“The only way forward is by forging stronger bonds between regular Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinians through basic, everyday interactions and real conversations about what matters most to them.”
A Critical Message of Hope
By: Ilan Preskovsky
As the past months have seen the worst outbreak of violence between Jews and Arabs in Israel in years, it becomes all too easy to lose hope entirely that there will ever be any real peace between the two nations that claim the land as their own. Certainly not for those living in highly contested areas like the West Bank/Judea & Samaria and East Jerusalem, but even between some Jews and Israeli Arabs living within the internationally recognised, theoretically uncontested, pre-1967 borders that make up the vast majority of the State of Israel.
This feeling certainly isn’t helped by the most far-right Israeli government in the country’s history that includes among its membership unabashed anti-Arab, ultra-religious-nationalists like Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich – extremists whose places in the Knesset seemed impossible just a few short years ago – and certainly not by a Palestinian leadership who have always prized Jew-hatred and the delegitimisation of the Jewish state over the peace and prosperity of their own people. Or, for that matter, by an increasingly vocal international movement that doesn’t simply criticise the Israeli government, but rejects the very idea of a Jewish state out of hand and completely distorts both the history and the current reality of the region.
Even as the Abraham Accords have shown that not just peace, but genuine, mutually beneficial relationships can be forged between Jews and Arabs – something, presumably, that is hardly news to your average Tel Aviv socialite or businessman – these incredible leaps forward in Arab-Jewish relationships abroad have not translated at home. All the more ironic since it is Benjamin Netanyahu who is the driving force behind both realities.
As things just look worse and worse on a macrocosmic level – certainly from half a world away and more than certainly when viewed through social media (seriously, if you wish to lose the will to live, type the word “Zionists” into Twitter’s search bar) – more and more credence is given to the argument that the only way forward is on the microscopic level. Not by leaders intractable in their positions and certainly not through destructive BDS campaigns, but by forging stronger bonds between regular Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinians through basic, everyday interactions and real conversations about what matters most to them.
This approach is hardly new, of course. Yossi Klein HaLevi’s bestselling book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbour, was written with the very specific objective of presenting the Jewish side of the conflict – especially from a religious point of view – to everyday Palestinians and sparking a heated but civilised conversation between the two sides. And he certainly had some success at that, especially as the second edition of the book includes an entire section devoted to letters that he received from Palestinians who read his book and wanted to present their own viewpoint or even bitterly argue with him, along with his own responses.
And then there are the more active, grassroots outreach movements like OneVoice that aim to bring regular Arabs and Jews together to learn about and from one another in the hopes of creating a future where both sides actually see each other as human beings and any conflict that arises might be resolved with conversation rather than violence. Naive? Perhaps. But as politics get uglier and uglier and hatred of the other isn’t just allowed to fester but is actively encouraged, it’s a dream that desperately needs to be turned into reality.
Turning Dream Into Reality
It is with this in mind that we turn our focus to the Galilee. The Galilee (or Galil in Hebrew) isn’t just notable for making up the northernmost third of the State of Israel, but for being one of the few parts of the country that has a (very slight) Arab majority. It’s an area known for its rich agriculture and natural beauty, boasting a quieter, more rural lifestyle than most of the rest of the country, and as home to both Nazareth and Safed, it has particular spiritual significance to both Christians and Jews. Indeed, its major significance to the founding of Christianity has made the area home to the largest Christian Arab population in Israel and a major hotspot for Christian tourists/pilgrims. As the area’s various towns, villages, and cities are separated from one another by both demographics and the area’s famously hilly terrain, though, the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian populations live quite separated, if relatively peaceful, lives.
What this means is that though there are as many non-Jews as Jews in the area, they often never even get the chance to meet, let alone spend any significant time with one another. And this is where Galilee Dreamers comes in.
Galilee Dreamers is a non-government-sponsored initiative that is aligned with the area’s prestigious Oranim College and was founded by Israeli, American, and South African professionals, rabbis, and professors with the goal of creating better dialogue, better relationships, and better understanding between the young people of the Galilee’s diverse religious and ethnic groups. The programme brings together Jewish, Christian-Arab, and Muslim-Arab teenagers (and some of their teachers) from four different schools in the Galilee to get to know one another and to learn from one another with a special emphasis on learning to create substantial, cordial conversations and connections between groups of people that, for all their similarities, are often pitted against each other.
Ranging from grades 10 to 12, the students in the programme meet regularly, either in person or online, and engage in activities and interactions that are specifically designed to promote cooperation and open dialogue. This is capped with a conference every March that draws in the students, teachers, parents, facilitators, and other interested parties in person or online to look back at what progress has been made over the past year and what they have to look forward to.
The most profound and radical aspect to the Galilee Dreamers project, however, is that in their final year of the programme, the grade 12s embark on several international trips, which provides them with an unparalleled opportunity to spend precious time together and to learn from – and teach – cultures that are quite different from their own. Past trips have included Canada, the United States, Germany, and now for the second time, South Africa.
A Return Trip
Following a very successful visit in 2019 to both Johannesburg and Cape Town, where they spent time with King David and Herzlia students, teachers, and their families, the Galilee Dreamers were all set to return to South Africa in March the very next year. For those keeping track at home, that trip was unsurprisingly very suddenly cancelled, and it was only this February that an entirely new group of Dreamers finally made it back here. There were some changes this year. While the previous delegation was drawn mostly from grade 10 and 11, this time around it was restricted to those in their final year of high school. It is also a much bigger group with 20 students, as opposed to about a dozen, and while the past group were mostly hosted by King David Linksfield in Johannesburg, this year Victory Park took up the mantle.
I was privileged to spend an hour or two with the group at King David Victory Park, just as they arrived from a lengthy and delayed flight via Istanbul. I was literally there to meet them as they poured off the bus, luggage in hand, ten minutes after I arrived at the school. The next couple of hours was, to put it lightly, a rush. The teenagers, their teachers, and the programme director, Dr Rachel Ravid, were clearly more than a little tired and hungry (fortunately, they were greeted with quite a spread of salads, bagels, and cold drinks) but were positively crackling with excitable energy. Somewhere in that whirlwind of activity; between eager bites of their late lunch, a warm, informal welcome address by Victory Park principal Andrew Baker, and being allocated to their various host families who were arriving by the minute, I managed to catch a few words with a handful of the students, teachers, and most extensively, with Rachel about their programme, their relationships with one another, and what they hoped to gain from this visit to South Africa.
Before that, though, just a quick observation that most people who have been on even a short visit to Israel will no doubt agree with: as I looked around at the group of twenty teenagers and the three adults accompanying them, I realised that there were only three or four of them who I could identify as being clearly – or most probably – Jewish. For the rest, I would only be able to tell apart the different groups when they told me their names or from their slightly different accents. So much for Israel being a “white colonialist” project, huh?
In Their Own Words
Barak, one of the Jewish kids, started things off by explaining the programme in a nutshell to me: “I got to the programme from my school. The main purpose is to bring Arab and Jewish students together. The Arabs are a huge part of Israel but we never meet them – or maybe we meet but don’t really get to know each other.” This thought was echoed immediately by Mohammed, a Muslim Arab student: “As an Arab in this country, we never get to see the other side, the other point of view. This project gives us this opportunity. We’re not different. We have so much in common. At first, we think about each other something that is maybe false but in real life we have so much in common, so many shared values, like shared communities”
Indeed, as Rachel points out, Mohammed and Barak became fast friends when they both were part of a delegation to Germany for an eight-day summer camp with other teenagers from around the world. They had met previously, but during those eight days in Germany, they lived together and worked together pretty much non-stop, and they really got to know one another. “We were friends [before],” Barak confirms, “but we hadn’t really bonded. After those 8 days we became very, very close.” This summer camp in Germany was, as Rachel points out, “quite political”, and there was actually another delegation there from Israel, from a boarding school. “You could see the difference between their kids and ours,” Rachel admits, “Not in terms of intelligence but in terms of social interactions and emotional intelligence. Because our kids were not fighting about ideas, we were talking about them.” Barak agrees: “We had in the camp a big conversation about different political topics and we just talked. Each one said their opinion but there was no fighting.”
This general credo of really learning to talk to one another about hot-button topics is clearly front and centre for the Galilee Dreamers. This certainly includes things like the Israeli/Palestinian situation and about the IDF, but it’s certainly not limited to that. Indeed, Rachel points out that much of the discussion happening at that German summer camp was actually about two other hot-button topics entirely: faith and sexuality and gender issues. This is especially important because, as she admits, while the Arab kids are religious, the vast majority of the Jews in the programme are children of Kibbutznikim and are overwhelmingly secular. “The Jewish kids are from secular, kibbutznik families. The Arab kids are Christian and Muslim. We try teach them that it’s OK to be different. We teach them to be an active listener. To hear what others have to say, and to… not necessarily to accept their beliefs but to use them to examine their own, while at the same time talking to one another with respect.”
As for what they hoped to gain from their visit to South Africa, another Jewish teenager, Hofesh, put it fairly simply. “We have a lot to learn from one another. [We know] how the black people and white people didn’t get along with each other, but we want to see how this has changed and how it works in real life. We have so many similarities in Israel with the Arabs and Jews and we want to see how similar the situation is.” This obviously goes both ways. Rachel hopes that the influence of Galilee Dreamers will happen “circle by circle” – that is to say an ever expanding sphere of influence as others are inspired by the Dreamers who then influence others in the same way – and their message of tolerance and mutual cooperation is clearly something that needs to be heard in our own fractious society.
As Mr Baker told me, “It was truly wonderful for King David Victory Park High School to be able to host this wonderful group of students from around the Kinneret in Israel for two nights. Their visit to our school served to show our students and community the value of reaching out in understanding one another and respecting difference. Although the time spent with us was short, the impact of their visit will remain with us for a long time. We hope to be able to host this amazing organisation again in the future and perhaps for a longer period of time.”
Sadly, though, as I write this the day after the cold-blooded murder of two Israeli brothers by Palestinian gunmen was followed by settlers storming the Palestinian town of Huwara, where they killed one Palestinian, seriously injured dozens more, and set fire to countless homes and cars – and where the former was met by celebrating Palestinian mobs and the latter cheered on by sitting members of the Knesset – it’s clearly the holy land of Israel that needs the Galilee Dreamers’ dream the most.