“We came here to show the American people that in spite of the conflict between Arabs and Jews, we can still live side by side,” said Amit Tal, a student at Misgav High School in Israel and one of six Jewish and Arab Israeli students present at The Park School of Baltimore on March 31. “We came because we live in an area that is 50 percent Arab and 50 percent Jewish to show you firsthand that we can live together. What the media shows is not what it really is, and we want to share.”
These Israeli students were in Baltimore as a part of a Sparks of Change Foundation program, which was started to honor Daniel Joseph Siegel, a Baltimore native who died of brain cancer in 2010. He was a graduate of Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School and a political science student at Yale University. The organization commemorates him through its work to promote peace and well-being in communities and its educational programs to decrease violence.
As a part of the Sparks of Change program, these Israelis met with American students to share their experiences living in Israel and coexisting.
“I don’t think religion is causing the conflict, I think the stereotypes about Muslims and Arabs and about Jewish people are leading the conflict and leading Israel to the wrong place,” Tal said. “The radicals are overshadowing the entire segment of the religion they belong to.”
Klil Michelson, also a student at Misgav, agreed that religion is not the leading cause of the conflict, citing that many people in Israel choose to live secular lives.
“The point where people are split is in schools,” said Michelson. “Jews and Arabs study in different schools. It makes them hate each other, not because they are mean, but because there is no interaction between them. They are not exposed to each other’s culture, religion or lifestyles. It is because of speaking different languages, not racism.”
Michelson believes the solution is to make Israel more democratic and less Jewish, a place where everyone would feel more welcome. He believes that it would be much easier for the non-Jewish population to identify with the country if the lifestyle were more secular and liberal.
Not everyone in the group shared this opinion, however. Amit Jakob, an American student born to Israeli parents, believes that while finding a middle ground is important, the Jewish state should remain Jewish as long as other people can still live there if they choose to do so.
“In Israel, being Jewish is immersed into their culture,” she said. “When you take away the Jewish aspect of Israel, that also eliminates the idea of Zionism, and that was started because Jews have been suffering. To have their own state was such a big deal.”
Jon Acheson, a history teacher at Park who helped organize the event, explained that part of the idea behind the program is that it is easier to speak about differences here in America than it is in Israel.
“I think a lot of [the American students] are surprised that so many Jews feel isolated from Arabs who live right next to them,” Acheson said. “Nationalism has been the only game in town for the last 300 or 400 years, and it is really difficult to transition to transnational institutions and transnational organizations. But we have to, I think, to avoid real disaster. Israel is still such a young country. It is still trying to act out a Jewish nationalism born of anti-Semitism in Europe.”
Arafat Osman, a teacher at the Arabic-speaking Al Bian school chaperoning the trip, shared similar thoughts.
“I think coexistence is especially relevant today because the State of Israel knows that the Arab citizens are loyal citizens. I think that radicalism is taking things backward. They almost signed to make peace in 2000 in D.C.” he said. “I think that nationalism is a bad term — I am a human.”
Perhaps the most insightful comment came from Henry Kouwenhoven, an American Christian who did not understand many of the issues before participating in the program.
“The separation of church and state is something that we take for granted,” he said. “The religious ideals really seep into politics in Israel, and that seeps into a lot of the bad feelings between Zionists and Arabs. That’s something that I didn’t think much about before this program. It’s hard for me to understand, because Israel is so small when you look on a map, but it means so much to both of these groups. It is pivotal that there is a nonviolent compromise, but I don’t know what it is.”