 18, pointed to the menorah carved on the synagogue’s floor, Moussa Rahayel, 26, a Bedouin from the village of Basmat Tiv’on near Haifa, teased him: “How do you know it’s Jewish? I do! n’t even see the seven arms of the Menorah.”

“Next thing you’ll say this was a mosque, won’t you?” El’ad retorted.

They were joking, but there was an undercurrent of tension. The Arab youths were embarrassed to admit that in their work they were actually engaged in a Zionist project: The uncovering of ancient Jewish settlements has been part of a JNF-sponsored project to drive home the notion that in ancient times the Negev was densely populated with Jews.

“As far as I am concerned, you exist here only after 1948,” said Mousa, referring to the year the State of Israel was established.

“This is not Zionist work, this is simply volunteer work,” Zeidan said apologetically.

Khoschlessan came to the rescue: “Let’s say that you have all been here before, and that foreign powers have incited you against each other in order to take advantage of you,” she said, seeking to defuse the tensions.

Khoschlessan made a point of emphasizing the cosmopolitan nature of ! the group, but even she was unable — in fact, she didn’t even try — to maintain a neutral stand in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Though she strongly condemned Palestinian terrorist attacks, she said she couldn’t comprehend why some Israelis were reluctant to use Israel’s 1 million-strong Arab population as a bridge of understanding to Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In fact, many Israelis would like to do so, but have met with mixed reactions on the part of Israeli Arabs, who in many cases sympathize strongly with the Palestinians.

Even her husband’s relatives in Israel felt alienation toward the local Arabs, Khoschlessan said.

“They perceive the entire Arab minority as terrorists,” she complained.

“I stayed in the Bedouin village of Zarzir in the north,” she said. “When I called my husband’s relatives, they asked me: What, they haven’t killed you yet? Do you want me to come and get you?”

Urszula Kazmierczyk, 26, a Polish girl who lives with her parents in Germany, complained that the program exposed her t! o Israel’s past, but not enough to its present.

“I would like to understand better the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” she said.

Soon she received a first-hand lesson. Ralph Levinson, the group’s guide, invited the youths to his home at kibbutz Kfar Gaza, just on the border with the Gaza Strip.

As the youths stood by the fence, Levinson pulled from his car the remains of two Kassam rockets that landed in the kibbutz several months ago.

“Why do they fire these rockets at you?” Kazmierczyk asked. Levinson explained that Hamas terrorists fire the rockets because they can’t cross the fence to carry out attacks inside Israel. He explained that Hamas rejects any Jewish presence in Palestine.

The Polish kids grabbed the rockets and posed for photos by the fence. It was then that a mini-crisis occurred in the group: The Germans didn’t like the Poles’ behavior.

“It’s possible that, because of our past, we just cannot stand by and watch kids playing with ! warfare,” said Michael Richard, 20, of Germany.

Kazmierczyk sat on the grass, next to an olive tree overlooking the Gaza Strip, with tears in her eyes.

“We came here on a peace project. I just don’t understand how they can play with weapons,” she said. “They say it’s humor, but it’s the kind of humor I cannot understand.”

Then she added angrily: “You say they fire those rockets to kill you. I wonder how many Israeli bombs fall on the other side of the fence.”

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