Building Friendship
Published in "Soka Gakkai" Quarterly - on January 2004
In Israel lives one of the most diverse societies in the world. The best-known gap and conflict exist between the two main communities in this country: a Jewish majority of more than 80 percent and an Arab-Palestinian minority of almost 20 percent. Much less well-known gaps and divisions exist inside these two communities: for instance, within the Jewish community between religious and secular Jews, immigrants from the former Soviet Union and those from Ethiopia, people of Western origin versus others from the Middle East. Among the Arabs there are divisions separating Bedouins, rural and urban populations, Muslims, Christians and Druze.

And still, the most severe problem in Israeli society is the character of relationships between the Jewish majority and the Arab-Palestinian minority as two cultural-national groups living in a constant state of conflict. Jews and Arabs live in Israel side by side, but socially they are almost completely separated. The relationships that do exist reflect relationships generally between Arab and Jewish people living in the Middle East, and they can be characterized in terms of alienation, ignorance and fear.

Preparing for Reconciliation

A precondition for lasting peace is not merely a formal treaty, but rather mutual reconciliation. We have to realize that this is the real issue and deal with it. This means preparing Arabs and Jews to learn about each other, developing dialogue on the level of individuals, learning to respect each other, becoming friends. Creation of a supportive environment for dialogue has to be involved, including as large a part of each population as possible and the establishment of popular frameworks which can make such dialogue possible, step by step. In other words, a vital precondition for the establishment of real peace is mass education toward a "culture of peace." Like every kind of education, this one too has to start with young people: the young generation will carry the values on which a better future will be established.
  We are not naive; we don't think that education, personal relationships or even real friendship between individuals of the two communities who live in a state of conflict can be a substitute for political and economical actions or interests. Still we do believe that through education people can adopt values that may fit to a better, more just society. We believe that personal friendship can prepare a supportive background for positive interethnic and intercultural contacts on every level.

"Friendship Village" was founded in 1996 as a step toward a dream to establish a Seminar Center for education toward a multicultural society. In this Center young people from our country and from abroad will be able to acquire the means to understand other people who come from cultural, national, ethnic or religious backgrounds different from their own. They will learn to respect differences--but at the same time look for ways to build what can be built in common. Constructing the Center is still a dream, however. "Friendship Village" as a very active NGO already runs several educational projects devoted to the above-mentioned ideas.

Women's Leadership

A continuous project, in which young Jewish and Arab women meet for a weekend, once a month, has been run by us for the last two years. In this project ("Feminine Way for Peace"), young female leadership is prepared to strengthen women's empowerment and spread the values of respect for human rights and democracy. This project has also been extended to a "Women Teachers for Human Rights" project, in which Jewish and Arab women teachers are prepared to spread values of human rights, peaceful conflict resolution and democracy via the Israeli school system.
  In the "Talk Peace-Make Peace" project we bring together young Israeli and Palestinian politicians to learn about each other's society in order to understand the vested interests of the two sides--and to create personal connections. In "Nemashim" (literally "pimples," but also an acronym of "Youth Play Peace"), a group of high school graduates volunteer for one year to work in a mixed, multicultural community, doing social and community educational work through theater. In July we held an International Training Program ("Beyond the Barriers") over eight days, in which 50 university students from three European countries--Turkey, the Palestinian Authority and Israel--participated. The program was devoted to "Inter-ethnic Conflict Resolution."
In the project "Let's Know Each Other" young Israelis learn about the faiths of the different religious, ethnic and national groups that live in the "Holy Land." They find out what are the real differences as well as the similarities between religions like Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Bahá'í and Druze: they learn to respect differences and to strengthen cooperation through building on similarities.

Our projects are spread all over Israel, but the planned Center for the "Friendship Village" will be built in the northern part of Israel--in the Galilee area. This region is inhabited by about 1 million people, composed of about 50:50 Jews and Palestinian Arabs. These latter are regarded as full citizens of our country, but in practice they suffer from discrimination in many legal and illegal ways. The Center, when built, will be able--in addition to hosting the work of our organization--to serve as a focus for the activity of the numerous small, local NGOs that work on intercultural understanding and bridge-building in this region of mixed population.

Methodology

Educational methods have been developed through almost 20 years of the activities of the "Reut-Sadaka" (Friendship) Jewish-Arab Youth Organization from which the "Friendship Village" has developed. These methods include emotional as well as cognitive elements, in order to cope with the hard task of building real dialogue and understanding between young people who come to meet each other out of curiosity, but full of prejudice and fears concerning the "others." Trust-building games and workshops are followed by discussions in small groups, informal meetings, work in unicultural as well as in multicultural groups. Delicate problems concerning interethnic conflicts are discussed only when a certain level of mutual trust has been achieved between participants.

The final goal is not adopting the positions of the other side, but learning to understand them, to respect--mutually--the differences and vested interests of each side and to build personal connections that will make it possible to cope with conflicts in which people of the other side will be involved, in peaceful and understanding ways.

Many personal connections have been created between participants of the organization's different projects. Making friends was never our main goal; rather it was the building of relationships in which ethnic, national or religious identity would be a minor factor in considering the development of friendships. We really came to a point where young people considered making friends not on the basis of ethnic belonging but on a strictly personal one. This ability gives an excellent basis for "graduates" of our programs to have much more open, honest and respectful approach and contact with individuals of the other groups, whether in the workplace, business or academic arenas or political negotiations. This is indeed our main goal.


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