For Arabs, Jews, a bit of healing in shared history

Oh boy, was Avi Shemesh nervous that first day. His insides felt funny, and some of his friends were crying. He and his fellow fifth-graders from the Jewish side of Jerusalem were going to meet a fifth-grade class of Palestinian kids from the city's Arab side and he didn't know what to expect.

"We're in a fight with them right now," explains Avi, his round, freckle-dusted face taut with concentration as he tries to convey the unease he felt. But the meeting, on neutral ground at Jerusalem's zoo, turned out to be OK. More than OK, in fact. "I thought some of them would be a little bad," recalls Avi. "But you know, all of them were good."

That small realization is precisely the kind of seed Jerusalem's Bible Lands Museum - the meeting's organizers - hope to plant. The museum's coexistence program, called "The Image of Abraham," draws on the link Jews and Arabs have in their common patriarch to foster understanding between children.

The ongoing conflict here has pushed the concept of "coexistence" closer to theory than working reality. But instead of quitting, the museum is carrying on and even expanding by creating a similar program for the children's parents.

"The program is about building community and trust where none exist," says Amanda Weiss, the museum's public relations director, who talks about the project in personal terms as well. "My neighborhood is Jewish, the one next over is Arab, and the next one to that is Jewish again. If we can't figure out how to live together and respect each other, well..." she pauses, "we don't have another option, do we?"

The museum doesn't follow up on its groups formally, but over the course of the five-year program it has learned of friendships and ties that have lasted long after the four-week course is over.

This year marks the first time the museum has worked with Jerusalem schools and with parents. About 60 children and 24 parents participated in the most recent session of the program.

Despite the enthusiastic response, the museum's hopes of expanding depend on funding, which is tight in these economically difficult times. The US-based Abraham Fund and the Jerusalem Foundation back the core program.

A shared heritage

After their initial meeting at the zoo, the children met at the museum, a bright, airy building that chronicles the history of the Middle East during the Biblical era. The program is built around the exhibits, using tours, games, workshops and an art project to help the kids explore their heritage in concrete ways. They look at implements from the era, talk about how people lived, and trace common elements in Arab and Jewish cultures.

The museum chose to work with 9- and 10-year-olds because they are old enough to grasp some history, but young enough to be open-minded, says Ms. Weiss. But in a place where people commonly tune in to the news hourly for updates on the conflict, it is hard, even for children, to be unaffected.

Mouna Basher, from the El-Tzal'a school in East Jerusalem, was also nervous the first day of the program. She hears about Israeli soldiers killing Palestinians and sees them with their guns at checkpoints. And Mouna listens when her mother answers her small sister's frequent questions about Israelis and whether they are bad people.

"It's a mess," says Mouna's mother, Nesreen Basher, of the situation. Her neighbors had asked if she wasn't afraid to go to West Jerusalem to take part in the program with Mouna. "You cannot hide like an ostrich," says Ms. Basher, a slim woman with a thoughtful manner. "This is our life. They are here and we are here and we have to live together."

Shrieks of excitement

On the first day of the program, Basher recalls, the children "sat in two divisions, like little political leaders. Now they mix." Behind her, on their fourth meeting, children shriek with ear-splitting excitement as mixed Jewish and Arab teams charge the length of an empty room with cups of water, trying to win the race without spilling a drop.

Before the program begins, the museum invites the teachers to meet each other and go through the curriculum in advance. They also hold a meeting at each school to answer questions.

Palestinian parents often want to make sure the program isn't proselytizing. "We're not trying to make one group into the other," Weiss assures them. "First and foremost, we're trying to strengthen our own identities."

Parents join in

The response from parents invited to join their children surprised the museum, with more coming every week. "There's an enthusiasm there," says the museum's education director, Yehuda Kaplan. "We're not so naive as to think that in three or four meetings we will overcome all the fears. But at the first meeting, that initial tension evaporated because they could watch their kids and talk about them."

The museum staff finds that the biggest barrier isn't trust, but language. Interpreters help, but since the core idea behind the program is communication, the museum pays particular attention to how children interact. Everyone is asked to stay quiet as activities are explained in Hebrew and then in Arabic.

"One of the things we try to teach is to listen even if you don't understand," says Mr. Kaplan. An important project the children work on is a dictionary, which they fill with words they need to ask questions about each other's lives.

The conflict does intrude on the program. One word the Jewish children often want in the dictionary is "suicide bombing." Indeed, one Jewish boy refused to take part this year because his father had been killed in a suicide bomb attack.

"In the beginning, the principal emotion is fear," says Miral Tannenbaum, a Jewish mother taking part in the program. "It's too bad there isn't money to make this program longer, because this process takes time, and four weeks isn't enough. For me, it's natural to interact with Palestinians, and I don't have to come to these meetings to know children are the same all over, but these kids do. It's sad."

Young Avi, who conquered his nervousness and now enjoys the program and the other kids, has come to a conclusion by the end of the fourth meeting. "We're not very good friends, because of this fight we're having, but we have to help each other," he says, adding that he doesn't worry so much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict anymore. "Now I think a lot about Iraq."

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