Ambassadors for peace emerging from mixed Israeli neighborhood

About 1,000 children take part in the Acre Center’s youth club and youth programming every week.Carol Brauner admits that the Sir Charles Clore Jewish-Arab Community Center, in the Wolfson neighborhood of the northern coast Israeli city of Acre is not …

About 1,000 children take part in the Acre Center’s youth club and youth programming every week.Carol Brauner admits that the Sir Charles Clore Jewish-Arab Community Center, in the Wolfson neighborhood of the northern coast Israeli city of Acre is not one of the large, charismatic peace projects that attracts headlines. It’s just a small, modest community centre in one of Israel’s poorest mixed Arab-Jewish cities. But to the people who use it, the Acre center is a lifeline, providing much-needed services to a sorely neglected area.

The Acre Jewish-Arab association was founded in 1990 by Mohammed Faheli, an Arab born and raised in Acre, with Jewish and Arab residents from Wolfson. The center, which provides a range of educational, social and youth programs, began life in two bomb shelters. In 1993, Dame Vivien Duffield of the Clore Foundation visited the scheme and decided to donate money to build a new 825 square meter community centre above the bomb shelters.

One third of Acre’s 47,000 residents is Arab; the other two-thirds are Jewish, primarily new immigrants. The steel and paint industry is the city’s main employment backbone, but the industry is flat. Tourism is also flat. The city may be a UNESCO world heritage center, but nobody visits.

“Most tourist buses don’t even stop at Acre,” says Brauner, the center’s director of development. “It has a treasure trove of the most amazing architectural digs from all different periods, and could almost be a Caesarea of the north, but no-one goes there.”

Unemployment, crime, domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse are widespread in Acre, and the educational system is substandard. Some 30% of all Arab elementary school pupils are illiterate, and only a low percentage carry on to higher education.

“This isn’t a city where Arabs are against Jews or vice versa. Everyone is in the same plight. There are many people with no hope,” Brauner told ISRAEL21c. “The people, like the city, are totally neglected.”

The Wolfson neighborhood is the poorest of Acre. Built in the 1950s as a home for new immigrants, the intervening years have been harsh and the neighborhood has become increasingly neglected. Today 60% of the population lives below the poverty line, and the remaining 40% hover precariously near it. Some 40 percent of local children drop out of school at age 15, compared with the national average of 25 percent.

Once a mixed community of Jews and Arabs, Wolfson is now predominantly Arab, with a small minority of new immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The people who remain are those who cannot afford to move out.

As a result, the emphasis at the non-profit Acre center is on educating the new generation. The center’s goals are ambitious – to achieve Arab-Jewish coexistence in Acre; improve the social, educational and cultural structure of Wolfson; promote sexual equality, develop Arab-Jewish youth leadership; reverse the city’s school dropout rates, crime, violence and unemployment; and to promote Acre as an integrated Arab-Jewish city of diversity and opportunity.

These are not goals that can be achieved overnight, but the center is working steadily and hopefully towards its objectives with a series of early childhood, youth and parenting programming. Every day after school, for example, the centre offers an after-school enrichment program called Transitions for 200 Jewish and Arab children with language difficulties aged four to eight. Though the Arabic and Jewish children do not work together – they are educated for the first years at school in different languages – they come together for holidays and celebrations.

The program, which was designed to try to reverse negative attitudes towards school among young children, has been running for six years, and has already generated considerable success.

“We have had a great deal of feedback on the Transitions program based on school evaluations,” says Brauner. “They have found a huge improvement in the attitudes of the children towards school. Our goal is for all the kids to be at the same level in school and for them to have a chance of making something of themselves, whether they are Arab, Jewish or Russian. In the long term we expect that this will help lower drop-out rates at schools, and should have a long-term impact on unemployment and crime.”

This is important because according to Israel Police statistics for 2005, Acre is Israel’s number one city for youth violence and crime. Drug pushers often stand outside schools, enlisting children to be their runners.

“We try hard to encourage the youth not to drop out of school and not to get led into the attractive aspects of crime,” says Brauner. “The drug business is very big business in Acre and young children go into this world to make money. We want to show children that if they stay in school and strive towards university and a career then it’s a really viable option to crime, which will ultimately end up in prison.”

Aside from workshops that focus on the dangers of drugs, the center also runs a daily youth club in the afternoons, to help keep the children off the streets, and give them access to computers and other facilities.

One of Brauner’s favorite programs for the center’s children is Peace Child Israel. The national organization was founded in 1988 and uses theatre and the arts as a means of teaching coexistence. In Acre, 22 children aged 14-16 are involved in this project, 11 Jewish and 11 Arab. The children undergo two months of preparation where they are taught conflict resolution, and given advice on overcoming stereotypes. Then they come together as one theatrical group to create an original piece of theatre dealing with their conflicts. In the early summer, the group plans a public performance of their production, in Hebrew and Arabic, in front of a local audience.

Another interesting program is Patriots of Acre, a community responsibility and youth tourism program. “We teach children to become ambassadors for their own city,” says Brauner.

In the summer, the center holds a three-week Arab-Jewish summer camp for 120 disadvantaged children aged 5-11. The camp, which has activities in both Hebrew and Arabic, takes place at Kibbutz Nessamim and in manned by 25 camp counselors, ranging from University of Haifa students to army-aged women doing their national service, to seniors in high school. The camp’s objective is to promote understanding and tolerance between Arabs and Jews by creating positive shared experiences for the children.

Last year it was cancelled because of the war in Lebanon, and the neighborhood children of Wolfson spent most of the 34-day conflict hiding in the center’s bomb shelters. With the beginning of the school year this past September, the center has turned into a school every morning, playing host to 70 Arab high school students with learning difficulties such as dyslexia, and literacy problems. The mayor of Acre approached the center with this proposal last year because the Arab high school in Acre is overcrowded, and simply did not have enough space for children with special needs.

About 1,000 children take part in the Acre Center’s youth club and youth programming every week, most of them Arab. A token payment is required – “It’s a community responsibility thing” says Brauner – but this payment can be in goods or kind. One father who is a house painter with three children pays for his children’s membership by helping to paint the building whenever necessary. Other parents are involved in gardening or even guarding.

Aside from these courses, there are classes helping Arab women study to complete their high school education, acquire computer skills and prepare to join the workforce. There are also mothering and childcare courses. For new Jewish immigrants there is a successful club, which includes a music and dance ensemble; and various community projects, including community clean-up projects that focus on the local area.

Brauner, a British-born Jew who immigrated to Israel some years ago, joined the Acre Centre in July last year. It has been an unusual experience for her. “This is the first time that I experienced what it felt like to be the ‘other’ in Israeli society,” she explains.

At the center she is the only Jewish Israeli in management. The language spoken around her is Arabic, which she does not speak.

“Kids come in and if they have a question they ask it in Arabic,” she explains. “Suddenly I feel isolated and handicapped. This is a very interesting opportunity for me to experience what they so often feel.”

This year, the center, which receives grants of $500,000 a year from the local municipality and from foreign donors like the Clore Foundation, has many new goals. The first is to try to re-establish the Arab-Jewish youth orchestra, which was forced to disband during the intifada due to lack of funding. The centre already provides children with music lessons for the piano, violin, flute and drums.

“We want to turn that into something significant,” says Brauner.

Another goal is to set up a Jewish-Arab football team. “We believe in harmony through music and sport,” says Brauner.

There’s also a larger goal of building an early childhood nursery for 18 Arab and Jewish children. “The need for this is huge,” says Brauner. “By establishing a serious day care centre, we would release so many women into the workforce. It would have a large scale impact.”

Brauner is keen to publicize the work of the Acre center.

“People don’t realize that there are so many Arabs and Jews working together in Israel to try to make things better for the kids. That’s the starting point,” she says. “Arabs and Jews live together in Israel. They go to the same shops and restaurants, and when the bombs fell in Acre last year in the Lebanon war, they fell on Jews and Arabs alike and we crowded into the same bomb shelters. We are not always divided, and we must show our children this. This is what our centre is trying to do – to provide Jewish and Arab children and their parents with a reason as to why they should be mixing together.”

About Nicky Blackburn

Editor and Israel Director, Nicky Blackburn has worked extensively as a journalist and editor both in Britain and Israel for a range of national and international publications including The Cambridge Evening News, London News, Travel Weekly, Israel High Tech Investor, and The Times of London. She was the Associate Editor at LINK Israel’s Business and Technology Magazine, and the High-Tech Correspondent for The Jerusalem Post.