The Beit HaGefen Arab-Jewish Cultural Center in Haifa, Israel is a microcosm of the city’s collective Muslim, Christian and Jewish culture said CEO Asaf Ron at the “Arab-Jewish Coexistence Panel” Thursday, Oct. 22 at the University of Connecticut.
“Haifa is the only place in Israel where you find in public space something like a Christmas tree in December accompanied by two menorahs,” Ron said.
He said he believes this religious tolerance is based in the area’s economic stability and strong education system, but that Beit HaGefen takes things further. The cultural center encourages students to explore difficult questions about Arab-Jewish conflict through theater, volunteerism and art.
“Many Jews don’t know enough about Palestinian past through ’48, they just don’t know, and many Palestinians don’t know about the way the Jews went about in the world before Israel and why we’re still fighting for a Jewish state,” Ron said. “If you put it in artwork which maybe raises questions, people are more open minded to speak about the art. You don’t have to agree or disagree, it’s art, you’re interpreting art.”
May Ayoub, a 16-year-old student in Ron’s program who described herself as a feminist, said she goes to an Arab-Christian private school but comes from a mixed family. Her father is Christian and her mother is Jewish, almost as uncommon a pairing in Haifa as it is throughout Israel.
Ayoub said seeing the Christian and Jewish sides of her family together is like seeing what she wants for Israel in her own home.
“I am a part of two cultures and a third one that is a mix of them both together, but it comes with a lot of dilemmas and conflicts,” she said.
One of those dilemmas is whether or not to enlist in the Israeli army: while the children of Jewish mothers are automatically registered for the draft, Arabs are not obligated to join. Ayoub said that while she relates more to her Arab side, she is mainly concerned with the moral complexities of joining any army.
“Luckily, my school and my friends have learned to accept me and my special case,” she said.
Ella Chernyak, a 17-year-old Beit HaGefen member who said she wants two countries for two peoples, said she joined the cultural center because she wanted to learn more about the different sides of Israel.
“I really want to know the other side of the story,” Chernyak said. “I feel sometimes not comfortable to argue with Muslim friends about politics at school because they’re like ‘shut up, I don’t want to hear your voice’ because they don’t want to hear what I’m saying.”
Ron said at Beit HaGefen they try to steer the discussion away from religion, a conflict that will be fought all its life, and toward educating young people about their country’s history from the perspective of both sides. He believes fostering cross-cultural friendships is central to Israel’s future, even if people won’t always agree.
“It’s possible that two narratives very different from each other, sometimes even crashing into each other, can live together,” he said.
Kimberly Armstrong is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.