‘I refuse to let the current manifestation of the fact that we still have work to do prevent us from doing that work.’

Israel has been plunged into a confluence of crises over the past week.

A relentless barrage of missiles launched by Hamas from Gaza has sent half the country to shelters, closed schools, disrupted lives, damaged property — and worst of all, wounded and killed people ranging from a six-year-old boy to two 80-year-old women, an Indian caregiver and an Israeli Arab father and daughter.

At the same time, rioting in Jerusalem, Lod, Acre (Akko), Nazareth, Ramleh and other mixed Arab-Jewish cities has resulted in injuries, fires, ruined property and widespread fear and anger.

Years of work toward peaceful coexistence seems to have crumbled within a few days.

At this difficult time, ISRAEL21c spoke with leaders of groups dedicated to understanding and friendship between Israeli Jews and Arabs and residents of the Palestinian Authority-administered territories.

Below are excerpts of their remarks – lightly edited for clarity and brevity — about how the current conflicts affect them, their members and their mission.

 Yehuda Stolov, Executive Director of the Interfaith Encounter Association, with 44 active dialogue groups from north to south:

On the emotional level, I feel pain with every violent act and every person injured or, God forbid, killed.

From a more rational perspective, I refuse to let the current manifestation of the fact that we still have work to do prevent us from doing that work.

IIE Goldberg Prize Winners Yehuda Stolov and Salah Alladin of the Interfaith Encounter Association, photo by Noam Moskowitz

Over the past nearly 20 years since we started the Interfaith Encounter Association at the height of the Second Intifada, we have seen many waves of fighting that sometimes lower the level of our activity for the duration of the violence, but also build the understanding of the necessity of this work. When the violence stops, those who were reluctant come back and often others join.

During the Muslim month of Ramadan we didn’t have much activity, but we had two encounters on May 10 that took place as planned on Zoom, one with seven people and one with nine people.

In one of these encounters, someone said, ‘Can we meet as if nothing is happening outside?’ Someone else answered: ‘What happens outside stresses the importance of us meeting.’

During corona, our meetings moved to Zoom. We are gradually coming back to in-person encounters and have established some new groups. We want to organize a meeting to let people talk about how the situation is affecting them. And we are working with some other groups to gather a meeting of top-level religious leaders to talk about peaceful relations.

I do see that people are committed to making things better. I hear voices that say the current conflicts are possible because we did not put enough effort into building bridges. If we’d had 4,000 groups instead of 44, the situation would have looked entirely different.

I don’t know how many bumps like this we will have on the road, but I think the road surely leads to peaceful coexistence. I call on everyone who reads this to join us. Emailme at yehuda@interfaith-encounter.org.

Nitsan Joy Gordon, codirector of Together Beyond Words, created in 2003 by Arab and Jewish women to reduce prejudice and promote peace through movement, body work, deep listening and a bilingual playback theater:

People are saying that what’s going on inside Israel has been underneath the surface for years and it’s very painful to see it coming out now.

We believe that what we see in the streets is mostly a few people from each side acting out their emotions because they don’t have a safe place to transform them. Pain that is not transformed is transmitted.

Together Beyond Words codirectors Nitsan Joy Gordon, left, and Silvia Margia. Photo courtesy of Together Beyond Words

We want to create more safe places where people can transform their feelings, where their feelings are heard and acknowledged in a safe place and not aimed at each other.

We are starting a new project in a few months to put this kind of work on the front stage at colleges and universities.And I am writing a book,in English, to show people how we do this work.

Something is shaking us now; we can’t ignore the Israeli-Palestinian situation any longer. We need to act, and if we didn’t realize it before we are realizing it now.

Silvia Margia, codirector of Together Beyond Words:

Most of the time when something like this happens, each side only thinks of its own pain. People are changing their status on Facebook – “I’m standing with Israel” or “I’m standing with Gaza.” Personally, I am standing for humanity.

We put so much importance on heroism, but I feel that true heroism is the courage to feel.

Suddenly it’s not only bombs from Gaza; it’s violence all over, affecting the sensitive tapestry of Arabs and Jews throughout Israel. If we have the courage to feel our pain and anger, we can sustain our partnership. I am busy with this within myself and in the groups I’m working with.

Corona brought something new to our region, exposing the way Arabs and Jews coexist in hospitals. Arabs began having more of a role in government.

Jewish and Arab medical staff at Haifa’s Rambam Health Care Campus offer a message of solidarity. At top: “We have beaten Corona and we will come together even now.” Below, staffers hold signs reading “peace” in Arabic and Hebrew. Photo courtesy of Rambam Health Care Campus

Suddenly it’s all collapsing. This is giving us a signal that there is something in the way we build partnerships that is not working right. We need to plant deeper roots.

A Together Beyond Words group activity. Photo courtesy of Together Beyond Words

As a Palestinian Arab raised in a Jewish society, and now back in my Palestinian Arab society, I know that sometimes we hold in dark thoughts and emotions. Yesterday I saw on the news some young [Arab] men from Lod telling reporters that they want Hamas to bomb Lod. What makes people say such a thing? Something in the balance of power is being confused with violence.

Nitsan and I are talking and thinking together about our role in these times. We feel that fixing the problem needs to come from above. We feel it’s time to work with the Ministry of Education on programs that educate children in having the courage to feel how much we are afraid to bring ourselves fully into this partnership and to change the concept of coexistence in Israel.

Eman Darawshi, a high school English teacher in the Israeli Arab town of Iksal, and a coordinator for Debate for Peace, a project of the Interfaith Encounter Association bringing Arab and Jewish students from some 70 municipalities together for Model United Nations:

I’ve been a teacher for 16 years and I entered Debate for Peace six years ago. I am also involved in other organizations such as Jerusalem Peacebuilders. Last week, a friend in Tel Aviv invited me to a group called Talking Peace with educators from the Jewish side. All these programs have the same objective: bridging the gap between Arabs and Jews.

Members of Debate for Peace, a mixed Jewish-Arab Model UN program in Israeli schools. Photo courtesy of Debate For Peace

Meeting and talking together gives me a nice feeling of satisfaction. But what’s going on now literally ruins every single step I have taken with my students.

Teenagers are highly influenced by what they see on social media. Sometimes it’s fake news and exaggerations. They need a person to guide them and show them what is wrong and right.

Eman Darawshe, an English teacher and Debate for Peace coordinator in an Israeli Arab village. Photo courtesy of Eman Darawshe

I keep trying to calm them with messages like, “Please stay home, please don’t participate in demonstrations that provoke violence and hatred. It’s fine to express your opinion but don’t be influenced by radicals from both sides.”

Yesterday I had a dialogue with students and told them to keep faith and try to be reasonable and avoid taking any actions that could ruin their future. We can’t live like animals in a jungle.

Some respond to my messages with rage; they tell me that I have to see the facts. I try to absorb their response and recognize their anger. I am worried because I see students who took part in international MUN conferences are behaving differently now.

We initiated a video about the implications of violence. I keep posting videos and pictures of the programs we’ve have with Jewish schools to remind them that they were good friends, that it’s not impossible. We can fix the situation and there is hope.

I never lose hope, but I think it will be very hard to return to the way it was before. None of our leaders, Arab or Jewish, are really trying to calm the situation. We must remember that we are living in the same place and have the same destiny; one rocket directed toward Lod hit two Arab citizens.

I was planning a MUN conference in my village at the beginning of June. It would be the first in our area. Now I want to do it more than ever. I’m determined and I hope it will work out.

Tamar Shapira, deputy director of Save a Child’s Heart (SACH), a voluntary organization that has given free lifesaving treatment to more than 5,000 children from 60 countries since 1995:

We currently have 33 children here in Israel from Tanzania, Zanzibar, Zambia, Kenya, Uganda, Kosovo, and the Palestinian Authority and Gaza.

On a personal, logistic and practical level it’s difficult but we’re determined to continue the humanitarian activity we’ve done for 25 years because we believe a child is a child.

The medical activities of SACH take place at Sylvan Adams Children’sHospital [of Wolfson Medical Center in Holon] and there is a home nearby where they stay with their parents, nurses and doctors during recuperation.

At night now, everyone in the home is going to sleep in the shelter rooms. The first evening was scary for the kids but by now they – although not the adults — sleep through it. They are all sheltered and protected here and at the hospital.

A Palestinian patient of Save a Child’s Heart, Sylvan Adams Children’s Hospital of Wolfson Medical Center in Holon. Photo courtesy of SACH

On May 12, the Children’s Hospital evacuated the top floor because it’s not safe when missiles come. Patients who were well enough were discharged.

Normally, those from Gaza and the Palestinian Authority don’t stay in the children’s home because they can go back and forth, and they have staff at home trained by us to care for them after discharge.

Four of our nine patients from Gaza were ready for discharge this week, but the border crossing is closed so we took them into the children’s home. That led to an unusual situation of having Muslim families from several different countries celebrating Ramadan together in an Israeli organization’s children’s home.

We have partners we’ve been working with in Gaza for years, and there are constant WhatsApp messages between us. Everyone is worried about one another and about the children.

As an Israeli, as a mother, I can tell you these are very difficult times. I look at what we are doing despite everything and it gives me positive energy to continue.

Everyone involved here is involved because we want to help children — people from left and right, from different religions. If we manage not only to save the kids but also to build bridges, this is something significant we can contribute to society.

Inon Dan Kehati, founder of HaBayit (TheHome), where Israelis and Palestinians of the Gush Etzion-Bethlehem-Jerusalem area meet for dialogues and “Cleaning the Hate” litter cleanups:

Inon Dan Kehati, founder of HaBayit (TheHome) at a Cleaning the Hate litter cleanup in the Jerusalem area on April 25, 2021. Photo by Solal Fakiel

HaBayit is very different than the usual peace groups in Israel. We are not serving any outside agendas nor receiving money from foreign governments or organizations.

We have close to 200 active members, and our social-media followers are growing. Since [Israel Innovation Fund board member] Rudy Rochman joined our leadership team recently, we went from 1,800 followers on Instagram to 4,000 over the course of a few days.

However, we halted our activities for now. We canceled a big event we had planned in one of the Arab villages next week.

I believe in the verse from Kohelet [Ecclesiastes], “A time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.” When the time is right, we will go back to square one and start our activities again. Some members may take a step back from HaBayit but I think it will be a minority.

This situation has affected me personally. I’ve become more patriotic. I support Israel’s justified response to what happens from Gaza. But I wish the best for the Palestinian people and hope there are no civilian casualties although unfortunately it’s inevitable.

That doesn’t mean I’ve disconnected from my Palestinian friends. I’m committed to peace and to building connections and I still do that 24/7. I’m always in touch with the Palestinian members of the group. Many of us are tightly connected with each other. At the end of the day, we are destined to live here together.

Robi Damelin, spokesperson and member of The Parents Circle Families Forum made up of 600 Jewish and Arab families who lost a relative to the conflict:

The group is talking, but it’s very difficult because everyone sees their own news. Regardless of what happens, we continue to work together and continue our initiatives such as the Parallel Narrative Project. We are also doing hundreds of Zoom lectures.

Last Friday, we had an Iftar dinner [breaking the Ramadan fast] to which 70 Palestinians came. On Monday night we held a small vigil in Tel Aviv against violence. It’s a kind of miracle every time we meet, considering the situation.

An Israeli and a Palestinian woman from the Parents Circle speaking at a meeting in July 2018 about their activities to promote dialogue and reconciliation. Photo courtesy of PCFF

What is going on internally in Israel indicates how badly both sides have been bringing up their children. Children are not born to hate. They learn it.

It’s getting more and more difficult, but if I didn’t have hope for the future, why would I get out of bed in the morning? I come from South Africa where I was part of the anti-apartheid movement and what ended up happening there was a miracle and an inspiration for me.

During the 2014 Gaza war, we had a peace tent in Tel Aviv and I’m thinking of creating a similar tent virtually, where people from all over the world could talk about non-violence.

We had a joint online ceremony this Memorial Day [April 14] with 250,000 people from around the world watching. So things like that make you feel it’s all worthwhile.

Dr.Nava Sonnenschein of Change Agents, a program of the School for Peace in Wahat al-Salam-Neve Shalom. Photo courtesy of Nava Sonnenschein

Nava Sonnenschein of Change Agents, a program of the School for Peace in Wahat al-Salam-Neve Shalom, a Jewish and Arab village near Jerusalem, and author of The Power of Dialogue Between Israelis and Palestinians: Stories of Change from the School for Peace:

We feel we are going back many years in what has been built to create dialogue and bring people to understand each other. It’s very difficult right now.

It’s horrible that Hamas has sent more than 1,000 missiles into Israel from Gaza and it’s horrible to bomb Gaza. That is not the way. The right way is to sit down with the other side and solve the conflict.

What you see today in the mixed cities is that the young generation has lost hope. There is anger and frustration. The Palestinians want to be part of this land and have a positive influence like they already do in the hospitals where they treat people equally from both sides. This piece of land is theirs like it is ours.

Thousands of our graduates are committed to initiating many projects to advance peace, rights and equality. Some are meeting to formulate a policy to publish on advancing equality and peace between the two peoples. We have three meetings planned where people can come and brainstorm together how to help.

At the annual conference of the Israel Planners Association on May 20, a panel of our graduates will speak about the current situation and call for understanding and equality in land policy.

Instead of complaining and being frustrated, we choose to channel our energy to do something to change the situation.