Art that aims to heal hatreds in Mideast

The shocking headlines of the second intifada may have muted, but tension between Palestinians and Israelis continues to simmer.

Israelis wonder what their massive disengagement from Gaza has accomplished when the Palestinian response has been a stream of rockets aimed at Israeli civilians and, more significantly, the electoral victory of the Hamas party, the main source of ideological and terrorist attacks.

Palestinians in turn are bitter because the Israelis' exit from Gaza has not improved their economic prospects or lessened the hardships of security checkpoints and military controls, and because civilians are often wounded or killed in Israeli targeted assassinations of terror cells.

Hatred might well be expected among the kin of Israelis and Palestinians who have suffered at the hands of the other side.

Yet some 500 of these families have rejected a nihilistic path, joining instead in a binational organization where bereaved Israelis and Palestinians reach out to one another as an alternative to rage and despair. There is no magical escape from the caldron of their tragedy. Nevertheless the brave people in the Parents Circle-Families Forum have cast their lot with reconciliation.

Founded over a decade ago in 1995, the organization has witnessed both the hope of the peace talks and the despair of the second intifada, which swelled its unhappy ranks. Yet it has persevered through the darkest days that saw many "peaceniks" give up hope, and today stands strong, determined to spread its message of coexistence through education of leaders and youth.

In this vein, it launched Offering Reconciliation last month, a public awareness project with more than 130 Israeli and Palestinian artists participating. Each artist was given an identical blank ceramic dish – the bowl of reconciliation – upon which to express a personal interpretation of the healing process.

The project outgrew its original modest aim of selling the art at a small, local auction to raise funds for the organization. Instead, the works debuted at the Ramat Gan Museum in Israel. From there they will go on tour. Both the United Nations and the European Union have expressed interest in displaying them.

To view these 135 bowls is to view a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many portray pain – shattered shards, lurid colors of violence, blackened trees, wounded animals. Several artists cracked their bowls in two, only to rejoin them with glue and plaster. Others portray an idealized vision of future peace, a utopia of flowers and harmony. Some rely on iconic text in Arabic or Hebrew to help convey either irony or hope. One of the artists is Aliza Olmert, wife of the Israeli prime minister. Her bowl is encircled with a repetition of the words: "A Jew doesn't expel an Arab doesn't expel a Jew."

One symbol reoccurs to represent the optimism, pessimism, beauty, and hurt of two peoples – the human hand. Leading Israeli artist Dani Karavan paints three golden palms, fingers reaching out to one another. Conversely Buthaina Milhim, an Israeli Arab artist, creates a vision of hands as symbols of destruction and suffering. She fills her bowl with jagged ceramic casts of her own hand, each painted in disturbing colors of disquiet, each with a broken edge. Piled in a jumble upon one another, Ms. Milhim's hands recall bodies of victims thrown into a communal grave.

Another bowl features the word "Pax" stamped over a black hand beside a white one, while in yet another the image of hands is accompanied by the words of a traditional Hebrew folk song: let us rejoice. Interpretations are left to the viewer.

A mesmerizing three-dimensional work by Israeli sculptor Dalia Riesel (shown here) embodies the theme of the exhibit – fearful negatives juxtaposed with tentative hopes.

Two hands emerge from a cocoon bound with rope. The suspended fingers reach out, as if attempting to touch one another, but their skewed angles make contact unsure. As the hands hover above the bowl's surface, which is embossed with natural sprigs of olive, they seem to challenge not only the viewer, but every person living in the region. Will the hands succeed in touching and fulfilling the peaceful promise of the olive branch, or will they continue to writhe in discord, a mirror of the turmoil from whose land they spring?

The artists, curators, advertisers, sponsors, distributors, manufacturers, producers, printers – all volunteers – have made a powerful contribution toward reconciliation. But like all art, the creations surpass the creators, wrenching us out of complacency. Offering Reconciliation is a drop spreading hope in a sea of bitterness.

Helen Schary Motro teaches at Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law and is the author of "Maneuvering Between the Headlines: An American Lives Through the Intifada."

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