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Peace Child Israel, founded in 1988, teaches tolerance and mutual respect to youth through the means of theater and the arts. PCI brings Arab and Jewish youth from inside Israel to work together for eight months, meeting weekly to create a play about coexistence to perform in English, Arabic and Hebrew.

In Jaffa I met with Melice Lewine-Boskovich, the Managing Director of Peace Child since ’93. Through her own transformation from viewing the conflict through one lens to working in the field of peace building, Melice considers herself “walking living proof for the possibility of change” and that with “the right stimuli and circumstances, [change] is possible.”

Peace Child uses “theater as a tool for understanding, awareness raising, and also for changing attitudes among those in the audience who see the plays.”

During the weekly sessions leading up to the performance, the teens start with building a relationship and learning about one another.

Peace Child provides the opportunity for youth, who participate in the program voluntarily, to meet the other who they otherwise would never sit in a room with. “The educational and the living, everything is segregated…They learn about the basic things of each other’s cultures,” says Melice about life in Israel and the PCI program. Through activities of role-play, reverse-role play, sharing personal stories, improvisation, and codependent activities, PCI not only exposes the teens to one another, but teaches them that they’re more alike than they ever thought. Read the rest of this entry »

On a stifling July afternoon in Jaffa, I met with Yael Patir, the Israeli coordinator for the Palestinian Israeli Peace NGO Forum. The Peace NGO Forum is a community of 100 peace and dialogue non-governmental organizations that are registered and operating in cross-border cooperation.  The organizations are both Israeli and Palestinian, including joint organizations that have joint management.

The Forum was founded in 2006 with “the idea to coordinate and create synergy between all these different groups and individuals that are working in the peace building field, as well as create a whole which is greater than its parts and to see how and when and where we can cooperate as a group,” describes Yael. The goal has been to strengthen the impact and voice of these organizations and bring awareness on a regional and international level.

The 100 organizations belonging to the Forum are organized into three groups under the umbrella of the larger initiative of promoting peace and a viable, just solution to the conflict that takes all parties into account. The first subset is “groups that are working today on the ground against the wrongdoings of the occupation. These are human rights organizations, legal aid, advocacy groups. It can be Machsom Watch, that has volunteers stand at checkpoint and monitor the movement and help people with urgent needs and problems…[they] are trying to prevent the situation from becoming worse.”

“The second group is organizations that are promoting a political solution to the conflict. These are organizations that are either political movements, like Peace Now, and Geneva Initiatives, that are actually showing that there are agreements that we can reach,” says Yael. “Usually
all of these organizations work in Palestinian cooperation because it’s very important for both sides to show their constituency that there is a peace camp and there are people who want peace on the other side.” Read the rest of this entry »

In a former army outpost from 1967 sits Museum on the Seam, a socio-political museum for contemporary art established in 1999. David Amichai, Director of Public Relations, speaks of the locality of the museum, commenting that “the fact that we have a museum that is dedicated to coexistence and tolerance in a former army outpost makes it very interesting and unique…the Museum used to be the border between Israel and Jordan.”

Standing inside the gallery space which nearly faces the Damascus Gate on the border of East Jerusalem, one can see old scars, windows sealed with concrete, one ruined wall, and the remnants of what this space used to be. The Museum is located “on the seam” of different cultures, backgrounds, religions, and demographics.

The Museum was established to bridge gaps between the different ethnicities and communities of Jerusalem through the international language of art. Museum on the Seam’s main goal is to bring good art to Jerusalem, and, “as a subsequent of this good art, to raise social problem and discussion through art.” With exhibits changing every six to seven months revolving around a social theme (violence, Palestinian homelessness, and migrant workers, to name a few), the Museum offers a space for artists of all backgrounds to exhibit. “It is very important that the Israeli artist will see that there is art created in Muslim countries,” says David. The museum has exhibited work of artists from Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, “even though,” as David explains, “there is an unofficial boycott of Israel by these countries.”

The Museum’s current exhibition, West End, focuses on the clash of civilizations. David describes the exhibition as a “fusion of artists from Muslim countries, Israelis and artists of the West.” He takes me through the exhibit, explaining one Muslim artist who has expressed his frustration with Switzerland’s ban on building mosques by shaping mosque-like figures into large missiles; another piece, entitled Suicide Bomber, is a statement of just that– a wall size display by an artist from Slovakia described by Amichai as “a manufactured suicide bomber, like a Barbie doll, that you just snap by the numbers and assemble it [with] the image of the fragmentation of the human body.”

I asked David if the museum has faced any opposition due to its unconventional exhibit themes and artists. He says this mostly comes from individual visitors who simply don’t agree with what they see; yet this, according to the Museum, is an opportunity to open minds. “If it makes you think about the social problem… that’s one of the reasons for making art. If it brings emotions from you, I think it’s a good art piece.” One exhibition on Palestinian homelessness, viewed by a group of Settlers, outraged the settlers. From the point of view of the Museum, this was a success: it made people think about what they see. Read the rest of this entry »

In a small apartment unit in the Beit Hakerem neighborhood of Jerusalem, I met with Dr. Yehuda Stolov, the Executive Director of Interfaith Encounter Association. IEA works across the country creating dialogue in order to promote positive relations within and between communities as an infrastructure for peace.

In the summer of 2001, Dr. Stolov thought of creating an organization that brings people together for two reasons: firstly, interfaith dialogue, although it existed, did not attract many people since it usually consisted of people lecturing to an audience about dialogue, and secondly, there was a lack of non-political based NGOs. He felt that, even if an agreement occurred, it would never be sustainable if there was still such social, person-to-person separation.

“We live in the same neighborhood,” Yehuda describes, “We have to overcome all of these prejudices and negative stereotypes that compose our image of the other.” Even as he admits that people have fear and hatred of the other side, he quickly flips the coin to optimism. “All of these negative images we have are just assumptions,” he says, “they have very little to do with reality.”

Dr. Stolov decided to take it into his own hands to bring people together. “If we organize encounters between Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze of the Holy Land and these encounters will be deep and positive, people, through them, will get the opportunity to really know the other…then they will build relationships that can be later used to build upon the arrangements on the political level.”

Encounters can occur in groups as small as four or as large as 70 people, from six years old to 92 years old. From children’s groups, university groups, and adult groups, to groups for elders, 38 groups have been formed spanning from the upper Galilee to Elat. Each group is run by an Interfaith Coordinator who is responsible for the ongoing activity of the group. They have eight Israeli Palestinian groups, and often these are the most challenging since both parties cannot travel freely to areas.

“The main challenge is technical…What you would expect to be the biggest challenge is not the challenge at all: which is finding people to participate, both Israelis and Palestinians. For me, it is a very positive sign of the maturity of both societies.” Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve spent the afternoon reading at Café Yafa before I met with the co-owner, Michel El-Rahab. The coffee shop is housed in a very small unit just off of Yefet Street, the main road running near the coast of Jaffa. The walls are lined with books, ranging from the English Orientalism by Edward Said to Al-Amir Al Saghir, The Little Prince in Arabic.

Michel, an avid reader, had the dream of opening a book store that would promote an Arab reading culture. Michel lives in the city of Ramle, approximately halfway between Jaffa and Jerusalem. Originally, he wanted to open his coffee shop there, yet found Jaffa would be the better location. He founded the coffee shop with a Jewish Israeli woman who had the same idea: “to make a place full of books with food.” It was a simple idea, yet not a simple concept of having an Arab man and Jewish woman working together as business partners.

“We sat together and we started. We’ve had now eight years at this place. After seven years, we start to teach Arabic. Upstairs, we make it like a school and we start to teach Arabic. We have books in Arabic, Hebrew and English. We take books that speak about politics, Palestinian and Israeli people.”

Café Yafa doesn’t serve as simply a place for a cold drink and quick read on this unforgiving hot day, it is place for people to meet freely from all backgrounds to enjoy a poetry reading, language class, or discussion.

“Many people they come from outside of the country and inside. They come here, groups, and speak…Many people come, many Jewish people come, and they want to speak with Arabs, they want to know the Palestinian people. They want to know how the Palestinian people think, says Michel. Read the rest of this entry »

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Gershon Baskin, the Israeli Co-Director and founder of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) located in Jerusalem, has the mission to bring about the resolution of the conflict based on two states for two peoples. This is a man who was on the Israeli security watch list for four years, and just a month after, became an advisor to the Prime Minister on the peace process. There may be no one more knowledgeable on how to reach peace than him.

In 1988, Baskin wanted to create a new kind of dialogue based on conflict resolution. He placed an ad in three Palestinian newspapers in east Jerusalem saying to contact him “if you believe in a two-state solution and that Israelis and Palestinians can work together for peace”. By the next evening, he had received 43 phone calls.

“The basic idea was to create this safe space and to bring experts from both sides to talk to each other about how to resolve the issues.”

The groups worked together to form proposals to solve the key issues of the conflict: the question of Palestinian statehood and the nature of its sovereignty, the delineation of borders between two states, the future of Jerusalem, the refugee issue, the physical link between the West Bank and Gaza, the issue of economic relation, and the issue of water.

Most of the functions of the groups have been achieved, says Baskin. “This is the most researched conflict in the history of conflicts. There’s no magic anymore about how to resolve this conflict, we know how to do it. The issues are no longer technical in nature, the issues are political, the issues are about building trust, the issues are recognizing that the two parties can’t do it by themselves.”

Yet Baskin describes how, even with the extent of IPCRI’s contributions and research, mistrust after 18 years of a failed peace process lies at the heart of the conflict. Read the rest of this entry »

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In the basement of a small house in East Jerusalem, I met with Maysa Baransi-Siniora, the Executive Director of All for Peace Radio. The station was established in late 2003 as a joint project between an Israeli and Palestinian organization with the purpose of having a media outlet for peaceful and alternative voices during the second intifada.

At the time, the mere thought of Palestinians and Israelis working together was shunned by the government and the public. While bombs diffused through Gaza and West Bank, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, there was no peace on the horizon. Furthermore, housing the station in the controversial East Jerusalem was not welcomed by both sides, when the other was clearly the enemy. “Despite these difficulties, we tried to talk to both side, what our intentions are, our goals are, what is the whole idea of having a peace radio station. And it took over a year for both governments to accept having such radio station” Maysa describes.

The radio station has multiple frequencies, in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and English. “Our main vision for the radio station is to promote the freedom of speech, equality, democracy…One of our goals is to bring, or to fight, all the human rights abuse by both sides…and to give a stage for all alternative voices that are not heard on mainstream media on both sides.”

With 70 people running the station and hosting individual news segments, many are leaders and volunteers of leading organizations in Israel and Palestine. Maysa describes the range of programs: a morning program that translates the other side’s headlines of the newspapers, programs on women empowerment, having settlers speak about living in the West Bank, Rabbis come to speak of their opinions, and The Parent Circle: a grief program where Israelis and Palestinians come together to grieve instead of going to the side of revenge.

When asked how people react to All For Peace’s programs, Maysa replied, “People, when they start listening to us and understanding what our values are, people start accepting us more.” She spoke of how people really just want to listen and relate, and said proudly that listenership is up 130% from last year. “People are seeing the radio station as a stage for people to express and to talk about their activities and concerns.”

 “When we started the radio station we were very small, we had 12 people that started and we were a bunch of Israelis and Palestinians that saw a light in the tunnel and wanted to make a difference, to show the real picture of what’s happening and trying to find a way of making the other listen to the other.”

Read the rest of this entry »

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I recently met with Adiv Jahshan, one of the two Artistic Directors at the Arab-Hebrew Theatre in Jaffa. He is specifically the Artistic Director for The El-Sayaraya Theater, which is the Arab portion of the Theatre.

The Arab-Hebrew Theatre is set sea-side in ancient Jaffa. Founded in 1998, the theatre sits in a once abandoned, archaic stone building.

The history of Jaffa is quite fascinating – when, before 1948, it was the epicenter of Arabic culture, before then it was conquered, destroyed, and reconquered for thousands of years. In the recent history, Jaffa was once a booming city, known for the arts, with Tel Aviv being a much smaller town in close proximity. As we see today, it is very much the opposite, and Tel Aviv boasts all a metropolitan city can offer, while Jaffa seems to sit in its shadow.

Yet if you take a step in you can see phenomenal programs and organizations originating in Jaffa, such as this theatre. It is one of the many efforts to bring Palestinians and Jews together, Arabs and Israelis in once place to share a stage, to have a voice which does not accuse, but to express and create bonds and relationships between these ‘sides’.

With the short hour I spent with Adiv, not one moment passed which disregarded history, experience, and emotion. While sitting face to face with this elder Arab man as he spoke with excitement of this city – his home, his stories were never without underlying pain and longing. Adiv is a man who has lived his life in stages of wars, struggles, fights for self-identity and respect, and still he is working with everything he can to simply bring people together. These may be people who have once hurt him, or people who may not have believed in him, but when he speaks about the occurrences that happen on his stage, he speaks with a simple love for people.

The theatre hosts an array of shows, in Arabic, Hebrew and English. As with many organizations, the Theatre is struggling financially, but refuses to allow this to affect the quality of their work. The intention of the theatre is to bring Arabs and Jews together to one stage to perform and to build amicable relationships, and to show that these individuals can coexist. The theatre also hosts an annual three-day Women’s Festival as well as an International Children’s Festival.

The video will come later, but here is a powerful excerpt from our conversation when I asked him about events that have taken place on his stage:

“We made here an open microphone for the Jews and Arabs. We opened the theatre and the stage, we say ‘you have the microphone’. In this place you could say what you like. People were very nervous, very cross, and everyone had the real freedom to say what they like. You could see and feel the eyes. There was the anger, if it’s Arabs or Jews it doesnt matter. But, in the end, it’s amazing how these people, they get to relax, they breathe outside, all the air outside, and they sat together, drank coffee and tea, and they talked. Suddenly, everything gets open. Just sit and talk, but be honest, not to play, to make fool of him, it never works. It could work one year, another year, but it will not work forever. Let the other side feel that you are right, you speak from your inside, your soul, from your heart, that you really want to live in peace with him.”

To learn more about this inspiring theatre, visit: http://www.arab-hebrew-theatre.org.il/eng/about/about.htm

Call me an optimist, but I believe there must be more out there than violence and left-wing, right-wing, pro, anti, propaganda, name-calling, etcetera. There must be people working towards positive initiatives in a land where the word peace usually brings forth a smirk, a shake of the head, or a very long argument.

Welcome to Choosingtosee, a blog that will report on my video project I am currently embarking on here in Israel on the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict and the road to peace. Do to the overly saturated one-sided and violent-striken news reports we hear in the West and around the world, I have traveled here to search for more than finger-pointing and “right and wrong”. To do so, I am conducting interviews with organizations that are working towards peace through cross cultural understanding, dialogue creation, community building, and other positive initiatives.

I believe that it is difficult to have opinions until we know the people whom we are speaking about and forming opinions for or against. Especially with such a heated and biased-driven conflict as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we find it easy to hear a news report and think we so firmly know our beliefs and exactly what is happening here in this small sliver of land bordering the Mediterranean Sea.

I encourage everyone to take time to learn rather than judge, to listen rather than accuse, and to ask for peoples’ stories, on all sides, before slandering.

I am not interested in who is right or wrong, rather, I will be blogging about personal experiences of these individuals, I will be writing about their efforts to create relationships between Arabs and Jews, I will be searching for that truth: the truth that says there must be hope if there are people who are doing good things. And these people must be heard.

I name this Choosingtosee – because I do believe it is a choice we consciously make. We can hear so much, read so much, but unless we actively and continuously choose to see past the pages and TV screens and learn past how we were raised and the political climate of our friends, we will remain in a world that is solely ours, blocked off from empathy and honesty.

Thank you for joining me. The end product will be a video production of these interviews, so stay tuned. I welcome all comments and feedback, so long as you are choosing to open your eyes past your current state and opinions.

J. L.