Arabs and Jews Meet and Learn In Jaffa Program

Community center co-sponsored by Jews in Los Angeles offers classes, common ground

THE contrast could hardly be more dramatic. In the middle of one of Israel's poorest slums, where crumbling facades and abandoned automobile hulks bespeak decades of neglect, a brand new edifice in white stone fairly gleams with pride.

The unexpectedness of the building's appearance matches the uniqueness of its purpose: Jaffa's new community center is a place where Arabs and Jews do everything together except fight.

Attractively decorated in aquatic shades of blue and green that recall the Mediterranean Sea outside the windows, the Arab-Jewish Community Center opened its doors five months ago. Its hope, says manager Ibrahim Abu-Shindi, is that ``Arabs and Jews can come to the same place to do the same activities to increase good coexistence.''

It sounds simple, but in Israel there is nothing else like this center. And when tensions between Palestinians and Jews are high, says Mr. Abu-Shindi, as they have been in the wake of the Hebron massacre, ``it is very important that we work together.''

Jaffa is unique in Israel. An ancient port just down the beach from Tel Aviv, its population of 40,000 is almost evenly split between Jews and Palestinians - descendants of those who did not flee to refugee camps in 1948 when Israel was founded.

In Jaffa, Arabs and Jews live on the same streets and in the same buildings. There are even a hundred or so mixed couples in town. That degree of integration would be unthinkable among the rest of the country's 900,000 Palestinians who are Israeli citizens living in their own towns and villages or in ghettos in predominantly Jewish towns.

That sort of separation, complains Abu-Shindi, merely encourages mutual ignorance. ``I introduce myself to Jews as Ibrahim, but often they will call me `Ephraim,' '' a Jewish name, he notes.

At the community center, though, ``first of all, [members] will know the other side,'' he says. ``Maybe they'll hate, maybe they'll love, but at least they will know each other. And that is very important.''

There did not seem to be much hatred one recent afternoon in Ali Farid's percussion class, even though at first sight two of the drummers jamming together on tabla and bongos looked like typical enemies: Amir Arnon, still in the Israeli Army uniform he had not had time to change out of before class, and Mahmoud Shurafi, a mischievous-looking youngster who was likely out on the streets with everyone else his age a month ago, throwing stones at police after the massacre in the Hebron mosque.

``These are people who care about their struggle,'' says Ronni Tel-Or, a Jew, of his Palestinian classmates. ``But they make a distinction when it comes to music.''

The same sort of mix prevails in other classes, too: Of the 1,000 people who belong to the community center, about one-third are Jews, one-third Christian Arabs, and one-third Muslim Arabs, according to Abu-Shindi.

The point, however, is that ``here, we treat people as people, not as Jews, Christians, or Muslims,'' Abu-Shindi says.

That attitude, highly unusual in Israel, seems quite common in Jaffa. ``We don't deal with politics amongst my friends,'' says Dalia Kadiss, as she brings her two children to the center for pottery and painting classes. ``We see each other as individuals, not as representatives of a religion.''

One thing many Jaffa residents have in common, regardless of their race or religion, is poverty. On a scale measuring social well-being - income, educational achievement, housing density, and so on - Jaffa scored 4 out of possible 100 in a recent survey. Drug abuse, unemployment, and school drop-out rates are high among both Jews and Arabs.

This background, says Abu-Shindi, makes coexistence in Jaffa even more problematic. ``When you suffer from social problems, it is very easy to blame the other side,'' he points out.

The community center is part of a wider effort called ``Project Renewal,'' designed to tackle Jaffa's problems and funded jointly by the Tel Aviv municipality and the Jewish community of Los Angeles.

In the morning, the center offers its facilities to local schools, which send students to take advantage of all the equipment - from musical instruments to computers.

Some 1,300 children use the center this way for free, as well as the 1,000 dues-paying members (it costs about $270 a year for a family of 4). They learn to sail in the port, exercise in the gym, take remedial math classes, learn Arabic if they are Jewish, or take karate, music, or pottery.

The project, similar to efforts in other poor Israeli neighborhoods, is the only one to help both Arabs and Jews. This has led local residents to set up committees - made up of experts and locals - to improve local schools, remodel old houses, set up job-training programs, and offer drug-education programs.

``We are not talking about Arabs and Jews simply meeting each other,'' Abu-Shindi says. ``They are actually doing things together. If we are talking about peace [between Israel and the Arab world], we need this sort of thing all over Israel. Because when Arabs and Jews sit together on the same committees, when they work together, they learn.''

``Knowing the other side is not just saying `Hi, shalom,' and drinking a cup of coffee together,'' Abu-Shindi insists. ``It means really knowing how the other side suffers. But if you do know the other side, you can talk much more smoothly if a crisis happens.''

That has helped Jaffa in the wake of the Hebron massacre. After a few days of disturbances, when Arab crowds threw stones at police and scores of residents were arrested, the town has quieted down, and community relations appear unscathed.

But Abu-Shindi takes nothing for granted.

Relations between Arabs and Jews here ``are more solid than elsewhere,'' he says. ``But you can't just leave them and say nothing can affect them. We have to work a lot on them.''

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