Oct 2008 Journal

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Letter from Israel: Creating a dialogue

The Jerusalem Theatre foyer was abuzz with unfamiliar activity when we arrived for our subscription concert with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra a few weeks ago. Tables were being set up with food and soft drinks. Furthermore, unusually large numbers of young people were to be seen in that generally rather staid environment.

A word is in order at this point about the Jerusalem Theatre, one of the foci of the city’s cultural and artistic life. It has several auditoria where plays and concerts are performed and films are shown simultaneously. In addition, there is a bookshop which also sells CDs, a pleasant restaurant-cum-café, and public areas where works of local artists are exhibited. Its streamlined architecture manages at the same time to be warm and friendly. One almost invariably bumps into someone one knows, as many of Jerusalem’s ‘culture vultures’ seem to move in the same circles. It must be said, however, that the audience generally tends towards the upper age range of the population.

On the evening in question, however, it was obvious that the audience was not the usual homogeneous mix. The event that we happened upon was a special reunion performance marking the twentieth anniversary of Peace Child Israel, a venture that brings Arab and Jewish youngsters together.

The aim of the organisation, as stated in its mission statement, is ‘to promote and contribute to a life of peace and equality between Arab and Jewish citizens in Israel’. The enterprise, the brainchild of the late Habima actress Yael Drouyanoff, was set up in 1988 as a drama workshop for both Arab and Jewish teenagers. It began in Tel Aviv/Jaffa but has gradually spread to the rest of Israel.

In the framework of the organisation’s activities, youngsters from the Arab town of Tira have been paired with their counterparts from Kochav Yair, Ramle with Petah Tikva, Nazareth with Yagur, and Sheikh Dinun in Western Galilee with Ofek, to name but a few. The youngsters meet regularly, get to know one another, work together on writing a play about their lives, and finally put on bilingual Arabic-Hebrew performances for schools as well as for adult audiences. After each performance the young actors come out onto the stage and engage in a question-and-answer session with the audience, thus stimulating further discussion.

Since this has been going on for 20 years, there are by now many ‘graduates’ of the programme, adults working in various spheres of life who are eager to share their experience with the younger generation. In addition, many prominent Jewish and Arab musicians and actors in Israel are involved in the programme, donating their time, energy and talents to fostering the youngsters’ abilities and aiding them in writing and putting on their own plays.

Of course, the most important facet of the programme is the creation of a dialogue between the younger generations of the two nations, helping them to overcome prejudices and to get to know the person behind the stereotype. There have even been attempts to extend the programme to include Palestinian teenagers from East Jerusalem.

The anniversary event brought together current and former participants in the programme, including singer Shlomo Gronich, who composed the organisation’s anthem, and other well-known figures from Israel’s entertainment world such as Moni Moshonov and Dan Almagor.

The programme was featured on the BBC World News a few months ago, and is supported by the War Child organisation in the Netherlands. Although some funds were initially provided by the Israeli government, these have now dried up, so that the organisation is eager to raise funds from other sources. More information is available on its website: www.mideastweb.org/peacechild


Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

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