At the beginning of their year of pre-army community service in Arab schools, a group of 23 members of the Israel Scouts movement realized they had graduated from the school system without learning very much about other parts of Israeli society.
They may have spent their final years in high school hearing former Education Minister Shay Piron’s slogan, “'The other' is me” – but when they actually met for the first time “the other” whom no one had talked in class – Israeli Arabs – they realized they knew virtually nothing about them.
“I didn’t learn about the Nakba,” says Tamar Zahor, a Scout from Herzliya, referring to what is called the “catastrophe,” when hundreds of thousands of Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1947-49 Israeli War of Independence.
The Scouts in question spent their gap year before induction in the Israel Defense Forces with a group of Bedouin women volunteers from an NGO called the Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation – Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development. Among other activities, the Scouts helped out in Arab schools in Bedouin villages in the Negev and in the city of Lod, in the center of the country.
As part of their training, they learned some Arabic and participated in enrichment programs about Israel's Arab/Palestinian community. When some of them heard the Arab narrative of the Nakba for the first time, they were in shock.
“I asked the instructor how can there be two histories? It doesn’t make sense,” says Ofir Shalgi from Yokne’am. “I finished 12 years of school and never in my life had anyone told me it. I’m 19 years-old and suddenly I am hearing a different history.”
“I assume there is a reason that I reached age 18 and didn’t know what Palestine is,” Zahor adds.
Their joint work with Bedouin during their year of service, which ends this week, meant that the Scouts had to deal with political and national conflicts for the first time on a day-to-day and personal basis.
“I started this year with the thought that I would be willing to give up my nationalist feelings in order for there not to be another war,” explains Naomi Goldberg from Beit Zayit. “But suddenly, when you have an opposing narrative, it [creates doubts] and yet also makes you return to the point of, ‘I’m Israeli, and I won’t give in.’”
“Because of my acquaintance with the Palestinians my identity became stronger, and I also understood how important it is that they too will have a national identity, and it makes no sense that we [Israelis] are crushing it,” she adds.
The feeling that they had so much to learn, the Scouts say, made them realize that they had never met many other groups that they should know about, and that there are certainly plenty more like them in the country.
“I felt that I had been hearing one side – that of the Arabs, or the leftists,” says Shalgi. “I was missing a whole part that I don’t know. I saw only half the conflict and wanted to hear the other half.”
So it was that for their final project of the year, the group decided to take a journey all over Israel, during which they would meet with and bring together members of different communities, with the understanding that such acquaintance with each other is essential for living together.
During the last two weeks of July, the Scouts traveled from the south to the north, from Yeruham to Ma’alot-Tarshiha, as part of a trip that they called “A different way.” They stayed with religious families in Yeruham, met ultra-Orthodox families in Beit Shemesh, organized a lecture on women’s rights in Be’er Sheva, encountered settlers from Ginot Shomron in the West Bank, were hosted by urban kibbutzim in Beit Shemesh and Sderot, marched in the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem, brought together young Arabs and Jews from Abu Gosh and Har Adar outside Jerusalem, organized a lecture on social activism in Sderot, and so on.
This was no improvised outing but a well-organized and carefully planned project. The Scouts printed stickers and flyers, with a logo and graphics theme, and had T-shirts made with the slogan “Shalom. We have come to talk” on the back. They raised thousands of shekels in donations from local companies, including Bank Hapoalim, to pay for their project, and the Scouts Movement also provided financial support.
Over 100 people gathered one evening at the end of July at a club in south Tel Aviv for a panel discussion on: “Education within the conflict.” The Scouts received an "establishment" answer there on why they'd never heard about the Nakba narrative in class.
“I don’t think we need to teach the Nakba,” MK Merav Ben Ari (Kulanu), a member of the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee, told them. “I want my students to know what the Nakba is, but not in depth, because I know what interests are involved.”
But Dr. Arye Carmon, the founder of the Israel Democracy Institute, said the educational system must bring "non-party politics" into the classroom and expose the students to other narratives.
The last two days of the Scouts' journey were dedicated to preparing coexistence-related programs with the intention of making them part of the regular program of the youth movement, and in the hope that the activities will also become part of the Education Ministry’s enrichment programs.
“We think this needs to be done within the Education Ministry, so instead of crying about it, we are going to do it,” says Na’ama Ramati, a Scout from Ramat Hasharon.
Is it possible to bridge the gaps between different communities in the country? One of the young women says that even if Israeli cities will likely not have mixed Arab and Jewish populations in the future, many stages of advancing cooperation between them exist, in the middle: in encounters and contacts between a Jewish city and a nearby Arab city; between youth groups on both sides that are "twinned" and enjoy joint activities over a period of a few years. “I think we are at zero and need to reach 100, and we need to invest in it,” says one of the participants.
We could dismiss these Scouts as a group of idealistic and naive young people, but after a year of working in Arab schools and with their new Bedouin friends, it is impossible to say they have not begun to grasp the complexity of life together with other communities in Israel. Some say they found themselves losing part of their optimism, while others are asking themselves questions about Zionism and their future in the country. But the impression an outsider gets is that the group is still filled with motivation and a desire to bring about a better future – and, most importantly, they have not lost hope.
Says Ramati, “We understand that dialogue and listening are the solution to racism, discrimination and inequality.”