Planting seeds of peace in Israel
Boston — Tamra is a town in Israel, east of Haifa, a farmer's village. Dina Lipsky has lived there for about a year, in a one-room cement-block house surroundered by figs, grape vines, and blossoming lemon trees. When she leaves for work she is met on the street by children, who chant her name affectionately. Her progress can be marked by dozens of small voices singing "Dina! Dina!" and she is honored, because she is Jewish and Tamra is an Arab settlement.
While national leaders struggle for political peace in the Mideast, Dina Lipsky is working for grass-roots human understanding. She is a member of Interns for Peace (IFP), a community work organization whose name in Hebrew and Arabic translates as "Buds for Peace." And that is her mission: planting harmony between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews.
Most of Israel's half-million Arabs are clustered in the countryside, around traditional settlements like Tamra. The Israeli Jewish population is overwhelmingly urban, accentuating the cultural gap by a physical separation. By sening Jews out to work in Arab towns, Interns for Peace hopes, in a small way, to bring the two groups closer, to show each that the other side isn't so bad, after all.
Dina Lipsky is one of their successes. An American, she is touring the United States to recruit and interview new interns before returning to Tamra to finish the last six months of her tour of duty. To get new troops, you send out a conquering general, and Dina seems the kind of person who could win over her Arab neighbors with sheer extroversion. Associates describe her as "the type everybody loves," and her dominant physical characteristic is the sense of precision one gets from scrubbed cleanliness and careful dressing.
Her job is organizing Tamra's first day-care center, to aid the town's growing number of working women. This gives her a chance to meet young parents and to work with three- and four-year-olds who have never met a Jew before. Especially one from Butler, Pa.
"They thought I came from the Promised Land, where the streets are paved in gold and you meet the Six Million Dollar Man everyday. 'How is it that you're 26 and not married?' they asked. 'How is it that you're so far away from your family? How is it that you can make $1 million a year in America and what are you doing here, making nothing?'"
To her little charges Dina was at first an exotic, overgrown child -- someone who couldn't bake bread and whose Arabic was on a par with their little sisters'. They reveled in a linguistic clumsiness that sometimes made her appear like a cross-cultural Groucho Marx.
"Well, you see, in Arabic the words for 'bus' and 'underwear' are very similar. So one day I asked the class where I could catch the underwear to Nazareth. You know, 'What time does the underwear come?' There was lots f giggling and blushing before they told me about that one. 'Pigeon' and 'shower' are also very close. I was always mixing the two up, especially one day when I saw pigeons in the shower. Then there's 'cucumber' and 'old person'. Imagine the fun I had with those."
But in the end, she says, the mistakes made her less frightening, better liked, and helped her learn more about the Arabs' way of life.
"It's a good tool for learning the culture, because you're permanently dumb. 'You don't know how to bake bread? A shame! We have to teach you.'"
She went to Tamra because of a scrap of paper lying on a friend's floor. It was the spring of 1978, and she was in Jerusalem after having graduated from Hebrew University. Vaguely considering ways she could contribute something to peace between the Arab and Jewish cultures, one day she idly smoothed out a crumpled recruitment notice for a social work organization named Interns for Peace. It offered a chance to live in an Israeli Arab village and to immerse oneself in a culture far different from her own. She arranged for an interview and has never regretted the decision.
"I love it. I enjoy challenges."
IFP is the brainchild of one man, Bruce Cohen, a rabbi with a background in one-to-one social work in Harlem and Connecticut. In 1976, he began casting about for ways his expertise would be useful in calming Israel's inner tensions, and a year later, at a meeting of Jewish and Arab workers, he was struck by the possibilities of a bicultural social work program. After a fund-raising tour in America and rigorous screening of applicants, IFP was launched in late 1978 with 11 interns -- eight North Americans, two Israeli Jews, and one Israeli Arab.
The interns are placed in communities within Israel's pre-1967 war boundaries that request their assistance and agree to provide housing. in return, the IFP workers coordinate youth counseling, open day-care centers, teach English, and organize Jewish-Arab basketball leagues, drama troupes, and teen-age leadership training classes.
By working and living in the villages, the interns hope to provide an examples of peace, IFP steering committee member July Waksberg explains. And Israel will be provided a core of young people with experience in pouring oil on troubled waters.
"I think the program has been tremendously successful," Judy says "It's gone beyond my own expectations. It's not going to change the Mideast overnight, but the personal relations opened through this program could open the minds of both sides to understanding. In some cases, it may be as little as not having a knee-jerk reaction to the word 'Jew' or 'Arab.' But that's something."
For Dina Kipsky, life in Tamra has opened a whole new world.
"The first months, when I was still a beginner in the language, were really difficult. And you couldn't go home and put the village away. You'd come back from a long day of trying four new foods, seven cups of coffee, and being the token foreigner, and collapse. But then the neighbors would come knocking and say, 'You have to come, you have to come. My brother and sister-in-law are here and you have to meet them. You promised.'"
She depicts a typical day in Tamra as a whirl of social graces.After her morning procession, there is work; and after work, there are visits with teachers from neighboring schools, condolence calls on bereaved families, knitting and cooking lessons, television-watching parties, and endless streams of refreshments.
She admits that her presence sparked many questions. Besides the strain of living in a new culture, she had to deal with suspicions that she was an intelligence agent or pawn of the Israeli government. And there was some difficulty in defining her role within the town
"It's confusing to come into a community where you're supposed to be an independent worker and have people want you just for themselves. You have to try to negotiate out of it, explain it's for the betterment of the entire community. That problem created a lot of conflicts and arguments "
But now, as far as many villagers are concerned, Dina is going to be "a permanent Tamraite. They are dying for me to get married, so they can arrange a wedding."
Her path to Arab acceptance lay through her students, a gang of four-year-olds whose behavior was remarkably similar to four-year-olds everywhere. A day at the center included fixing broken toys, kissing frightened kids, removing Georgina's teeth from Shadi's arm and Shadi's hand from Georgina's hair, and stopping the sink while someone ran for the janitor.
One of her favorite charges was Nazzee, a blond, waddle-bellied comedian. Nazzee would challenge visitors to the center with a gruff (if four-year-olds can be gruff) "What are you dong here?" He loved to mug for a crowd. Part of Dina's job involved visiting parents to organize an adult support group, and after she visited Nazzee's cousins he refused to speak to her until she promised to visit his home.
"Then he walked away with a smile. The whole week he told his mother, 'Dina's coming on such and such a day!' When I came, he waddled around the house , absolutely beaming. He picked up his baby sister and dragged her along so I could play with her."
Then there were the children who took advantage of her basic good nature and lack of language skills.
"They'd pinch me, kick me. I'd be squatting on the floow and they'd jump on my back and I'd fall over. And it's hard to get mad in a second language. If I was angry with a child and wanted to explain why, I'd have to call one of the other teachers over to translate."
Her triumphs came subtly.
"Sometimes the children would talk about me to their parents, saying 'the Judea,' which means 'the Jew.' It's not really a kind term, but then they'd peer through their hands, like they'd made a mistake, and look embarrassed."
Despite the crush and stress of activity, Dina counts her time in Tamra an expanding experience.
"After you get an understanding of what's going on, you can really open up a lot of subjects with people. You can open up yourself so people get to discover you. You get to bounce a lot of ideas back and forth."
She will return in the fall for her final six months. The next generation of 20 new interns will begin their six-month training session later this year. Program organizers hope the 11 alumni will use the newly acquired contacts to carry their work beyond the framework f the IFP program.
"Right before I left," Dina say, remembering her friendships, "one of the teachers in the day-care center got married. There's this one part where the bride holds candles and carries presents to the groom's home. The sisters of the bride, her closest friends, dance in front of her while she's walking. I was asked to dance.
"And when I left, about 40 women came over to my house for a party. They recorded a tape for my mother, of a special type of singing they have in the village. It went, 'To Dina's mother, you have a wonderful daughter, to Dina's mother, may she be happy, Allah bless you.'"
Dina settles back in her chair, remembering Tamra. "Once you get inside," she says, "you realized people are the same everywhere."