Young German Muslims sign up for own 'Birthright Israel' trip
Berlin-based Israeli Druze brings a group of young German Muslims, most of whom are grandchildren of Palestinian refugees, to explore intermarriage and other contentious issues in Israel.
In an unusually decrepit building smack in the heart of Tel Aviv's fashionable Rothschild Boulevard, a group of German Muslims, mostly women, listens attentively as former Labor Party MK Nadia Hilou analyzes the plight of minorities in Israel.
It is the final day of their 10-day visit to Israel and the West Bank, and not only are they exhausted, but the heat inside this long-abandoned edifice - a building social justice activists have recently staked claims on - is suffocating. The women, most with their heads covered, cannot resist the temptation, however, to challenge their Israeli-Arab interlocutor with some provocative questions.
"How can you call Israel a democracy when it has no constitution?" asks one.
"And how can you call it a democracy when it does not respect human rights?" asks another.
Yet another member of the group wants to know why Israeli Arabs do not boycott the national elections to protest their treatment by the government. Still another wants to hear Hilou's views on the law that prevents Israeli Arabs from marrying Palestinians from elsewhere if they wish to remain in Israel. On this latter point, Hilou becomes less defensive.
"You're right," she agrees. "This is a great example of a human rights violation. I object to this law, and so do all the other Arab Knesset members. But what can we do? We are only a small minority in the Knesset, and therefore we don't have much power."
But Hilou appears more focused on highlighting the good news, particularly pertaining to Arab women. "Today, women make up 60 percent of the Arab students in Israeli institutions of higher education," she points out. "This is a good phenomenon because when women are educated they are more integrated into society."
Has she succeeded in instilling hope into the hearts of these young German Muslims? "If anything, I feel even more pessimistic," says 19-year-old Kausar (who, like the other participants, asked that her last name not be published), after Hilou has departed and the 11 members of the group have gone up to the roof to breathe some fresh air.
"What she basically said is that Israeli Arabs cannot influence the political system," observes the daughter of Palestinian refugees from Lebanon.
This is not your typical European goodwill delegation. Most of its members are the children and grandchildren of Palestinian refugees and immigrants, some from villages in Israel that no longer exist. They have come, understandably, with considerable emotional baggage.
But even less conventional is the man who came up with the idea of bringing them here and who is in charge of them. Samuel Schidem, an Israeli Druze from the village of Isfiya outside Haifa, is fondly referred to by the participants - most in their late teens and early 20s - as Yaba (Arabic for Papa).
The robust 38-year-old, who served as the first Druze tank commander in the IDF's famed 7th Brigade, has been living in Germany for more than 10 years. After studying religion at the University of Heidelberg, he now lives in Berlin, where he lectures at Freie University and at the museum recently opened at the site of the former Gestapo headquarters. When he's not lecturing, this rather scruffy looking Israeli, frequently mistaken for a Jew, works as a guide for Hebrew-speaking tour groups at Berlin's landmark Jewish Museum.
What prompted Schidem to bring this delegation of German Muslims to Israel was his desire to explore an issue he believes resonates strongly with both Jews and Muslims: state intervention in matters of love and marriage - or, more specifically, state dictates that prevent one from living with his or her chosen partner.
Nazi-era laws prohibiting Aryans from marrying Jews eventually led to Article 16 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which stipulates that "men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family."
Still, he notes, Israeli law today prohibits Arab citizens married to Palestinians who are not Israeli citizens from living with them in Israel.
For Schidem, intermarriage, and society's attitude toward it, has also become a very personal issue. It is extremely rare - in fact, almost unheard of - for members of the Druze community, who practice what is considered a secret religion, to marry outside the faith. But last year, Schidem married Esther, a German-Christian woman, who has accompanied him here on this trip to Israel.
So stigmatized is intermarriage among the Druze that although Schidem has visited with his family, as he always does on his annual trips, he has not taken Esther to meet them. In fact, he has not even informed his family about his recent marriage.
Not that Esther's family is pleased with the marriage. "They are the type of Germans who support Israel unconditionally," says Schidem. "So they have a problem with people like me."
Schidem was able to raise financing for the trip from EVZ (an acronym that in English stands for "Remembrance, Responsibility and Future"), a German foundation that funds international projects that examine history, promote human rights and assist the victims of the Nazi regime. This particular project was financed through a special initiative of the foundation called "Europeans for Peace."
The delegation's jam-packed program included a visit to the Ghetto Fighters Museum, meetings with representatives of Israel's minority communities, and discussions with academics and leaders of civil society organizations. The delegation's partner group in Israel was the Arab division of HaNoar HaOved VeHalomed (Working and Studying Youth) youth movement, of which Schidem is a graduate.
Over the 10-day trip, however, the focus of discussions gradually shifted from the original themes of minorities and intermarriage - and how could it not? observes Schidem - to the bigger-picture issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Did the participants come away with new information or insights?
Kausar says she was surprised to learn that members of the Druze community serve in the Israeli army even though they are not Jewish. In fact, on one stop on their trip, the delegation members met with a Druze officer, who tried to explain why it is important for members of his community to serve in the Israeli army. Kausar, for one, says she was not convinced.
Wala, a 21-year-old student whose parents are Palestinian refugees from Jordan and Lebanon, was impressed that religion is not as important a factor in self-identification in Israel as it is in Germany. "In Germany, people tend to identify themselves more by their religion," she observes. "Here, it seems to me that it's more by their nationality."
Born in Kosovo, 21-year-old Dona says she was struck most by the absence of true religious coexistence in Jerusalem. "You have all these places of worship serving the different religions right next to each other, yet there's no dialogue between the people. You could actually feel the conflict in the air when we were there, and it made me very sad."
Fatem, 22, whose father was born in Jaffa, says she was disheartened to learn how little her Israeli Arab peers are engaged politically. "In Germany, we always go out and demonstrate, but it seems that here in Israel, the Arabs feel that it is pointless because nothing will change."
Not that the group is leaving Israel with a sense that all hope is lost, insists Krausar, "but let's just say that we feel there is less hope than we did before."
To avoid sinking into a mindset of despair like some of her peers, Wala says that in recent days she has made a resolution. "When I get back to the university in Germany, I'm going to start studying Hebrew" she says. "If we are going to have dialogue between us, we need to speak each other's languages."