Just days after two Druze policemen were murdered by Palestinian gunmen while standing guard at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, a group of young adults visited the home of one of the families to offer condolences. Sitting in a circle with the family of Kamil Shnaan, the group had tears in their eyes as they listened to Kamil’s father, Shakib Shnaan, speak about his long-held beliefs in peace, dialogue, and shared existence.
Such a setting would be emotional for anyone, but the group, all in their late teens and early 20s, were particularly heartbroken because one of the mourners, Kamil Shnaan’s sister, Raya, was one of their own.
They were participants in Achi Israeli, Hebrew for “My Israeli Brother,” a new summer-long program supported by the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ, which brings together 12 young adults of various religions and denominations to Israel, with communities of Orthodox, secular, and Ethiopian Jews; Christians and Muslim Arabs; Bedouins; and Druze. Between July and early September, the participants spend every day together, each week taking turns living in apartments or dormitories in each other’s villages and cities.
Raya, who lives in the Druze village of Horfesh near the Lebanese border, was participating in the program on July 14 when Kamil was murdered. What’s more, another participant lives in Um El Fahem, the same hometown as one of Kamil’s murderers.
“Now imagine the scene: Both women are sitting in the same room, crying together, hugging with the rest of the group and with Kamil’s parents, listening to Shakib’s inspiring words,” wrote Amir Shacham, associate executive vice president of Global Connections at Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, in a federation blog. Shacham runs the federation’s office in Jerusalem, which supervised the new program. “How courageous is it for these young people to cross the barriers of anger, hate, and fear? How symbolic is it that we were all there on this living bridge, in that living room, sharing in our grief, wisdom, and comfort?”
Shacham added that the emotional encounter “crystallized the complexity of Israeli society and represents a microcosm of how to combat the Middle East conflict.”
Achi Israeli was established to promote peace and understanding among Israel’s Jewish and minority populations. Considering the bonds these young people developed, even as the violent clashes threatened to rip apart much of Israeli society, early indications are that the program is effective and a moving demonstration of how personal relationships can rise above centuries-long conflicts.
The foundation’s office in Jerusalem solicited candidates, sought recommendations, and then chose participants through a series of interviews.
Unexpectedly, the aftermath of the Temple Mount murders reinforced Shacham’s belief that human beings can form deep relationships regardless of their separate and sometimes warring ethnic identities.
“They lived together. They became friends and they had to deal with substance,” said Shacham. He said communal activities — many in unfamiliar communities where they lived in close proximity — created a “shared identity.”
Achi Israeli was inspired by Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin’s desire to create an inclusive society, according to Shacham, and “we have been doing many projects in this regard.”
Some of the participants wrote about their experiences on the federation website.
Hanan, 18, a Muslim from Deir al-Assad, hosted the group at her village and took them to an Arab wedding. She had participated in workshops with Israeli and American Jews in the past, but joined Achi Israeli because “those were all short meetings and I wanted to be part of a more extended program.”
Noa, a 22-year-old Jewish woman, lives in the city of Yokneam and worked as guide for this group.
She said the program was “not a vacation. It was irritating. It was disturbing. It was challenging. Rejecting is the easiest. Listening, watching, putting one in the others’ shoes — that’s the hardest thing to do. It was an interesting and intense experience. It was a different experience in each community. We have all learned so much.”
Renie Carniol, director of strategic grant initiatives at the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ, said she considered the program a success.
So, too, did Shacham, who told NJJN he hopes to receive grant money to continue the project for the next several years. This summer’s program was partially financed by the Hinam Center, which runs eight different intergroup programs intended “to promote a more tolerant society.”
Acknowledging the hostility people in Israel have for other ethnic and religious groups, Shacham said the Achi Israeli program is “swimming against the stream. We have a lot of challenges in the Israeli society, but we believe that with one person at a time, one groups at a time, we will be able to make a difference. The future health of Israeli society is based on this.”