Jewish, Arab teens focus on a future of ‘shared society’

Jewish, Arab teens focus on a future of ‘shared society’

Seeing the world ‘through others’ eyes’ fosters understanding

A photograph in the Through Others’ Eyes group’s exhibit; the hope is to unmask differences and tear down walls between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens. Photo courtesy Givat Haviva
A photograph in the Through Others’ Eyes group’s exhibit; the hope is to unmask differences and tear down walls between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens. Photo courtesy Givat Haviva

A group of 20 Israeli teens — half of them Jewish, the others Arab — told a July 25 gathering at the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains how they are learning, through the art of photography, to see the world through others’ eyes to develop “a different way to think.”

They are participants in Through Others’ Eyes (TOE), a program created by Givat Haviva, a nonprofit educational institute. Founded by the Kibbutz Federation in Israel in 1949, Givat Haviva, from the outset, has embraced as its mission the improvement of relations between the country’s Jewish and Arab citizens and the creation of, as reflected in its subtitle, a “shared society” built on mutual respect.

TOE, now in its 19th year, has been furthering those aims by bringing Israeli Jewish and Arab teens together using photography. Based at the Givat Haviva Collaborative Art Center, a few miles off the coast between Netanya and Haifa, TOE is, as its website states, “a community-building project [that] addresses the need for open channels of communication between Israeli Arab and Jewish youth.”

Through its activities, TOE creates an environment in which the students, who otherwise would not have the opportunity to interact given Israel’s divided school system, are encouraged “to explore questions of identity and coexistence” and aims to have them “coalesce” into a unified group. The students, who are 16-18, meet in 25 academic sessions, learn photography skills together, go on excursions with cameras in hand, and exhibit their work both in Israel and the United States.

The 2019 TOE cohort also spent two weeks at a Peace Camp at Hashomer Hatzair’s Camp Shomria in Liberty, N.Y. They displayed their work and spoke to audiences about their experiences at Temple Israel in New Rochelle, N.Y., and at the Puffin Foundation in Teaneck. NJJN met with them during their July 25 appearance at the JCC, where the program was cosponsored by Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains.

“Unfortunately, the education system in Israel is segregated,” said Samer Atamneh, Givat Haviva’s director of education, who accompanied the students. “For the most part, this is the first opportunity for these teenagers to meet and to get to know each other, and to start a discussion about issues that we face as Israeli citizens, Jewish and Arab.” Ninety-two percent of Israel’s communities and 99.8 percent of its school districts are segregated.

Atamneh explained the work that goes into the program and the challenges that arise.

“The Israeli media said to me, ‘It doesn’t interest anyone,’ when I invited them to our encounters,” Atamneh said. “But we believe in our mission calling for equality, for new values of neighborhood and new values of partnership. We can shape our own future, but cannot do this alone.”

The TOE teens selected to work together meet each Wednesday for 25 weeks and study critical photography. Then, according to Atamneh, they visit each others’ homes and “go around taking photos.” The group also visited the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank, and other cities and villages, capturing the mixes of cultures and situations in people’s lives.

It is through the practice of photography, Atamneh said, that the teens “study about our reality, our relations between Jews and Arabs.” They display and talk about their artwork in the United States, he said, “so they can show that reality.” The photographs, as the exhibit program says, are not meant to be beautiful, but to be “eyes” into unfamiliar cultures.

The Camp Shomria experience strengthens the bond between the Jewish and Arab teens and allows them to learn about their respective worlds away from media attention. At camp, the teens engage in individual and group exploration through photography and camp activities, and interact with the American-Jewish campers, enhancing their discovery of new groups and communities.

“At the camp, for the first time in their lives, Jews and Arabs are with each other 24 hours a day, away from their families and away from our country and getting to know each other,” said Atamneh. “Then, when we go back to Israel, the teens do projects in their communities.”

Atamneh doesn’t claim everything goes perfectly. “I’m not saying everything is pink,” he said, “but we are trying to give these kids the opportunity to start to think in a different way.”

For 17-year-old Reem Atamna, who lives in Kfar Qara, an Arab town about 20 miles southeast of Haifa, the program has been a positive experience.

“I feel more comfortable getting to know some Jewish people and spending time with them,” she said. Her goal as a TOE participant “was to get to know more people and more cultures and get out of the Internet bubble.”

Jewish teen Hita Lahut, from Kibbutz Mishmarot in northern Israel, also appreciates the opportunities the program has given her.

“They have a different story, and we have a different story,” she said. “You get to know each other, and you start to understand each other’s culture.”

Additional programming in New York is provided by the Givat Haviva Educational Foundation, which assists with the group’s trip to the United States. Prior to their trip, a two-day overnight seminar took place at the Givat Haviva campus in Israel to prepare the teens for their visit, allowing them to openly discuss their expectations and feelings about the journey.

Hashomer Hatzair, an international Jewish youth organization, offers Givat Haviva assistance and support with the Camp Shomria portion of the trip.

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