Easing Arab-Jewish tensions. Grass-roots groups try language and art
A FEW weeks after Israeli Arabs held a one-day general strike last December - protesting the Israeli Army's actions against Palestinian demonstrators in the occupied territories - an Israeli Arab teen-ager threw a Molotov cocktail at a kibbutz bus filled with Jewish teen-agers. Fortunately, there were no injuries. Still, the action reflects a growing level of tension between the citizens, Arab and Jewish, of Israel. If this incident had occurred in the occupied territories, it almost certainly would have led to a harsh reprisal. In Israel, however, a safety valve exists in the longtime work of more than 40 grass-roots organizations and academic institutions in the field of Jewish-Arab relations. Instead of more violence, there is dialogue.
Responding to this particular incident, the Arab and Jewish staff of the Givat Haviva Institute immediately visited the kibbutz and the Arab village involved. A week later, as a result of discussions with high school students, Jewish and Arab youths stood together at the scene of the attack on the bus to hand flowers to drivers along this major road in central Israel.
Givat Haviva, the educational center of the Kibbutz Artzi Federation, operates one of the largest educational programs for improving relations between Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens. Since each group attends separate schools until the university level, such programs provide in many cases the first opportunities for social interaction between Arab and Jewish youths.
Thousands of high school students throughout Israel have participated in seminars designed to break down stereotypes and promote understanding and mutual respect through discussions and cooperative activities. In this year alone, more than 1,500 11th-graders are taking part.
The conflict in the territories has put the staff of Givat Haviva and similar organizations to a tough test. Activists in the field of Jewish-Arab relations share a growing concern that a sustained conflict between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians in the territories may erode the partnership built up over 40 years between Israel's Jewish majority and Arab minority.
``I am afraid that there is an opportunity to lose the Israeli Arabs as partners,'' says Ron Trainin, Givat Haviva's director. The longer the violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip continues, he says, ``young Israeli Arabs will become more extreme, and under certain conditions they may join the violence.'' Incidents of rock-throwing at cars by young Israeli Arabs have increased in the past few months.
Mr. Trainin also expresses deep concern about extremist tendencies among Israeli Jewish youth; according to public opinion polls, 30 percent continue to support the anti-Arab extremist views of Meir Kahane.
Trainin reports that in recent months, however, he has received hundreds of requests from Arab and Jewish schools to participate in Givat Haviva's educational programs and for the institute to send speakers to their communities.
Similar requests of other organizations indicate that many Israeli Arabs and Jews want to address the strains that have emerged in their relations. The immediate challenge for these groups, which have limited staff and budgets, is to meet the increasing demand for their programs from Israeli Arabs and Jews.
Two innovative programs recently introduced at Givat Haviva are having a positive effect. In a special program for paired Arab and Jewish seventh-grade classes, children teach each other their respective languages, gaining an appreciation for the other's culture and heritage.
At the recently opened Jewish-Arab Art Center on Givat Haviva's 50-acre campus, Arab and Jewish artists, both professionals and students, work side by side and jointly on art projects.
While an absence of communication in the territories persists, Arabs and Jews at the grass-roots level in Israel itself are making concerted efforts to ensure that whatever coexistence they have developed over the past 40 years is preserved and strengthened.
To assist in this dialogue, the staff of Givat Haviva, using the institute's longstanding relationships with Arab and Jewish communities in central Israel, recently helped establish a committee of Arab mayors, kibbutz secretaries, and Jewish mayors, representing more than 40 communities.
In weekly meetings at Givat Haviva, these community leaders discuss common concerns and share their political views. The intention is to further mutual understanding with a view to preventing the violence in the territories from spilling over into Israel proper. In fact, the activities of organizations such as Givat Haviva helped ensure that Land Day observances in Israel last month were peaceful, in contrast to the violent clashes in the territories.
Internal harmony among Israel's citizens is essential to guaranteeing the future security of the state. Organizations such as Givat Haviva are invaluable. They are playing a critical role in furthering constructive relations between Israel's Arabs and Jews, two communities that have lived together peaceably and cooperatively since Israel declared its independence 40 years ago.
Kenneth Bandler, a Middle East specialist, is director of public information at the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.