Looking on the other side of hatred

Peace Child, an Arab-Jewish coexistence theater troupe will be travelling to the US in January to perform On the Other Side for school audiences.”We don’t care about politics; we just like each other,” says Shira, a cheerful brunette and 8th …

Peace Child, an Arab-Jewish coexistence theater troupe will be travelling to the US in January to perform On the Other Side for school audiences.”We don’t care about politics; we just like each other,” says Shira, a cheerful brunette and 8th grade student at Tel Aviv’s A.D. Gordon Junior High School. Shira is referring to her Israeli Arab friends in the Peace Child Israel drama group that meets once a week alternating between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. The group – 20 Arab and Jewish teens from Jaffa and Tel Aviv – is living proof that true friendship between Jews and Arabs can exist in Israel.

“Even though Arabs live close to me, I have never had the chance to get to know them. I have always been afraid of Arabs as a group and now I know this fear has been unjustified,” Shira admits.

Maya, another member of the Peace Child drama group, admits that she was “thrilled” to meet Arab kids her age. Having the opportunity to perform together is just another incentive to be a part of the group.

Founded in 1988 by the late Israeli actress Yael Droyannof, Peace Child Israel employs theater and the arts to encourage dialogue between Jewish and Arab youth. With seven active groups pairing Jewish and Arab towns throughout Israel, including Misgav-Sakhnin, Ra’anana-Kalanswa, east and west Jerusalem and others, their vision of coexistence has become a reality.

“We have our ups and downs,” admits Ben Rabinovitch, managing director of Peace Child for the past seven years. “Since we live and work in Israel, the groups are often affected by politics and what they see on the news. In October 2000 for example, when police killed 13 Israeli Arabs during violent demonstrations, there was tension between Jewish and Arab students and even among their instructors,” he admits.

“Since Jews and Arabs have few opportunities to mix in Israel, for most participants this is their first encounter with ‘the other side’,” says Rabinovitch. Groups now work together for two years instead of one as they did previously. During the first year, students get acquainted with one another and write, rehearse and perform a play about their experience. The following year, they present their work in their communities serving as role models for coexistence.

“The students’ parents meet as well within this framework. Our hope is that one day they will meet independently,” says Rabinovitch.

On a spring day in a Jaffa school, a tense excitement fills the air as the Tel Aviv-Jaffa group performs for the first time. Before an audience of supportive friends and teachers, they present On the Other Side, a musical inspired by their experiences over the past six months that also deals with burning issues like the security fence. It tells the story of two good friends living in the same village who have a falling-out one day after a petty argument. When their quarrel spreads, the village is cut in half by the construction of a wall. Stories about the ‘monsters’ living on the other side of the wall spread fear among inhabitants of both halves of the village. Towards the end of the play, the audience is told to check if there is a wall surrounding them that needs to be dismantled.

On the Other Side is bilingual, performed in both Hebrew and Arabic, as are the students? weekly rehearsals.

Initially, Jewish and Arab students meet separately to be prepared by their instructors for the eventual meeting with their counterparts.

“At first, the Jewish students refused to admit that cultural differences existed between them and their Arab colleagues,” says Maya Burshtein, a Jewish instructor. (A Jewish and Arab instructor accompany every group.) “Once the groups merged, however, cultural differences came to the fore.” Burshtein recounts that when Jewish girls would burst into tears for no apparent reason, their Arab colleagues thought it very odd. For the Arabs, crying is considered shameful,” she explains.

Burshtein has been committed to Peace Child for a long time. Being the daughter of the organization’s founder, she grew up with the project and was part of the first drama group established by her mother. “Peace Child was like a brother to me,” she recalls. “Under my mother’s direction, the project was run from our house and there was something very intimate about it. Back then, it was an integral part of my life. Nowadays things are conducted differently, perhaps more efficiently.”

“Many of our classmates envy us and they are all curious about our Jewish friends,” says Abed, a ninth-grade student. As a result of being a part of Peace Child, “we do not resent our Jewish friends every time a Jew behaves badly towards an Arab,” he adds.

Amani, a delicate, dark-haired girl recounts how classmates who have not experienced the benefits of the Peace Child project reacted one day when she brought her Jewish friend to class. “Suddenly they started shouting ‘death to the Jews’ and other ugly slogans. My friend turned very pale and grabbed my hand. Eventually the teacher intervened, disciplining the offending students. Still, it was very unpleasant for the both of us,” she reflects.

Current Peace Child Israel director Melisse Lewine-Boskowich is an energetic woman in her fifties with grey curly hair and sparkling eyes. She gets involved with all drama groups and dedicates the bulk of her day to the project. The colorful American wanted to be an opera singer before becoming a mother inspired her to dedicate her life to a greater cause and began working for Peace Child in 1988. The once modest organization evolved into the sophisticated one that it is today. Most recently, Lewine-Boskowich initiated a strategic partnership with War Child Netherlands, a Dutch organization that provides psychosocial assistance and peace-building activities to children in conflict zones.

“We were approached by Melisse about three years ago,” says War Child Project Director Mathijs Euwema. “Last year, my colleague and I inspected two groups in Jerusalem and one in Misgav. The participants were all positive about the project. As well, we are now supporting a similar project in the Palestinian Authority. It is important to us that we support both sides in the conflict.”

When asked about the possibility of continued cooperation with War Child, “Inshallah,” responds Melisse in Arabic, “God willing.”

A Peace Child delegation will be travelling to the US in January to perform On the Other Side for school audiences and the public at large in Philadelphia, Cherry Hill and the Washington Township in Southern New Jersey as well as Newark/West Orange/Morristown New Jersey areas.

According to the organization, the objectives of the tour are to implement a cultural exchange between the Arab and Jewish Israeli teens of the delegation and American teenagers, and to educate American audiences with regard to the complexity of the inter-personal and co-citizenship issue in Israeli society, while reinforcing the fact that positive mechanisms are in place.