‘I Don’t Want to Talk to an Israeli Soldier, but Omri Is My Friend’

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The 2021 cohort of “Community Year” (shnat kehila), a joint volunteering year for Arab and Jewish high school graduates.
The 2021 cohort of “Community Year” (shnat kehila), a joint volunteering year for Arab and Jewish high school graduates.Credit: “Community Year”

Amid all the pessimistic headlines from Lod this year – about the economic disparities, the impact of the pandemic, serious crime and clashes between residents – a young Arab-Jewish partnership took shape: A group of young people from the year-long project of the Ajik organization and the Scouts movement marked the end of their year together with a festive ceremony. Haaretz 21 joined them and spoke with the participants.

“My partner as a counselor, Omri, and I had a very special partnership. We really were able to form a deep friendship,” says Fares Masrati, 19, from Ramle. “When the riots were happening, it affected and didn’t affect my friendship with Omri. We weren’t clashing or fighting, but when things were at their most heated, we spoke once on the phone and explained to each other what we were feeling.” 

His partner, Omri Abramson, 19, from Kfar Yona, adds: “We would sit and talk about all kinds of things. About Islam and Judaism and how many kids we each want and controversial topics. In May, the relationship disconnected a little. During those days we were doing one-nationality study days on Zoom and it kind of cut off our connection. I was very worried about him, and he was very upset, but then we had a talk and a real bonding moment.” 

“Community Year” (shnat kehila) is a joint volunteering year for Arab and Jewish high school graduates that has been in operation since 2002. The project currently consists of four groups – in the Negev, in Ramle-Lod and in Jaffa, and has about 70 participants each year. To date, about 500 young people have taken part. The participants volunteer together in the community, mainly in schools and informal educational settings, and also attend weekly workshops and classes designed to help them transcend boundaries and differences and promote dialogue and friendship. 

Eitan Katz, 28, coordinator of the Scouts’ “Gar’in Bamidbar,” works with the volunteer groups in Lod and Ramle. He says: “The Arab groups are from Ramle and Lod and the Jewish groups are graduates of the Scouts movement from all over Israel. We work together the whole year, we volunteer together in Jewish and Arab schools, and have joint study days on topics related to identity, politics and culture.”

Two girls from the Scouts who were part of the group in Lod are Gefen Zeiber, 19, from Kfar Sava, and Shay Rapaport, 19, from Tel Aviv. Gefen says, “I heard about ‘Gar’in Bamidbar’ and understood that it involved going into Lod, into a city that is on the socioeconomic periphery where we get to work with the Arab society there and volunteer together, and it really interested me and appealed to me.” Shay says, “I really wanted to do a volunteer year here because Arab-Jewish partnership is something that I’m really interested in.”  

Fares Masrati, left, from Ramle, with Omri Abramson, from Kfar Yona.Credit: Omri Abramson

“This project really helped me build leadership character, to know how to deal with people, to teach them and be more creative with them. Whether it’s kids in school or adults,” says participant Khadija Abu Ghanem, 19, from Ramle. Fares says he joined the project because “I wanted to give of myself to my city. Not just through school but to go a bit beyond that.” 

It wasn’t so easy to develop the partnership, of course. “There were a lot of gaps, and the first one we experienced was the language gap,” says Gefen. “Things took twice as long because the instructors and the counselors had to translate for us. We didn’t speak the same language, and in the end, when they translated it, it wasn’t with the same feeling and didn’t have quite the same meaning.” She adds, “There was also a cultural gap. For example, Jewish participants were asked to come with long pants on, because of the Arab tradition and culture, and in the beginning it was hard for us to accept that these are concessions we have to make.” 

Shay spoke of the difficulties caused by the pandemic: “Part of the concept is for us to work together and learn to become closer through social and volunteer projects. But there was no school this year, and the discussions were on Zoom, so it was a rocky start.

Towards the middle of the year, we went back to in-person classes and that helped us get closer.”

The language and cultural gaps weren’t the only challenges the group had to contend with. “The hardest thing for me was when we had our joint discussion days on Tuesdays,” says Fares. “Hearing the Jewish way of thinking was new and different for me – what they think, why they think what they think.” Razan an-Nur Zabida, 19, from Lod, says she contemplated her identity a lot this year. “The hard thing for me this year was something internal – meeting my identity. I attended a Jewish school for six years, a Christian school for six years and a Muslim school for six years. My identity was always complicated. When I would say that I am Palestinian it was just so people would accept me, and during this year I understood that when I say I am Palestinian it’s not an offhand thing, but the word has a lot of meaning.” 

Gefen Zeiber, 19, from Kfar Sava.Credit: Tamar Masudin

The groups frequently clashed on the topics of identity and nationality. “I learned that just because Arabs live here in Israel it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are Arab Israelis, and that they can identify as Palestinians even if they don’t live in the territories,” Shay says. She adds:  “You can’t really go on oppressing a people within your state and try to push it into a framework of Israeli-ness.” 

Gefen says this about what she learned about her partners’ national identity: “At first this was an ‘Arab-Jewish’ partnership, and that’s how we defined it, but really throughout the year the group presented itself as ‘Palestinians’ – and that is their national identity. I understood the desire for this definition, and it wasn’t hard for me to accept because they explained to me why they are Palestinians. It didn’t come from television, it’s the story of their family.” 

“It was a safe space but not necessarily a comfortable space,” Razan said about her experience in the discussions. “It was safe because I could express myself without anyone stopping me, but in terms of comfort, there was a feeling that people questioned things we said about the grandparents’ history.” Khadija describes it this way: “Yes, we would all meet, but it still felt like there was some sort of barrier between us, and we couldn’t really create proper friendships. Our dialogue about politics and the political reality, and about things that are happening in the West Bank and about settlements created a certain emotional barrier. The discussions and arguments surrounding nationality had a distancing effect.” 

During the riots in May, the conversations about national identity became even more complicated – especially in Lod, which became a scene of conflict that threatened to destroy the partnership the groups had tried to create. 

“It was undoubtedly difficult,” Eitan said. “The whole year, we talked about Jewish-Arab partnership in these cities, and suddenly, it blew up in our faces.”

“During the rioting, we had a rather difficult conversation on the WhatsApp group,” Shay added. “We didn’t really know how to approach this. Each side was looking for people to blame and each side was looking to criticize.”

Gefen said her dialogue with her partner, Hamza, “was really open and we stayed in direct contact throughout this time. We also had some difficult conversations, because my view of the situation in Lod was different. In the end, I understood him completely, but it was hard.”

Nor will these problems end with the closing ceremony. In another two months, the Jewish graduates will presumably be drafted into the army, and some will serve as combat soldiers.

The friendships formed during this project, which were tested at a time of national crisis, will face an even harder test then. And the partners are divided over how they will deal with this.

“After the whole year we’ve been through, it was a bit hard for me to accept that today I’m sitting with people who will be standing on the borders and fighting tomorrow,” Khadija said. “It was hard for me to accept that these same people might be going into Al-Aqsa Mosque, as we saw on television, or into Palestinian homes in the territories.”

The friendship between Fares and Omri will also be tested when the latter is drafted. “After what happened, I’m not willing to talk to a soldier,” Fares said. “But on the other hand, Omri is my friend, and I know him. This is very difficult and sensitive for me. They have two months left until they’re drafted, and we’ll see over time how things work out.”

Omri agreed that “it will be complicated. It’s something we talked about a lot. I know there’s a problem with the fact that I’m enlisting. But I believe we’ll continue to talk, that we’ll continue being friends.”

Tamer Masudin is a participant in the Haaretz 21 project, which promote voices from Israel’s Arab community.

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