As long-awaited peace talks resumed this week in Washington, young Jewish and Arab Israelis are seeking peaceful co-existence in the great Canadian outdoors.
For three summers now, Camp Shomria brings 14- and 15-year-old Israelis from their tension-filled communities for a two-week vacation of their dreams on the shores of Otty Lake, 100 kilometres southwest of Ottawa. Part of a century-old Jewish pioneering movement called Hashomer Hatzair, the camp has about 150 Jewish Canadian youths, as well as 20 Israeli teens drawn from both Jewish and Muslim cultures to learn what it’s like to live together.
The 10 boys share a cabin of bunk beds, as do the 10 girls, right next door. They play together, learn together, visit Parliament Hill and Toronto together.
The girls talk about movies, music, school, but not so much about boys, said Loran Stern, 15. “They [Muslims] have a different culture and I respect that.”
The kids all hail from the Wadi Ara region of central Israel, where there are numerous Arab and Jewish communities. Remarkably, most of the young Jewish Israelis had never met and talked with an Arab Israeli before participating in this program. “We only live a few kilometres away from most of their villages,” said Aviv Hazan, 14. “But I’ve never visited one.”
None of the Jewish Israeli campers speaks Arabic, so they usually converse in Hebrew, a language the Arab Israelis speak quite well. They interact with other campers in English.
While Arab Israelis comprise about 21 per cent of the country’s population of eight million, most live in separate communities from those of Jews. And while these communities have remained largely peaceful and law-abiding, there is a constant tension between the two solitudes. Arab Israelis feel the government treats them as second-class citizens; the majority of Jewish Israelis believe the Arabs should have equal rights, but feel afraid themselves to enter an Arab town or village.
Into this situation has stepped the Heart to Heart program fostered by Hashomer Hatzair, which historically supported a bi-national state in all of Palestine in which Jews and Arabs would have equal rights.
To be invited on the trip, the teens had to write a letter indicating why they support co-existence and why they feel suited to the program. A common theme expressed in the letters was getting to know each other for the sake of peaceful relations – a small step, many said, toward peace between Israel and the Arab world.
“My family encouraged me,” said Tawfek Abu-Farwa, 15, who lives in the large and politically volatile town of Umm al-Fahm that sits alongside the Green Line that separates Israel from the Palestinian West Bank. “A lot of people there don’t like the idea [of mixing with Jews, either in the camp or in Israel] but there’s been no problem” for him personally, he said.
The parents of almost all 11 Arab Israeli kids are professionals – Tawfek’s father is a doctor – suggesting that higher education and a prominent role in the community may be behind their enthusiasm for this project. It also helps in paying for the airfare to Canada, the only cost the families must bear.
Almost all the Arab families are religiously conservative – for example, the mothers of 10 of the Arabs wear the hijab. Interestingly, however, none of six Arab girls in the program wears a head scarf. “I’ll wear one when I get married,” explained Hanan Abu-Abed, 14. The other girls all nodded in agreement.
A week into their living together, the young people had nothing but praise for those from the other Israeli culture. “We’re learning to look past our differences,” said Bashar Yahia, 14.
A big difference is eating habits during Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunup to sundown. While Islamic custom says travellers such as these kids need not fast, three of them are sticking to the observance.
“I want the people here to see what fasting is all about,” said Hamza Ar’ara, 16, the oldest of the group.
The result has been greater sensitivity, it seems. When 14-year-old Ram Pade, a Jewish Israeli, plunked down on the grass to eat his lunch last Friday, he realized he was sitting opposite Hamza, who was fasting. Not wanting to make him feel uncomfortable, Ram rose, apologized and was about to move to another spot until Hamza insisted he stay. There was no reason to move or to apologize, he said. Each side were sensitive to the other.
Even in a place trying hard for smooth relations, friction does emerge.
During the Friday-evening ceremony marking the end of the week, the Israeli flag was raised and the campers sang Hatikvah, the country’s anthem – all except the Arab Israelis who remained silent. As the flag was being raised, five of the Arabs turned their back to it in quiet protest.
“You have to understand,” said Zakaria Mahameed, the Arab Israeli teacher who has accompanied the group: “Yes, these kids are Israeli, but they strongly identify with the Palestinians [of the West Bank], and the anthem is all about the Jews returning to the homes. It’s not their anthem.”
It was a subtle protest, missed by most other campers and counsellors.
Several of the Jewish Israelis said they understood why their compatriots didn’t sing the anthem, but most said they thought it was disrespectful to turn their backs.
“It does seem rude, but I can’t judge them,” said Gali Cohen, 15. “I always think how hard it must be for them.”
Bridging the culture gap among a handful of young Israelis may have a ripple effect on family and friends back in Israel, but it’s hard to see the program having national impact. It’s also unlikely that members of this group will see much of each other back home. Contact is more likely to be via Facebook than in person, though members of the group that visited Camp Shomria last year have met a couple of times at different people’s homes
“It’s hard to imagine walking into Umm al-Fahm to get together with Tawfek,” explained Ram, mindful of how unpopular Jewish Israelis are in that town.
“It’s all been so great, it’ll be sad to see it go,” said Gali, wistfully. “But I know it’s natural, we’ll all spend our time with our own crowd.”
“At least when I walk past an Arab on the street, I won’t turn away,” said Aviv. “I’ll look at him and smile.”
Bashar was smiling as he sat on the dock watching some of his compatriots in canoes practising their newly acquired paddling skills. A pair of loons in the middle of the lake sounded the alarm as the canoes approached, ducked and swam away.
“I just love it,” said Bashar; “it’s so peaceful here.”