The Bible Lands Museum, situated opposite the Israel Museum, houses a broad range of archeological artefacts from all over the ancient Near East. In accordance with the vision of its founder, the late Eli Borovsky, it refers to the various cultures of the ancient Near East, each of which contributed to modern history and culture.
The Museum also seeks to foster co-operation and understanding between the cultures of the region, focusing particularly on promoting interaction between Jewish and Muslim cultures. To this end it has established a number of educational projects, some of them funded by Israel’s administrative institutions, others by outside donors, but all of them with the same objective.
One fine September morning I met with the Museum’s spokesperson, Anat Sella, together with Ragheda Kashkush, the energetic young lady from East Jerusalem who heads the Image of Abraham project, to learn about the Museum’s educational work.
‘Abraham, whom the Muslims know as Ibrahim, is the common ancestor of both peoples,’ Ragheda explained. ‘This is the aspect we try to emphasise when we bring classes of ten-year-olds from both religions together for the joint activities that the programme involves.’
The programme, which has been running for 16 years, combines a class from a school in East Jerusalem with one from West Jerusalem once a week for a four-hour session of learning about the ancient cultures of the region, interacting with one another, and working together on projects involving games, study and handicrafts. Each class undergoes several preparatory sessions in which facilitators from the Museum go to the schools and, in co-operation with the class teachers, prepare the children in their own language for participation in the project. Part of the preparatory activity involves providing each child with a bilingual Arabic-Hebrew phrasebook, thereby enabling some elementary communication.
Each week the children are divided into three groups comprising both Arabs and Jews, with two facilitators in each group, in addition to the class teacher and an accompanying parent, to ensure that the activities are conducted in both languages. Despite initial hesitancy, the children learn to co-operate as they tour the galleries, build models, prepare projects and undertake tasks. When the children have a break to eat the food they have brought from home they are encouraged to share with children from the other group. One of the meetings involves baking pittot, the traditional round bread that is widespread throughout the Middle East today.
With 60 children per project, at four projects a year, approximately 240 children participate in the project annually. Over the course of 16 years, almost 4,000 children have taken part at some point, and many of them are now adults. That is a tremendous achievement and constitutes a bold step towards building mutual respect and understanding between the two nations. The programme stresses the shared heritage and similarities as well as the differences between Judaism and Islam.
At the end of the course a joint meeting is held, together with all the parents from both sides. Everyone is given a tour of the Museum, and the participants in the programme prepare models or projects that can be displayed in their schools, as well as putting on performances for the parents. Refreshments are served, and entertainment is provided, often involving joint sing-alongs or drumming groups.
A new project, aimed at providing a similar programme for slightly older children, is currently being prepared, and it is hoped that this will be launched later this year.
Although no statistics are available, the organisers of the programme are convinced that the attitudes of both sets of children, as well as of their teachers and parents, are vastly improved as a result of their participation. In addition, many of the children are able to learn about the history of their own culture and experience a museum in a positive and constructive way.