Israeli theater group encourages Arab and Jewish youngsters to take off their masks

Taking off their masks – The Arcobaleno-Rainbow Theater performs Beresheet.The outbreak of the second intifada in 2000 had a profound effect on Dr. Edna Calo Livne. An Italian immigrant who married a veteran kibbutznik from Kibbutz Sasa in northern Israel, …

Taking off their masks – The Arcobaleno-Rainbow Theater performs Beresheet.The outbreak of the second intifada in 2000 had a profound effect on Dr. Edna Calo Livne. An Italian immigrant who married a veteran kibbutznik from Kibbutz Sasa in northern Israel, Calo Livne was no longer able to stand on the sidelines as the drama played itself out on national television.

Instead, Calo Livne took action, launching the Beresheet Lashalom Foundation, dedicated to promoting dialogue across diverse groups in the region through one of the most potent channels of communication – the stage.

The Arcobaleno-Rainbow Theater comprises young Arabs, Jews, Druze, and Circassian Israelis from different communities in the Galilee. The inspiration for the theater group came from Calo Livne’s doctoral thesis on the plays of Pirandello as a lever for social change.

“The youth from these seemingly opposed cultures can unite around the positive interactions of theater and can put the horrors they have faced into a perspective that fosters understanding and mutual respect,” she explained.

“Putting the children on stage together gives them the opportunity to get to know one another as people, creating a safe forum where they can interact and break down the barriers between them,” added Calo Livne, who was a leader of the youth Zionist Movement Hashomer Hatzair and a master of Education in integrating the arts in education.

The theater’s performance – entitled Beresheet – ‘In the beginning’ and the first word found in the Torah – is, according to an 18-year-old Muslim performer from the village of Jish, “a hymn for peace. I can’t accept terrorism. I’m glad that I can show, through our performance, that coexistence between Jews and Arabs is possible. We show this with our living presence.”

A collaborative process between the performers and the staff that, according to Calo Livne, developed over the course of the year, Beresheet begins with all the children wearing masks. As the play continues, all but two of the children remove their masks.

“It’s a metaphor for what we are trying to achieve,” Calo Livne told ISRAEL21c. “Through the theater, as with our other activities, we want to get beyond preconceptions and prejudice and get to know the person beneath the mask.”

The troupe will be traveling to northern Italy during the Succot holiday to perform Beresheet in a piazza in front of 100,000 people, as part of an annual bread festival taking place. As part of the festival, Israelis will also be taking part in “Bread for Peace” Day, in which four women (a Jew, Muslim, Christian, and Palestinian) are baking bread together.

“The aim is to create, to collaborate, and to teach their children that good can always prevail,” explains Calo Livne. “It’s about showing them what they have in common, not what makes them different. Their performances are a dance of hope for freedom.”

The focus on creating common understanding is perhaps best summed up by a member of the theater group, 16-year-old Tamar Ben Lulu, from Safed: “With all our differences, in this theater I feel that we are all equal. It’s not important in which God we believe, or where we live because we are all human beings. The strong connection between us is convincing me more and more of the fact that it’s possible that a Jew, a Christian and a Moslem can walk hand in hand, that religious and secular can speak without offending each other.”

With its focus primarily in Italy and other parts of Europe, the Foundation’s message of peace also began reaching a wider audience in Israel via the All for Peace radio station, which has been simultaneously broadcasting from Jerusalem and Ramallah since January 2006.

The station invited the foundation to produce a pilot of an hour’s broadcast from young people to young people. For the young actors of the Rainbow – Arcobaleno Theater it was a whole new challenge, because now they had to express themselves in words instead of the body language which characterizes their performances of dance-theater.

Their broadcasts have been aired for the last year and a half, and have included segments with young Jewish and Arab rappers, and interviews with a group of young Israeli and Arab peace activists.

“Beresheet LaShalom is all about educating and encouraging a positive spirit, helping children as well as adults to confront the difficulties they face,” says Calo Livne, who runs the organization with her husband Yehuda, who has 25 years of experience in formal and non-formal education.

Yehuda coaches a soccer team comprised of youth from the Galilee, who recently participated in an international soccer tournament in Udine, Italy for the second time. The event, entitled “Let’s Get to Know Each Other,” brings children from different cultural backgrounds together through sport. Teams from 10 countries took part in this international event.

When they first founded the organization, the Calo Livnes were focused on helping victims of terror, and they still devote a good portion of their attention in that direction. In August, they took 20 teenagers from the Galilee, Sderot, and Lebanon (children whose parents served in the South Lebanon army and who moved here after Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon) on an eight-day trip to Italy.

The children from Sderot, under daily rocket fire from terrorists in the Gaza strip, have been deeply affected by the ongoing barrage on their city. “They feel like they have been deserted. It’s hard for them to trust,” relates Calo Livne. “In the beginning, the children were like ice. It took time until they ‘melted’.”

They experienced a vastly different reality as they explored the countryside, going sightseeing in Rome, Pompeii, Amalfi, and more. The visit focused on enhancing understanding and knowledge of the area and each other including swimming, playing games, and partaking in music, dance, theater, and art activities. During their stay, the children were also able to interact with the locals, learning the art of parading with medieval flags and riding on horses pulling a variety of carriages.

Through their various efforts, particularly the theater group, Beresheet Lashalom has begun to make an impact in Europe. Well known throughout Italy as the recipient of prestigious peace prizes, Beresheet is intent on showing the human faces and hearts of Israelis of all cultures and religions. According to Calo Livne, the performances and messages leave audiences hopeful, and have helped to change the image of Israel in Italy.

“During this difficult period in world history, there is a will to create a positive message, capable of inspiring hope and fulfilling the dreams of those who knew war, but now aspire to peace,” concluded Calo Livne.

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