Getting to Know the Neighbors

Ahlama Peretz, wife of the Labor Party's new chair, recalls her experiences in workshops aimed at promoting coexistence between Jews and Israeli Arabs - in her case, between Sderot residents and Bedouin.

In the middle of the summer, at the height of the struggle against the withdrawal from Gaza, a man wearing anti-disengagement orange walked up to a young man with long hair and a well-groomed beard, who was dressed like a lawyer and was on his way to the courthouse in downtown Be'er Sheva. The "orange" man spent a long time trying to persuade the other man to sign a petition against the "deportation of Jews." The attorney turned out to be a tough nut to crack. After a prolonged argument about the political and moral sides of the disengagement, he introduced himself to the right-wing activist. "My name is Anwar al-Hajaji and I am from an unrecognized Bedouin village."

As Al-Hajaji explains it now, "it was important to me to show him that an Arab is not an animal that happens to walk on two feet." No one knows the power of stereotypes better than he. A few years ago, he and his wife bought an apartment in a new building in Be'er Sheva. A Haredi ?(ultra-Orthodox?) family with lots of children moved into the apartment across the hall. "I told my wife that this was it, our money went down the drain," he recalls, smiling. But that didn't happen. On the contrary: "Ever since then, they have been the regular babysitters for our twins."

Al-Hajaji says that if not for the workshop, he strongly doubts whether he would have bothered to listen to the right-wing fellow outside the courthouse. The "workshop" is a course for training facilitators in conflict-resolution groups, which is offered jointly by AJIK, a Bedouin organization, and Kolot Banegev − two groups that promote coexistence and dialogue.

Ahlama Peretz, wife of the new chairman of the Labor Party, attended the workshop together with Al-Hajaji. They met 30 times during the last academic year, seven residents of Sderot with a similar number of Bedouin from the area. They are still in contact. She remembers Al-Hajaji sharing his experience near the courthouse with the other participants. "The settler was also exposed there to the 'other,'" Peretz says. "Who knows, maybe he found that the Arabs are people like him, and that they are even willing to listen to his troubles."

She herself did not need a workshop to make that discovery. Peretz relates that she became acquainted with Israel's Arab minority many years before she met her husband. The feeling of being equal human beings was shaped nearly from the day she was born.

"My parents' home was near Wolfson Hospital in Holon," recalls Peretz, "between the orchards, olive groves and houses of Arabs who did not abandon them in the War of Independence. I drank the milk that my mother got from the goat of our neighbor Abu-Ali. His son would from time to time light our kerosene stove when it went out on Shabbat."

In the early '80s, when Amir Peretz was head of a local council in a politically right-wing outlying town, they would frequently invite over students from Taibeh, who were guests of the local high school. Ahlama Peretz relates that many people in Sderot were not happy about the new alliance between the Jewish children from the Negev and the Arab children from the Triangle. She was also at her husband's side in Shemesh − a movement whose name ?(meaning "sun"?) is the Hebrew acronym for "neighbors talking peace." "We made a connection with education and media people from the Gaza Strip and devised joint projects between various groups of adults and children. We hosted them here, and they hosted us there."

This positive, optimistic attitude toward Arabs is natural among the Peretz family. Ahlama relates that her sister-in-law, Dalia Peretz, is the principal of the bilingual school in the Katamonim low-income neighborhood in Jerusalem, at which Jewish, Muslim and Christian children celebrate the holidays of all three faiths. Inspired by her experiences in the workshop, Ahlama Peretz herself recently initiated similar encounters at the academic pre-college preparatory center at Sapir College of the Negev, where she serves as deputy director. The facilitators are mixed couples − Jews and Arabs − who completed the AJIK-Kolot Banegev workshop.

Peretz did not originally enroll in the workshop as part of a search for her identity. "I have always lived in peace with my identity," she explains. "If Amir's success in reaching the top boosts the pride of members of the Sephardi community, I consider that added value." The desire to get to know "otherness" and respect it is what attracted her to the meetings with the Bedouin. Most of all, she was moved by the situation of the Bedouin women in the group, who, "in spite of being educated, successful and assertive women, vacillate between a tradition that is sometimes at odds with their worldview and their own lifestyle, and are in great need of empowerment."

"Polarization in our society spurred me to find out whether it is possible to find what differentiates and sets apart various population groups, and what the common denominators are that unite them. I wanted to see if I could contribute anything to an attempt to mediate between them."The most interesting revelation that came out of the series of encounters, she says, is that "Jews and Arabs, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, women and men, all live in a vicious circle of fear of one another. The fear of the 'other' is identical for all of them. All of a sudden, the participants discovered that the person who for years was portrayed as an enemy is actually afraid of them no less than they are afraid of him. This shared revelation and the attempt to build a bridge together helped everyone to defuse their fears."

The coordinator of the workshops, kibbutznik Sharon Leshem-Zinger, also facilitated encounters between residents of Gush Katif communities, prior to the disengagement, and members of the political left. She is planning similar meetings between other polarized groups in society.

Leshem-Zinger vividly recalls the first meeting between the Jews from Sderot and the Arabs from the Bedouin villages. She remembers how each side exchanged stories about discrimination on ethnic, gender and nationalist grounds. In ensuing sessions, each participant described an incident in which he or she caused someone else to feel discriminated against. Rukiya Marzuk Abu-Rakiyak, who facilitated the workshop, is filled with praise for the intimacy that was created among the group. She feels that each one of the participants succeeded in looking into themselves and finding the parts that are difficult to live with.

Abu-Rakiyak, born in the village of Arara, is a graduate of Bar-Ilan University and is married to a Bedouin from the Negev. She believes that these sorts of direct encounters will make it possible for Jewish-Israeli society to connect with what she calls "transparent" Arab-Israelis. She hopes that from that point, the road to a connection with Palestinian society in the territories will be a bit shorter. She explains that participants in the workshop sit in a circle because that way everyone is equal; no one can know where the connection begins and where it ends.

Motti Gigi, born in Sderot, is the director of Kolot Banegev and was Abu-Rakiyak's partner in facilitating last year's workshop. He notes that the ethnic discourse in the group pushed aside the national discourse. "The Arabs began to identify with the Sephardim and with the injustices done to them by Ashkenazi society." Through the workshop, he himself came to understand his "Arab side as an Israeli of Moroccan descent," and fell in love with the new identity. "I felt that a psychological barrier was breaking apart inside me. All of a sudden I discovered that I understand Palestinian Arabic, and not only Moroccan Arabic. All the Sephardi folks in the group realized that you can be proud of your Sephardi identity."

Al-Hajaji, the young Bedouin lawyer, says he did not come to the workshop to ask the Jews to identify with him. All he wanted was for the Jewish members of the group, most of whom were meeting an Arab up close for the first time, to begin to notice his existence. "I live here," he says, "and all I want is to be part of the solution and not part of the problem."