The hell of Gaza is better that the paradise of Egypt: This could be hard to believe since Gaza has a reputation of being unsafe, but this is the conclusion I have reached after searching for a safer place to live with my wife and baby boy.
How could this be? Just two years ago, Egypt appeared to some to be on the cusp of an exciting democratic revolution, which would bring more power to the people and give them the freedom Arabs across the Middle East have been yearning for after half a century of Western-backed dictators.
Instead, on my nine visits since then, I have found the country so changed for the worse that I would rather live in a tiny coastal territory with no sovereignty, unemployment rates of more than 30 percent, and a government punished by Israel and the West, both of which consider the ruling Hamas movement to be a terrorist organization.
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To be sure, I have faced frequent violence between Israel and Gaza militants, as well as hazards in my career as a journalist – especially during military conflicts with Israel, such as the 2008-09 war and the 2012 Pillar of Defense operation.
And I thought I had found a way out.
In 2012, I got Egyptian citizenship, since I was born to an Egyptian mother and a Palestinian father. This, together with my desire for safety and stability, was a strong motive for me to move back to Egypt, where I was born and spent 14 years of my childhood, and where three sisters and my mother's family live.
I received more than half a dozen job offers from media outlets, and also had promising plans to start an education center to teach students English, math, science, and other subjects.
The salaries were not as high as what I receive in Gaza, but since I was looking for safety and stability, I did not care much about money. Things were rosy in my eyes, although many of my relatives and friends in Gaza criticized my decision because the economic and security situation in Egypt was not that good.
I did not believe them until last month.
I traveled to Egypt together with a coworker to receive a media course for TV journalists, which also drew journalists from Yemen, Libya, Iran, and China.
On the second of day of the course, we had a field training, in which we were to film a feature story about how the roadblocks placed by the police around government buildings negatively impacted the lives of both pedestrians and residents downtown.
While filming, we were in front of Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the Egyptian revolution. A Yemeni colleague was taking photos with his mobile phone of the place that means a lot for a Yemeni who demonstrated in Sanaa’s Change Square to topple a dictatorship.
As he was taking pictures, a teenager snatched the iPhone 4 from my colleague’s hand and walked away confidently. The Yemeni followed him and tried to stop him. To his surprise, the boy turned back with a knife in his hand and threatened that he will stab my colleague if he continues to ask for the phone.
We were nine guys and three women. We thought that we could help him if we all go out of the minibus and frighten the boy, but the boy went wild and started to scream.
A few seconds later, more than 20 of his peers came with knives and sticks and were about to attack us. An older guy riding a motorbike came and the boy jumped behind the biker and they sped off. No one even tried to stop and watch what was going on. At this very moment, our fear made us get into the minibus and drive away.
This was a turning point for me. After watching this, only one thing was on my mind, how could I live here? It's not the incident itself that made me change my mind to move to Egypt, but rather the passersby who were watching us being attacked and blackmailed by thugs at daytime. While Egyptians are known for being helpful, the spike in criminal activity has made many reluctant to intervene as they would have before the revolution.
Tahrir Square is one of the most crowded squares, if not the most, in Egypt. To have your cellphone stolen at daytime and in front of hundreds of watchers, one needs to think 100 times before deciding to settle in Egypt, but thank God, I only thought once and decided not endanger the lives of family in country that almost has no safety.
It's not that I've given up on Egypt forever. My love of Egypt is endless and priceless. It's my birthplace and the country that embraced me for 14 years, the country that granted me citizenship.
But I feel so sad that Egypt is no longer safe. Once this country was the safest place in the world with millions of foreign tourists spending their most beautiful times under its warm loving sun or enjoying its golden beaches.
The problem is that after the revolution the prisons were emptied. There now seem to be more criminals than policemen on the streets. I have heard true stories of rape, kidnapping, murder, and many crimes.
One more thing that has frightened me about the new Egypt: extremism. Islamic extremism is growing rapidly in Egypt, this has been notable after the revolution, and more clear after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi took office a year ago today.
Gaza is ruled by an Islamic party, but there is no extremism. Gaza is blockaded and frequently attacked by Israel, but the crime level is very low and internal security is near to excellent.
From my heart, I hope that Egypt will be safe like Gaza soon.
Ahmed Aldabba is a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor in Gaza City, Gaza.
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It’s 7:15 a.m. on Shabbat (Saturday) and most of Jerusalem is asleep, but in 15 minutes our tour guide has already whisked us through the 1800s, the 20th-century breakup of the Ottoman Empire, Israel’s conquest of East Jerusalem and the West Bank (the 1948 creation of Israel goes without saying), and into present-day troubles such as the impoverished nomads who live on either side of the highway heading down to the Dead Sea and Jordan beyond.
“These are Bedouins, and nobody has a clue what to do with them,” Prof. Meron Medzini says, waving a hand toward the shacks and the little boys and donkeys that orbit them in search of a bit of toasted grass.
Professor Medzini, a friendly chap who has every right to have retired a decade or two ago, still teaches political science at Hebrew University – “At least I get up in the morning and I know what I’m going to do,” he says. Despite finals coming up, he is spending his weekend driving me and my boss around Israel’s borders with Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. The field trip extraordinaire includes not only an eye-opening look at the geography of Israel’s security, but also a dizzying tour of modern Israeli history.
Medzini is no stranger to such tours. Well before I was born, he introduced the Monitor’s legendary editor, Erwin Canham, to Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion. In the course of his storied career, he worked side by side with the country’s first (and so far only) female prime minister, Golda Meir – a childhood friend of his mother’s – and Levi Eshkol, the leader who presided over the 1967 war with Israel’s Arab neighbors, which drastically changed the landscape both politically and demographically as Israel’s settlement enterprise began sprouting throughout the West Bank.
And this is one of the most fascinating parts of the tour, indeed of working in Israel today: that it is still possible to meet people who participated in the founding of the state and its formative early years, or worked closely with those who did. In an American context, it would perhaps be akin to meeting George Washington’s friend, or Thomas Jefferson’s aide.
Medzini knew Golda Meir best, later writing a biography of her ("Golda: A political biography").
As we drive along the border with Jordan, lined with barbed wire, mines, sensors, and daily Israeli patrols looking for footprints – a fence put in place shortly after the 1967 war and kept in place even after the 1994 peace with Jordan – Medzini recounts Meir’s rocky shuttle diplomacy with Jordan’s King Abdullah.
We pull off the road to see a hydroelectric dam on the Yarmuk River, where the two met “by accident.” Abdullah developed a “headache” after lunch, Medzini recalls, and had to retire to the bungalow of the stationmaster. Golda was there.
But Abdullah disliked the fact that Israel had tapped a woman to deal with him and their diplomacy was perhaps not as fruitful as either side had hoped.
Her secret visits with Abdullah’s successor, King Hussein, had a warmer tenor.
“Golda met Hussein seven or eight times,” recalls Medzin.
The press would ask Hussein, “Did you see Golda?”
And he would coyly respond, “Yes, on television.”
During the 1973 war, Hussein informed Golda that Jordan had to take some “token” action, says Medzini.
“Hope you don’t mind,” Hussein essentially said. “We’ve sent a brigade to the Golan.”
“So we were shooting at them in the Golan and trading with them 100 miles away,” says Medzini, chuckling.
There are definitely more somber parts of the tour as well, though, such as a stop at the Nahariya hydroelectric dam on the Israel-Jordan border where in 1997, three years after the two countries made peace, a Jordanian soldier inexplicably opened fire on a high school field trip and killed seven teenage girls.
Hussein personally visited each of the seven families and asked forgiveness, says Medzini.
In a land where the phrase "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" was coined, Hussein's gesture seems like a noble answer to the criticism of Christians such as former US Sen. Warren Austin (R) of Vermont, who famously said that Jews and Muslims should reconcile their differences in a Christian spirit.
With everything from chickens and rabbits to cashews and apricots out back, Mazen Saadeh is part restaurateur, part survivalist.
“I think the world is going very fast to hell and I want to be safe and find something to eat when the shelves will be empty,” says Mr. Saadeh, a Palestinian novelist and filmmaker who lived in Vienna, Paris, and Iowa before returning home to the West Bank several years ago. “If any war happens between the US and any countries, or Israel and Iran, it means the price of bread [will be] minimum $100.”
Then he adds that he doesn’t like bread.
That’s a pity, because the crusty loaves that come out of his outdoor oven and are served up on the porch of his renovated 1944 farmhouse are as delicious as the sunset colors that spread out over the valley below.
Inside, blinking red Christmas lights adorn the main dining space, which is further furnished with a guitar, poster of Hugo Chávez, accordion, chess set, and an African drum.
He hadn’t been planning on coming back here; he and his wife, Julia, had found an old house in Portland, Ore., and were planning on converting it into a weekend restaurant. But at the last minute he felt the pull of his native land. He told her, “No, khalas [enough], let’s go back to Palestine.”
The mayor of Bir Zeit, a university town near Ramallah, offered him a restaurant property he couldn’t refuse. But Julia apparently didn’t feel the same draw.
“So now she is making wine in Portland and I am making wine in the West Bank,” he says matter-of-factly, fiddling with his Apple computer.
Business was so great in Bir Zeit that he decided to open a second restaurant here in Beit Jala. But the drive between the two properties, which would take 45 minutes or less if he were allowed to drive on Israeli roads, consumes two hours each way and it became untenable to manage both properties. So he shut down the Bir Zeit restaurant, his “favorite baby,” and is now putting everything into this property, where he has established a Palestinian-style locavore restaurant. He has seven employees, all university students – “now there are seven families [making a] living,” he says – and a handful of volunteers that come from as far away as Hungary.
As the last rays of sunlight grace the tops of his fruit and olive trees, he heads outside and pads down the rocky path, bending over his peas and tomatoes, and wagging a finger at the small swimming pool that he is renovating for carp – right next to a larger one that local elders remember using as kids.
Evening prayers echo across the valley, mingling with the sound of silverware tinkling in the outdoor kitchen as the minutiae of daily life makes itself heard amid the strains of religion and politics in this storied land.
The Olive Press blog will be on hiatus until late June.
At a time when the international pressure on academics to boycott Israel caused even Stephen Hawking to decline an invitation to a prestigious conference in Jerusalem, it is perhaps surprising that one of the most generous prizes in academia is based in Israel.
The Dan David Prize, which gives $3 million annually to a handful of laureates – almost none of whom are Israeli – is intended to reward innovation in a variety of disciplines.
But the prize is also aimed at helping Israel further integrate with the rest of the world, says Ariel David, president of the Dan David Foundation and the son of its namesake. Headquartered at Tel Aviv University, it requires each laureate to come to Israel to collect his or her award, and partake in a cross-pollination of ideas with Israeli professors and students.
“Isolating Israel and putting it in the corner just reinforces its existential fear, which isn’t completely unjustified,” says Mr. David, citing Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah. “On the contrary, the more Israel gets the feeling that it’s part of the international community economically, culturally, and politically, the easier it is to set aside its existential fear.”
Each year, themes or areas of studies are chosen in three categories: past, present, and future. This year’s winners include Prof. Sir Geoffrey Lloyd, recognized in the “past” category for his comparison of Greek and Chinese science; philosophy professor Michel Serres of Stanford University and The New Republic’s Literary Editor Leon Wieseltier in the “present” category; and MIT economist Esther Duflo and Prof. Alfred Sommer of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the “future” category of preventive medicine.
They join a long list of distinguished laureates who have received the prize since 2002, including Tony Blair, Al Gore, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Winston Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert, and Israeli novelist Amos Oz. The winners all donate 10 percent of their prize to fund scholarships, and have a say in choosing the recipients.
A $200,000 that kick-started his career
David’s father, Dan David, grew up in Romania during World War II and became active in Zionist organizations. He had dreamt of establishing a fishing kibbutz on Israel's Mediterranean coast, but due to communist rule wasn't able to leave until 1960, under a law promoting the reunification of families. He left with one suitcase and the equivalent of $10.
During a year in Israel, he established the country's first photo booth. The mother company then authorized him to open a branch in Italy, which was made possible by a $200,000 loan from a distant cousin that kickstarted his career as a highly successful entrepreneur. He went on to start companies in Spain, the US, Japan, and even his native Romania after the fall of communism.
In part due to gratitude for his cousin’s crucial donation, the late Mr. David donated most of his assets to his foundation 13 years ago and launched the prize a year later.
Two novelist laureates reject pressure to boycott Israel
As the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement has gathered steam in its efforts to punish Israel economically for occupying Palestinians, some recipients of the prize have been pressured to decline it. Canadian writer Margaret Atwood and joint literature recipient Amitav Ghosh of India faced a particularly intense lobbying effort.
However, they held firm to their position that novelists boycotting Israel would not effect the desired change in Israeli policies.
“We have to stand, as we have stood from the very beginning, against the very idea of a cultural boycott,” they said in a joint acceptance speech, quoting Anthony Appiah, president of PEN American Center, an organization that promotes literary endeavors. “We have to continue to say: Only connect.”
Reem Omran, a petite dynamo with impeccable English and sparkly gold shoes, has grand plans to grow bushels of Gaza entrepreneurs.
Given the tough conditions of working in this tiny coastal territory with no port of its own, her ideas and optimism may sound fanciful.
But already, Gaza Sky Geeks is benefiting from a $900,000 grant from Google and landed airy modern offices in Gaza City with the help of Mercy Corps, whose economic wing promotes information communications and technology (ICT) education in Gaza. (Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized the origin of the grant and Ms. Omran's role at the organization.)
Now Gaza Sky Geeks is in serious talks with venture capitalists who could help the outfit transition from a nonprofit organization to a bona fide business whose mission is to help hi-tech start-ups develop into full-fledged companies.
“We know that the Google grant is an opportunity for Gaza.… Showing the world what Gaza really has [in terms of] entrepreneurs and start-ups is going to bring more attention and support to the ICT community,” says Ms. Omran, who started with Mercy Corps as a student volunteer and helped coordinate Google’s visits to Gaza, which began in the summer of 2010. “We want to prove that yes, those start-ups, those entrepreneurs [and] freelancers from Gaza … are able to compete and produce those Web and mobile applications.”
While Gaza’s near-moribund economy, and strict Israeli and Egyptian controls on exports, are notoriously bad for business, the potential for success in hi-tech is perhaps higher since the industry is less hampered by physical barriers. Web- or mobile-based applications can be used and sold outside Gaza without any need for physically exporting products.
The difficult conditions in Gaza also contribute to an unusually Web-savvy youth population, suggests Omran. The social restrictions on young women that prevent them from going out after school, the inability to travel outside Gaza, and the high rate of unemployment – among 15-29 year olds it is nearly 50 percent – all mean that young people spend an astounding amount of time online.
Gaza Sky Geeks is launching Gaza’s first hi-tech accelerator to help other start-ups develop into proper businesses, and to provide more of a market for some 2,000 university students who graduate each year with degrees in information communication and technology and are largely unable to find jobs.
“We looked at entire ecosystem of start-ups … then we tried to figure out missing parts of ecosystem,” says Omran, ticking off a handful of players, from the Business and Technology incubator at Islamic University to the Palestinian IT Association. “When there’s a market for these start-ups, it’s time to accelerate them.”
Later this month, they are holding a boot camp of three to five weeks for potential grantees. Six teams will be chosen from among the boot camp participants and awarded grants of $15,000 to $20,000. They'll then be given three months to use Gaza Sky Geeks’ facilities, which include iMacs with huge screens, modern bar swivel chairs, and fairly reliable Internet and electricity.
After that, Gaza Sky Geeks will organize an opportunity for the teams to demo their products for investors, either in Gaza or in another Arab country if it proves too big an obstacle to get investors into Gaza.
To that end, they recently sent employee Mohammed Ballour to a conference in Jordan sponsored by Wamda, which trains entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa. There he received training on how to start an accelerator and develop criteria for mentoring start-ups.
The small Gaza Sky Geeks team acknowledges that their aspirations are high, but so is their motivation.
“All our dreams are trying to reach the sky,” says program coordinator Mira Bakri, originally from Lebanon. “This is what we were trying to do with this name [Gaza Sky Geeks].”
Mohammed Assaf, who grew up in this crowded refugee camp performing with his pianist sister, has suddenly become one of the Arab world’s hottest singing sensations.
Among Gaza's teenage girls, the handsome Mr. Assaf inspires a Justin Bieber-like fandom. His sister says that young girls regularly call the family home asking to marry her brother. Ask any teenage girl on the streets of Khan Younis what they think of him and soon you'll have a gaggle of them giggling into their headscarves and vying for a chance to tell outsiders just how wonderful their hometown here is.
His soulful renditions of Palestinian nationalist songs have prompted Palestinians of all stripes to rally behind him in the second season of “Arab Idol,” a Lebanon-based singing contest. But his stardom also represents a broader success for Palestinian solidarity. Even before hordes of teenage girls were texting their votes for Mr. Assaf, more than a few Palestinians went out of their way to help the aspiring star overcome the unique obstacles of life – never mind music careers – in Gaza.
If it weren’t for that support, Assaf may have never even had a chance to audition for Arab Idol, let alone become one of the final seven contestants out of 27.
Because of growing militant activity in the nearby Sinai peninsula and ongoing Israeli concerns about the flow of militants and weapons in and out of the Gaza, the borders of this tiny coastal territory are tightly controlled.
So when auditions were held in next-door Egypt this winter, Assaf had trouble getting through the Rafah border crossing. By the time he arrived at the audition center, the organizers had closed the doors and refused to let him in.
He immediately called his mother in disappointment. She told him, “Don’t come back with empty hands, even if you have to jump over the wall,” recalls his older sister Nisreen.
So Assaf walked the perimeter of the property with a cousin studying in Cairo and found a place to jump the fence. But when he got inside, he was denied the necessary ticket for a turn to audition. After his pleas were rebuffed by the woman in charge, he tried a different form of protest: He began singing.
A fellow Gazan in the crowded waiting area immediately recognized Assaf’s voice, which had become well-known through his radio appearances.
“He said, ‘My voice is not as good as yours, please, take my ticket,’” says Nisreen, surrounded by her brother’s image on multitudinous posters in the family’s neat but modest home. Big trucks rumble by on the sandy streets outside.
Assaf first sang in public at age five with Shireen, his eldest sister, who was well-known for her piano playing. While the siblings never had formal music lessons – no music school existed until very recently, says Nisreen – their parents strongly encouraged them to pursue their talents. Shireen broke her electric keyboard more than once and they bought a new one each time – a big financial sacrifice in a place where the goal is often to merely making ends meet.
They also encouraged her kid brother to call in to a popular television show with singer Jamal al-Najjar, who would take questions. When Assaf called in, his "question" was more of a request: Listen to me sing.
Mr. al-Najjar not only indulged him, but asked for his phone number to follow up. Soon after, Assaf’s father arranged a meeting between the two, which launched a mentoring relationship that his sister credits with making his music career.
And when the opportunity came to audition for Arab Idol, Assaf’s parents once again strongly encouraged him. The contest represents the first possibility for Assaf to earn money from his singing; according to his sister, he already has a 10-year contract with MBC, the Saudi TV station that airs Arab Idol.
“He’s never made a penny from his singing,” says Nisreen, noting that local merchants frequently use his image to boost sales without paying him due to a lack of copyright law. “Now, this is going to change.”
For Assaf’s fellow Palestinians, his success also represents an opportunity to earn more dignity and respect in the Arab world. The Palestinian cause is often championed for political reasons, but little is done to help the 5 million or more refugees whose families lost their homes in the 1948-49 war of Israeli independence.
“I believe he changed Arab perceptions for the better,” says Nismaa Arafa, a 10th grader. “Palestine became more popular in front of the Arab countries.”
Where others give PowerPoint presentations about wooing more souls to a storied land, he wears a faded “staff” T-shirt with a button that says, “In fun we trust.” He actively courts travelers who have visited countries at war with Israel, including Syria, Lebanon, Iran, and Iraq, and aims to boost tourism to the whole Middle East one backpacker at a time.
Meet Maoz Inon, Israel’s maverick tourism entrepreneur, whose latest venture was just recognized as one of the top 10 large hostels worldwide.
“I believe tourism is a great tool also to create political change, to create a very big impact,” he says. “Backpackers are the first adopters, so we must target them.”
Mr. Inon’s foray into shoestring travel in Israel began eight years ago in the Old City of Nazareth, one of Israel’s poorest neighborhoods, which was riddled with drugs and not exactly a prime tourist destination – even for the adventurous. But after he and his wife decided to leave their “yuppie lives” in Tel Aviv and spent months backpacking along California’s Pacific Crest Trail and later Patagonia at the tip of South America, they had returned home with a mission.
“I believe the No. 1 beneficiary should be the local community,” he says, having witnessed firsthand the transformative effect of responsible tourism.
He found a gem of an old mansion in Nazareth’s warren of stone alleyways, and turned its soaring arches and tiled ceilings into the Fauzi Azar Inn, named after the Arab family that occupied it until the 1980s. By creating a free map and daily tours of the Old City, as well as co-founding the Jesus Trail that runs from Fauzi’s steps to the shores of the Galilee, he helped create such a demand that six more guesthouses have since opened up in the Old City.
With visitors from places as cosmopolitan as London and far-flung as Mongolia, he says his inn and its clientele are gradually turning perceptions of Nazareth inside out.
“It is raising the self-esteem of the community and creating a psychological change in their mind,” says Inon, who partners with local businesses – including other guesthouses – and organizes home-cooked dinners in a local family’s home for 80 shekels ($22) a head.
“Sustainable business is not about recycling or solar power,” he says. “It’s about being a profitable business.
And he seems to have a knack for spotting such opportunities. The Abraham Hostel, which he opened in 2010 with several other Israeli backpackers, became a top-ranked Israeli hostel before renovations on all 72 rooms were even completed. In February, the annual Hoscars competition named it the 8th best large hostel in the world – the only Israeli hostel to get a mention in any of the four categories.
“I believe backpackers are the foundation of sustainable tourism,” he says. “I see them as the planktons in the ocean that we feed on.”
Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, with their bobbing side curls and modestly dressed women, are no strangers to the silver screen.
But rarely, if ever, have they been portrayed by one of their own.
Rama Burshtein has surprised more than a few people – herself included – with the success of her first feature-length film, “Fill the Void,” which won seven of Israel’s 12 Academy awards, including best director. The intimate portrait of love, family, and community in the ultra-Orthodox world makes its US debut this weekend with premieres in New York and Los Angeles.
While Israeli films and TV shows have increasingly offered glimpses into Orthodox Judaism, they tend to be directed by outsiders and involve characters who feel constricted by the community and are wrestling with their faith – or are even looking for a way out. Some two decades after finishing film school and leaving her secular life to become a strictly observant Jew, Mrs. Burshtein decided it was time for a new window for secular people to peer into ultra-Orthodox life.
“I think people were curious about this community, but it’s like you’d be curious about what happens at the Vatican, or what’s happening in Japan, or any other exotic place,” she says in the Tel Aviv offices of Norma Productions, where she spent a year on casting alone. “It’s not about true interest in the community or its beliefs, it’s more into their dress codes, into the atmosphere of what it seems like from the outside.”
But Fill the Void definitely penetrates well beyond the trappings of the community, exploring the heart of an 18-year-old girl, Shira. When the movie begins, she is eyeing her prospective match in the supermarket, but she soon finds herself facing an unexpected marriage proposition when her older sister dies in childbirth. Her parents, eager to keep their new grandchild in the family, ask Shira to consider marrying her sister’s widower.
Shira is free to make her own choice, says Burshtein, who describes true freedom as the ability to know what is right and commit to it, rather than trying all the options. But others see Shira contending with strong pressure from her family, rabbi, and larger community.
But Burshtein seems less concerned about what people see through this window of hers than with the fact that it gives them a very human picture of a largely unknown world.
“It’s a mixture of a lot of feelings and a lot of characters and a lot of virtues and faults. It’s just human. That was my main thing. I was just trying to be honest. I’m not trying to sell anything. I’m trying just to say, just look at us, just look, just let us be there, as part of humanity and not as something weird and unreachable and so far away and primitive,” she says. “And I think we were very successful.”
The Harlem Shake craze has hit Jerusalem and the Arab and Jewish teens in Micah Hendler's Jerusalem Youth Chorus want to make their own video. It’s not Mr. Hendler's preferred music, but the students’ exuberance leaves him little choice.
“All right, if we’re going to make this video we’re going to have to get moving,” he says.
There are plenty of expats living in Jerusalem but Hendler is the only one who started an Arab-Jewish youth chorus five months after graduating college.
Hendler is a former counselor at the Seeds of Peace coexistence camp in Maine, proud alumnus of two a capella groups at Yale – the Duke’s Men and Whiffenpoofs – and a firm believer in the power of music to create communities and empower youth.
Supported by grants from Yale and the Jerusalem Foundation, Hendler moved to Jerusalem after graduating in 2012 to put his ideas into practice – he wrote his senior thesis on the successes and failures of other music-for-peace programs in Israel.
He selected 14 Arab and 14 Jewish students from 80 applicants; together they performed to a packed house at the Jerusalem YMCA Christmas concert two months after their first practice.
He’s trying to avoid two pitfalls of other programs he studied: enabling students to remain negative toward the group as a whole, even as they make friends with representatives of “the other,” or focusing so much on broad dialogue that the students don’t form any close friendships.
Hendler’s three-hour weekly practice includes time for bonding – the Harlem Shake video was preceded by collective giggles – and a 45-minute dialogue run by trained facilitators. The dialogue is strategically placed in the middle of the rehearsal so students don't come late and miss it, as they did in other programs he studied.
Rudinah, an Arab girl from East Jerusalem, says she didn’t know there would be a dialogue portion before she joined the chorus, but that it’s one of her favorite parts. “The Jewish people here are so cool and friendly,” she says.
Likewise Shifa Woodbridge, a Jew who had never met an Arab before joining the chorus, is equally exuberant.
“It's my favorite part,” she exclaimed when asked about the dialogue. “I love talking about it. It's not weird," she says.
Hendler recognizes that some doubt whether programs like his can make a difference or are simply invigorating those already in support of peace, but points to the first free time the students were given at their second rehearsal when Arabs and Jews spontaneously mingled without prompting as evidence that the program is useful.
"People were hanging out across every possible line, of their own free will. There aren't that many places in the city, or country, or world really where that happens."
Since moving to Israel, I have periodically found mysterious green envelopes in my mailbox. They include nothing but a flimsy magnet, advertising some business that I had never heard of.
Now I have solved the mystery, and gained a new appreciation for the folks behind this marketing front.
While reporting on Sderot’s resilience in the face of persistent rocket fire from nearby Gaza, I discovered a very different example of resilience: a factory full of adults diagnosed with various intellectual disabilities, working steadily away on various projects. One of them was stuffing those now-familiar green envelopes with flimsy magnets.
Even this, the simplest of jobs, appeared to require some serious concentration from a petite woman working that day. I gained a new appreciation for the periodic presents in my mailbox.
These individuals are paid only a nominal amount for showing up here, since they already receive considerable government stipends – even though they are doing work for corporations, not the government. In that light, the companies that contract with this factory could perhaps be seen as taking advantage of cheap labor from a disadvantaged population.
But on the other hand, it’s a haven from a society that, according to advocates for individuals labeled mentally-disabled, is uncomfortable with these individuals.
“I used to think it was just a sweatshop,” says Miriam Fouks, a young social worker who had heard about such factories before coming to work here. “But they love being here, it gives them a social life.”
For some, the social life is the only reason they come. One man in particular can never be bothered to repackage Made-in-China menorah candles into Israeli boxes, or help with any of the other projects the 60 or so folks here are involved in.
So Ms. Fouks has just come up with a new job for him: current affairs guy. He loves reading the news, so she assigned him the task of getting up to speed every day and then sharing the highlights with his fellow workers.
Maybe he will enjoy reading about himself and his colleagues in an American newspaper.