June 23, 2003, Updated September 14, 2012

Two actors take part in the play Searching for Understanding on the Planet Jupiter/Justice as part of the ‘Billy Crystal Workshops – Peace Through the Performing Arts project’.It’s a Wednesday night in Jerusalem and the mood in the Khan Theater courtyard is one of excitement blended with melancholy, as theater students mingle with their friends and family in the Ottoman Turkish caravan-like theater’s open-air quadrant.

Anticipation is high, as this night will see the results of three student seminars from the ‘Billy Crystal Workshops -Peace Through the Performing Arts’ project which is part of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Department of Theater Studies.

However, less than an hour prior to this gathering, news of a suicide bombing in the heart of the capital has put a damper on the celebrations.

After welcoming everyone to the event, Shai Bar Yaacov, academic advisor and director of the Billy Crystal Project, duly notes the irony between the situation-at-large (a resurgence of violence between the Israelis and Palestinians) and the fact that here is a group of both Arabs and Jews converging in a peaceful manner.

When Billy Crystal, the American actor, initiated his namesake project in 1999, his goal to foster social, cultural, and artistic understanding between Arabs and Jews through the use of drama techniques was conventional. Numerous undertakings promoting co-existence were cropping up in reaction to the general feeling that peace was just around the corner.

The situation today is very different.

“This project started in better times and now it’s up against quite a bit. But we’ve continued along the same line as we started the project,” says Bar Yaacov. “The Billy Crystal Project is trying to do something that seems pointless in the reality in which we are but it is something essential. Just trying to do something helps overcome feelings of pointlessness.”

Five workshops took place under the auspices of the Billy Crystal Project this year. One was devoted to a classic Arabic text; a seminar centered around Jewish-Arab collaborations; a political workshop delved into Brecht’s world; a street theater class lightly touched on conflict between people, and the project’s principal session: ‘Theater as a Mediation Tool’ workshop focused on Jewish-Arab relations.

“The main point of the program is to be aware of how being different affects our lives,” explains Bar Yaacov. “We need to change our ability to listen to different voices.”

The workshops serve as a bridge for emotional expression, said Said Tali who has co-led the Arab-Jewish mediation seminar in the Project framework for three years. According to him, the ‘Theater as a Mediation Tool’ workshop, of the five, is the “only one to deal with Crystal’s goals. Our workshop contains the most dialogue. Our model is to talk about the topic and build a show around it.”

Co-ordinators and participants are under no illusions that their play, Searching for Understanding on the Planet Jupiter/Justice (the Hebrew word for the planet Jupiter, tzedek, is the same word as for justice) will change how society views co-existence between the two warring peoples.

“Our motive is not to influence society but rather to acknowledge one another and one’s self,” says Tali, co-leader of the workshop with Michal Bar-Yosef Caspi. “The theater part of the workshop is extra, first we must delve into ourselves and only then deal with the audience and their reactions to what we say.”

“I think theater can teach and educate,” agrees 21-year-old Idan Alterovich, a student actor from Petah Tikva. “As long as there’s a theme and if the actors believe in the theme it will be passed onto the audience.”

The students wrote the final production based on their interactions during the four-month seminar. The plot takes place in a small cave on the planet Jupiter/Justice. It describes the varied attempts by the participants to understand one another. The journey represents the quality of Jewish-Arab relations and the dynamic they produce.

Bar Yaacov notes that while politics obviously creep into discussions, the course’s aim is give individuals a platform to express their true feelings. “We’re not dealing with politics we’re dealing with the idea where everyone’s narrative can be heard no matter how much it hurts,” he says.

Udi Gur is a Jewish participant in the program. A Hebrew literature student, the 24-year-old freshman signed up for the seminar because he is “interested in Israeli-Arab dialogue” more so than the theater aspect of the workshop.

“This project won’t neccessarily affect things in the future. It’s a very small deed to do, but it’s something. It mainly affects the people in the course,” says Gur. “This course is not about solving the problems but dealing with images of how we see each other.”

For Roney Srour, a 27-year-old Arab from the town of Eilaboun in the Galilee, meeting Gur was an eye-opener. The two presented a skit in the final show together based on previous conversations they shared.

“I thought I knew everything about them [Israelis], but at the workshop I found I didn’t know anything,” says Srour, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology. “I used to see a soldier as the worst thing in the world but they are not only bad people. Udi is a soldier but not only a bad guy.”

Srour says the course provoked him to examine his feelings towards Israeli Jews and towards his own people. “I recommend this course for people to know the conflict from both sides – to see Palestinians and Jews in many ways. We see Jews as bad but we don’t see ourselves as being violent in some ways. That doesn’t mean the Israelis are not bad, they are and are doing bad things in some situations. I hate to see them but I’ve also taken from this course to see good things they’re doing.”

Srour adds that whereas before he was unsure if co-existence was possible, today he thinks a form of it is. “Loving each other is far way. Respect is closer. Co-existence as love is far away. Co-existence as respect is possible.”

Iiham Jaabri, an art teacher in East Jerusalem, always wanted to join a theater group and learn about ‘the other side.’ This mediation course allowed her to do both. “In this course they [Israelis] heard me, they understand me, and they listen to me. We’re friends now, Jews and Arabs. We talked with everything out,” says the 45-year-old Jaabri. “I recommend this course to anyone who wants to understand himself, and the others.”

Ten Jewish and six Arab students took part in this year’s ‘Theater as a Mediation Tool’ workshop run in collaboration with the Khan Theater. In total 100 students took part in the five workshops. Bar Yaacov hopes to see 120 to 150 next year. “The number is not the crucial issue but rather a better balance between Arabs and Jews is what is hoped for,” he says, noting that all together less than a third of the five workshops’ participants were Arab.

“While the number of Arab participants is still not equal to that of their Jewish counterparts, the numbers are reasonable,” argues Tali. “I think there will be more Arabs in the future. Theater is a bit threatening for Arab students; it distances them a bit. They are dealing with many issues – first year away from home, university life, and learning in a new language [Hebrew].”

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