“Yesterday, I went to a ceremony honoring the memory of Irwin Green, a very special man from Detroit who worked tirelessly towards bringing Jews and Arabs closer together”, I told my daughter Sivan over breakfast, before she headed off for another day in first grade.  “Where?”, she asked. “In Nazareth” I replied.  “In Upper Nazareth, where the kindergarten teachers live?” she continued.  “Not in Upper Nazareth – in Arab Nazareth” I answered. “What?  Arabs live there? Arabs like the Greeks?  Arabs are cruel, right dad?” Sivan had evidently drawn an association with the Hannukah story she’d heard in class just a few days earlier.

When I returned that same night from the ceremony for Mr. Green, I asked my older son Guy, who is 17 years old, how many of his classmates ever spoke with an Arab youth their age. Guy is unusual among his friends in his exposure to those outside his immediate community.  Not only because of his father. He volunteers in the Magen David Adom (Israeli Red Cross) along with Arab youth, and played volleyball with a team in the Arab village of Ilabun.  An Arab team – one of the tops in the league. “Dad, I’m no example, but other than me, most of the kids my age never exchanged a word with an Arab, unless you count the Bedouin security guard at the school or the Arab cook who works in the catering on Shabbat.”

A few months ago, little Sivan went for a walk with a friend in our community of Hoshaya on a Shabbat afternoon, and the two of them disappeared. After two hours of frantic searching, in the intense heat of the Israeli summer, we found them next to the grocery store, hunting for treasures. As we returned home, my beloved daughter’s hand safely in mine, we saw the Arab security guard who patrols the community on Shabbat.  “You see, Sivan?  Even Hoshaya’s guard was out looking for you” I said, trying to impress her.  “But dad” she replied. “Are guards allowed to drive on Shabbat?” “He’s not Jewish” I explained. “He’s Arab and that’s why he can drive on Shabbat.” “But dad, aren’t Arab people bad? Isn’t he dangerous for us?”  The realization that the guard who protects us is actually Arab, I could see, was terrifying.

Recently a survey was published by the Israeli Institute for Democracy. Its worrisome results showed that among Israel’s Jewish population, there has been an increase in the suspicion, distrust and fear of Arab citizens.

Fear is perhaps the main factor that feeds the flames of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and what prevents any movement forward towards reaching a solution.  In parallel, fear is the factor in this conflict for which a solution (to fear) is not a zero sum solution. In other words, the allocation of lands between the two sides of the conflict is more problematic, since every bit of land that goes to one side is taken from the other.  On the other hand, fear is an emotion that, if reduced on one side, does not take anything away from the other.

Why are we and our children afraid of our Arab neighbors?  What is the source of this fear?  I tried to put together an inventory list of fear factors:

Education and Myth: We have been raised from our earliest days on a very simple approach: we are good and they are bad. Darkness helps emphasize the light and white stands out against black.  If you want it to be clear who are the good guys, then you need to emphasize who are the bad ones.

The series of books I loved as a child was “The Young Athletes”. On those pages, Alon the Forward and Rafi the Goalie brought victory and honor to the young State of Israel – something that the Israeli national soccer team was never able to do.  These stories inevitably featured a villain, sometimes Nazi but usually Arab, who tried through his devious ways to confound the young heroes on their way to fame and glory.  A similar theme was also found in other popular books such as the Hasamba series, Azit the Paratrooper dog, and others.  Physical fitness, willpower, determination, rigorous training – and even romance – were not enough to ignite the spirit of the young reader.  There had to be an evil Arab to spice up the story, and if he had a big and dirty mustache and black eyes piercing with fury, so much the better….

Even in Israel’s holidays, the theme of the good versus the bad sets the tone.  Except for the New Year holidays and Tu b’Shvat, where the seasons of the year and nature play a major role, in all the other holidays – Hannukah, Purim and Pesach, there are the “bad guys” (Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Amalekites) who are vanquished by the “good guys” (us).  A wise Jew once explained to me that all Jewish holidays come down to one thing: “They wanted to kill us – we killed them – let’s eat!”

An easier way to explain things, to children and also to ourselves.  Imagine the Hannukah story as follows:  The Greek Empire had spread throughout the world and was influencing the countries it conquered in many ways, both positive and negative.  On the one hand, they espoused materialism, worship of the strong and the beautiful, and dismissal of the spiritual and abstract.  On the other hand, they brought with them advanced technologies, better medical care, and municipal order … Even among the Jews within the kingdom of Judah there were different streams.  One embraced progress, science and coexistence with the surrounding peoples, including making compromises on principles for the sake of peace in the kingdom.  Another stream was nationalistic, strictly adherent to tradition and to obeying the rules of the sacred teachings as they understood them.  This latter group was ready to sacrifice life and livelihood in the name of following religious principles…. Sound familiar?  Perhaps. Sound simple and easy to explain? I’m not so sure.

Language:  Encounters with a foreign language can cause fear and alienation.  The Arabic vocabulary of the average Israeli Jew is limited to a few words of slang that have penetrated into Hebrew, such as “Kif?” “Sakhten” and “Ahalan”, as well as some useful key phrases from the army such as “Halt or I’ll shoot you”…  Even important initiatives for teaching Arabic in schools frequently fail because of the children’s deep-seated fear of a language they perceive as belonging to the enemy.  A deeper understanding of the Arabic language would enable Jewish Israelis not only to better appreciate its richness and multitude of expressions, but would mainly remedy a situation whereby every call of the Muslim Muazzin to prayer sounds to the Jewish ear like a call to arms.

Political considerations:  Unfortunately, the power of fear as a means to enlist citizens for political support is usually stronger than the power of hope.  For this reason, many politicians cynically but effectively inspire fear in their constituents as a way to engage them and secure their support.  The further Israel moves away from a longed-for peace and the deeper the belief that there is no one to talk to penetrates further into the national consciousness, along with the conviction that the whole world is against us, thus the power and centrality of fear increases as an effective means for political manipulation.

Trauma of Persecution:  “That fact that you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you”, goes a wise saying.  The Jewish people are indeed steeped in persecution, terror attacks, and attempts of extermination.  In the historical perspective, we are still in the same period when the Holocaust of the Jewish people took place.  Thus, in spite of everything written above, the Jews have a good and proven reason to believe, as it is written in the Pesach Haggadah, that “in every generation someone is attempting to exterminate us”.  Among those who have persecute and attacked Jews over the last hundred years, Arabs have a place of honor.  Without any need for deep investigations, clearly Israeli paranoia is based in reality!

The Arab population also has a part in the balance of fear.  Why are the Arabs afraid of the Jews?

History:  The State of Israel was established in the heart of the Middle East, surrounded by Arab nations and peoples.  Even those who don’t believe in the Divine intervention can’t remain indifferent to the remarkable way a state was created for and by Jews who barely survived systematic extermination of their people in Europe.  Yet in the process, and during the military conflicts that arose every few years afterwards, the victims were the Arab residents of the land.  Even if you take into account the progress and relative economic wellbeing that came along with the blossoming of Zionism in Israel, the local Arabs became the conquered, refugees, and second- or even third-class citizens.  This is a historical fact.

The minority is generally suspicious of the majority:  The Jewish majority has the strength in Israel.  Even in countries that are calmer and less conflicted than Israel, the minorities often suspect and fear the majority – although certainly not as much as when the peoples of the minority and the majority are still in the midst of a blood-soaked, existential conflict.

Incitement:  As many Jewish politicians make cynical use of fear of Arabs to reinforce a general feeling of anxiety, so do their Arab counterparts. When an Arab politician is supported by a nationalist and belligerent platform, and when those who call for following a path of peace are perceived in the Arab public as defeatists, it’s no wonder that the voice of fear is heard louder and more clearly.

So what do we do with all this?

A simple, easy solution does not exist in our neighborhood.  I usually find myself telling visitors and friends from overseas, that it is impossible, and even forbidden to look at the Israeli situation and the spectrum of problems and challenges it faces, through black/white or right/wrong glasses.  “Whoever tries to tell you that the solutions are simple is either blind, a liar, or both”, I explain to them.  Still, recognizing fear as being at the root of the Arab-Jewish conflict is critical. This would enable us to separate between fears and the real, significant and complex issues such as demography, geography and division of resources, on the one hand, and focus on ways to deal with our mutual fears, such as getting to know “the other”, learning their language, creating dialogue and breaking down stereotypes, on the other.

Sagi Melamed lives with his family in the community of Hoshaya in the Galilee.  He serves as Vice President of External Affairs at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, and is the Chief Instructor in the Hoshaya Karate Club.  Sagi received his Masters degree from Harvard University in Middle Eastern Studies with a specialty in Conflict Resolution. He can be contacted at: {encode=”melamed.sagi@gmail.com” title=”melamed.sagi@gmail.com”}.  For more articles, see: http://sagimelamed.blogspot.com

Post-election healing — kumbaya in class and at the beach

Alison Weinreb, a teacher at Maimonides Academy in West Hollywood, invited her sixth-grade social studies class to her home for an election-night viewing party.

As the electoral map turned increasingly blue, she noticed that her scattered Obama supporters were keeping pretty quiet — embarrassed even in victory to be in the minority among their McCain-supporting friends.

At the same time, McCain supporters — who have been the majority of students at Orthodox day schools like Maimonides — needed a fair amount of reassuring that an Obama presidency would not spell immediate disaster for Israel and the Jews, the message they had been hearing throughout the election from their friends and gleaning from conversations at home.

Weinreb wasn’t the only one facing a distressed and confused community in the aftermath of this year’s presidential race. Jews battered one another in passionate arguments throughout this election season, as each side staked out their positions, often spilling over into questionably grounded rhetoric and incivility. Friends and institutions squared off around Shabbat tables and at debate lecterns in what each considered life-or-death debates.

How children have interpreted such passion offers a revealing, though slightly distorted, mirror in which to view adult political discourse.

While children selectively perceive and then reinterpret information that comes their way, they reflect an atmosphere where issues of race, security, economic class divisions and Israel’s future have stirred up strong emotions.

At Orthodox day schools, mock elections yielded landslide McCain victories.

Students from at least one elementary school came home reporting that friends told them that if Obama were elected, he would “kill all the Jews.”

On the other side, at a another, more liberal school, one mother reported that her daughter was afraid to let on that her parents were McCain supporters, since everyone around her was so enamored of Obama.

Now that the election is over and campaign exaggerations can give way to reality, in schools, and everywhere else, people are making efforts to put things back into perspective.

At Maimonides, Weinreb helped organize a post-election assembly on Wednesday morning. On the stage, between the American and Israeli flags, two piñatas — an elephant and a donkey — stood side by side. Rabbi Karmi Gross, headmaster of the school, invited the sixth- through eighth-graders to come together to celebrate this historic triumph for American freedom and democracy.

“But we also come together for a different reason,” Gross continued. “We come together because this was one election — and I have seen quite a few — where the battle lines in America were drawn more clearly than ever, which pitted American against American, the red and the blue states, the left and the right, against each other in ways I do not recall. And sometimes the debates became very loud, and many times the debates became very nasty.”

Gross, using a talmudic parable, urged the children to understand the difference between disagreeing with an idea — which is fine — and attacking the person who holds such ideas, which is not.

Students together watched a video of McCain’s concession speech, and were asked to pull out some of the major themes.

“He said he was more proud to be associated with America than anything else,” one student offered.

“He said that we shouldn’t be upset that Obama won, because he’ll do good things for this country,” another said.

One rabbi acknowledged that many of the students were worried about Israel, but he assured them that Israel was strong, and that Israel’s ultimate fate lies in God’s hands, not in any president’s.

Jews who believed McCain was the better choice for Israel had to do a delicate dance with children.

One father, who asked not to be named to protect his son’s privacy, described a conversation he had with his 6-year-old son about the historic nature of this election and about the many reasons he was voting for McCain. In an age-appropriate way, they talked about security, the economy and issues that were important to them — such as having a president who had a record of supporting Israel. And the father posed the idea that he didn’t know whether Barack Obama would be a friend to Israel and the Jews, because there was not a very long record to rely on.

“Then — like all kids do, they pick up a small amount of what you tell them — he picked up from that that Barack Obama may not be nice to the Jewish people,” the father said, a declaration the boy made to his horrified mother.

The couple talked to their son again, softening the stance and saying that Obama might end up being a very good friend to the Jews. By the time Obama’s picture covered the front pages on Nov. 5, the boy seemed fine with his new president.

Helping kids process the broken-telephone game of information coming from the home and through their friends was a major focus at Emek Hebrew Academy-Teichman Family Torah Center in Sherman Oaks, where teachers integrated ideas about democracy or the specific campaign issues into the curriculum.

“But there were also moments where the students made baseless or exaggerated claims, repeating things they had heard,” said Gabriela Shapiro, general studies principal at Emek. “What we did at the time and will continue to do is teach the students about discernment — in other words, if someone makes a negative comment about Obama, we want the student hearing the claim to ask ‘what is the basis for your claim?'”

Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills brought in Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation, who introduced a pre-election debate by highlighting a moment several weeks ago in which McCain asked riled-up ralliers to stop relying on rumor and innuendo to attack Obama as a person, and to focus instead on the issues.

Rabbi Boruch Sufrin, headmaster of Hillel, plans to use examples from the election when the school starts a conflict-resolution and community-building program next week.

“We’re going to deal with issues of perception and judging others favorably, and attacking issues, not people. We’re going to talk about accepting people’s differences and understanding what you have in common,” he said.

It’s a tough message to get across to kids, when adults themselves haven’t been behaving well.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom said he found the rancor among Jewish voters “painful and discouraging.” At a pre-election debate in his synagogue, Feinstein had to put on his former middle school principal hat to discipline the crowd.

“It’s discouraging to me as an American and as a person who believes in democracy, and it’s discouraging to me as the rabbi of a synagogue where important things should be discussed that you can’t have a serious political debate without hooting and hollering and drowning out the other side,” Feinstein said.

ALTTEXTIt was such rancor that a Healing Havdalah — the ritual marking the end of Shabbat — last Saturday night aimed to overcome. The event was organized by LimmudLA, the apolitical, nondenominational, Jewish-unity organization that will hold its second annual conference in Orange County over Presidents’ Day weekend, in February.

Saturday’s event, organized by Gary Wexler, a Jewish marketing expert, attracted 150 people to Dockweiler Beach, where drums and guitars competed with the wind and planes taking off from the nearby LAX.

Warming themselves around a crackling fire, participants talked about how Havdalah, like the election, marks the end and the beginning, the perfect moment for healing.

Many kids were at the Havdalah, joining their parents in singing and dancing, basking in the very Limmud idea that no matter our differences, we can come together for a kumbaya moment of Jewish oneness.

While a lot of healing may still be needed before that sort of unity can move beyond a Saturday night at the beach, one uniting factor all agree on is that this election brought a new level of political awareness and passion across party lines and across ages.

“I’ve heard kids saying that for the first time in their lives they care about politics and elections and personally feel involved, and that is amazing — that energy is constructive,” Vicki Helfand, a teacher at Maimonides, told the students at the assembly. “When you care about something, you can do amazing things. Now that this election is over, we encourage you to keep being passionate, to keep believing that what you think matters — because it does.”

Danielle Berrin and Orit Arfa at Dockweiler Beach. Photo by Joe Haber http://funjoel.blogspot.com

Blasts Bring Fear of Anti-Semitism Rise

Jewish leaders have vowed they will work to combat any rise in racial tensions following the London bombings, amid fears that the attacks may lead to increased anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

“Certainly when there have been attacks in the past, we’ve seen a spike in anti-Semitism and vandalism,” said Mike Whine of Community Security Trust, the body that monitors threats to British Jewry. “We’ve already seen some extremist Web sites blaming Jews for the bombing, and we would be foolish to ignore it.”

There are similar concerns over dangers to the United Kingdom’s Muslim community, with arson attacks at several mosques around the country over the weekend and Muslim organizations reporting quantities of hate mail. Imam Abduljalil Sajid, a prominent British interfaith activist, said he had seen Muslims being spat at in the street, hours after the bombings. Community leaders have advised Muslims “to keep a low-profile,” he added.

The seriousness with which the British government regards the threat of racial violence could be judged by its rapid reaction. The morning after the July 7 bombings, which claimed more than 50 the lives and injured approximately 700, Sir Jonathan Sacks, the Orthodox chief rabbi, was among religious leaders called to the Home Office, the government body responsible for domestic security policy. The Home Office emergency meeting was held to discuss a joint response.

On Monday, Sacks joined Sheikh Zaki Badawi and church representatives to pledge they would “strengthen those things we hold in common and to resist all that seeks to drive us apart.” (See opinion page 8.)

A spokesman for the Board of Deputies, the representative body of U.K. Jewry, said that it recognized the concerns and would take up the challenge to “develop tighter bonds and increase dialogue.”

Ironically, the terror attacks came only days after a new report released by Alif-Aleph, a Jewish-Muslim dialogue group, highlighted positive contacts between the two communities throughout the United Kingdom. The study, which was welcomed by Prime Minister Tony Blair, revealed that both religious groups increasingly understand the benefits of addressing Islamophobia and anti-Semitism together, with informal, grass-roots exchanges leading to significant and lasting relations, based on mutual trust.

Jewish leaders fear the London bombings may also spur a wider anti-Israel backlash that could affect British government policy.

In a BBC Radio interview Saturday, Blair announced that it was vital to address what he called the deep-seated causes of terrorism, pointing to the situation in the Middle East as the key to understanding the roots of the violence. Though Blair didn’t mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by name, many concluded that was his intended focus. His comments were welcomed by pro-Arab lobbyists.

“Once things calm down, there has to be a debate about how British policies relate to the rest of the world,” said Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, a London-based lobby. “I agree that resolving this conflict will help.”

Israeli officials, while expressing sympathy and solidarity, have been at pains to distance themselves diplomatically from the London attacks. That has been a wise decision, analysts say.

“It’s time for Israel to sit quietly,” said Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow in the Middle East program at the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs, a think tank also known as Chatham House. “If Israel connects Palestinian terror to global terror, they fall into the argument that one of the ways to eradicate the root causes of terror is to solve the Israel-Palestine issue.”

That idea has already gained wide currency in Great Britain, mostly due to the efforts of campaigners against the Iraq War who adopted “Freedom for Palestine” as one of their rallying cries, deriding Blair as President Bush’s “poodle” in the war on terror.

The situation in the Middle East was soon being cited by newspaper pundits as the reason that terror hit London.

“The real solution lies in immediately ending the occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine,” claimed commentator Tariq Ali in the left-wing Guardian, insisting that “the principal cause of this violence is the violence being inflicted on the people of the Muslim world. And unless this is recognized, the horrors will continue.”

This phenomenon is something that the Jewish community, which has a long experience of anti-Israel sentiment blending into anti-Semitism, fears will impact it in coming months.

“People blame the Jews, whatever the circumstances,” Whine said.