When the fences separating the east and west sides of Jerusalem were removed in 1967 following Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, Israelis ventured into the Arab side of the city, many encountering their Arab neighbors for the first time.

In the ensuing 40 years, Israel has practiced religious freedom for the capital’s Muslim and Christian minorities and has physically rebuilt the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, and the Western Wall Plaza, as well as numerous other city sites and neighborhoods.

But rebuilding physical structures has been only one aspect of the slow, laborious reunification process. While cultural and political gaps largely keep Jerusalem’s Jewish and Arab residents living in separate, parallel universes, numerous efforts have been launched attempting to reverse that trend.

Efforts like the Jerusalem Municipality’s Division for the Advancement of Youth, which focuses, amongst other things, on bringing together 14 to 26-year-old Jewish and Arab youth, from both sides of the city.

“We work with all sorts of problems – from youths who drop out of school, to homeless youngsters and those who get into drugs,” the division’s director Shabtai Amedi told ISRAEL21c. “We don’t care about the youngsters’ ethnic or cultural origins. We just want to help them.”

Since the project began, shortly after the Six Day War, the division has helped to bridge ethnic and cultural gaps, and has achieved some encouraging results, political and security logistics notwithstanding.

“We run a dance group of Jewish and Palestinian youth,” Amedi told ISRAEL21c. “It was tough to begin with, because each camp was suspicious of the other but, over time, the Jews and Arabs became more accepting of each other and some even became good friends.”

The dance group meets for twice-weekly rehearsals and has performed all over Israel, as well as in the United States and Europe. “The rehearsals went on even throughout the second intifada,” says Amedi. “In 2006, the group performed at the United Nations headquarters in New York, and at Congress, and it has been invited by the mayor to perform in Paris. It is wonderful to see how people react when they see Jews and Arabs performing together.”

The dance group has brought together Jews and Arabs with widely diverse viewpoints. “We had a supporter of [Jewish extreme right-wing activist Rabbi Meir] Kahane in the group,” Amedi recalls. “When the group performed in Paris they had a day off to go to Euro Disney and all the Arab dancers opted to go with the Kahane supporter. He eventually stopped going to Kahane rallies.”

The division also operates a café where youth from different backgrounds can meet and socialize, and also runs the Yam Yam {Sea Sea) project which provides Jewish and Arab youth from land-locked Jerusalem with the chance to learn some marine and teamwork skills.

“Last year they sailed a boat to Greece and back. They all got to know each other well, and to work together. They realized that, in order to succeed, they had to help each other. They literally learned they can either sink or swim together. I think that is of more than symbolic importance,” said Amedi.

One problem that is more than symbolic is that of language. According to Nadim Sheiban, projects department director at the Jerusalem Foundation, it’s not only what you do but how you do it, that ultimately makes a difference in creating a connection between the city’s Jews and Arabs.

“Part of the problem is that you often have Israelis who are in a relatively advantageous socioeconomic position trying to communicate with severely disadvantaged Palestinians,” he explains. “That doesn’t work too well.”

One of the ways Sheiban and his department try to bridge that particular divide is by teaching the two sides each other’s language. “We have leadership and social work student courses with an Israeli presenter and a Palestinian one. Each talks in his or her own language so, in order to benefit from the course, all the participants have to know Hebrew and Arabic. That immediately helps to put everyone on an equal footing,” he told ISRAEL21c.

The social work student courses are partly funded by two Jerusalem higher learning institutions – Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Al-Quds University.

“The course provides the students with the tools to work with the diversity of groups in Jerusalem in a professional manner,” Sheiban explains.

The program includes joint seminars, conferences, discussions and professional supervision for third year social work students. “It also develops professional collaborations between the faculties and staff of the two schools of social work,” he added.

Sheiban believes the earlier one starts imparting the idea of coexistence the better, and nowhere is that more evident than at the capital’s Gan Hashalom Peace Kindergarten. Supported by the Jerusalem Foundation, the kindergarten caters to 120 children aged two to five. There is a Hebrew speaking and an Arabic speaking teacher at the kindergarten and the children participate in a range of multicultural activities, with special emphasis on Jewish, Islamic and Christian celebrations and festivals.

“If you catch children at an early enough age they grow up knowing about each other, and that helps to reduce suspicion and ignorance about the other person’s culture and religious beliefs,” says Sheiban.

Other projects supported by the Jerusalem Foundation include a small business advice service for Palestinian women, a summer camp for Jewish and Arab children at the Ein Yael Living Museum, a documentary filmmaking project for Palestinian and Israeli youth, Yad BeYad (hand in hand), a bilingual (Hebrew and Arabic) primary school and a Jewish-Arabic music school in Jerusalem’s Ben-Hinom Valley at the foot of the Old City walls.

“One of the most important things is to ensure that the physical and professional infrastructures exist both in west and east Jerusalem, and that we find a common language – on all levels,” Sheiban continues. “We all have a lot to share, and together we can make Jerusalem a wonderful, and peaceful, place to live in.”

Dafna Klems, whose eight-year-old daughter Alma is in her second year at the Yad BeYad bilingual school, says growing up and studying together helps bridge cultural gaps and provides the children with an understanding of each other. “My daughter already speaks and understands Arabic and plays with the Palestinian children like she does with her Israeli friends. For her there is no difference between them. I think we all have to do our bit to nurture coexistence in this beautiful city of Jerusalem, and the more younger Jews and Arabs get together the better.”

Lina Ibrahim, from east Jerusalem, has a four-year-old son and six-year-old daughter at the school. Like Klems, Ibrahim was keen for her children to grow up speaking Hebrew and to get to know the Jewish way of life. “Yad BeYad is a great school,” she says. “I like the way they teach, and it is wonderful to see the children playing together as equals. The parents also get together on special occasions. This is the way to avoid discrimination and nurture coexistence in Jerusalem and the whole region.”