Seeds of Peace, or Just a Film Career?

After an almost sleepless night of editing short films, 25 Jewish and Arab Israeli youth gathered in the makeshift screening room at Ramat Hashofet to view the fruit of their combined labor. Keren Gagati, 17, of Nofit and Ala'a Khalifa, 17, of Nazareth, appear on screen.

Gagati describes how her grandmother was imprisoned in Lebanon on her way to Israel and Ala'a tells the story of his grandfather, detained in Israel while attempting to visit relatives in Lebanon. The two teenagers voice no extraordinary hope of solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In fact, their dialogue is at first hesitant.

The screening of the three- to four-minute shorts was the culmination of a three-day seminar that followed a year of meetings. Activities, like a trip to film the Arab neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas in Haifa helped forge collaborative relationships between the Jewish and Arab participants.

The project, spearheaded by the Education Ministry's Communications and Film Education Department in conjunction with the Haifa Cinematheque, is set to expand in the coming school year and will include students in grades 10-12 from 20 high schools, half of them Jewish and half of them Arab. Students will attend 20 weekly classes, taught by two Jewish and Arab communications and film teachers.

Significant characters

At the Ramat Hashofet seminar, students were asked to create films about significant characters in their lives. Keren chose her grandmother, who was born in Syria and detained in Lebanon, when she tried to immigrate to Israel. Ala'a decided to tell the story of his grandfather, who, unlike the rest of his family, remained in Nazareth after Israel's War of Independence in 1948. "When he tried to visit them after a year or two, he was arrested at the border," Ala'a explains.

The process of editing the films together exposed each of the participants to the personal stories of their fellow group members. They were forced to face one another, "like playing ping-pong," Keren observes. "Before we went into the editing room, I wanted my part in the film to be in Arabic, with Hebrew subtitles. That was important to me. I wanted to emphasize the fact that there were also Arabs here." The group ultimately decided to limit the language to Hebrew. "It came out better that way," Ala'a says.

Many projects

"There are many Arab-Jewish projects, but most of them involve fleeting dialogue," says Ivana Ratner, who coordinates the Education Ministry's communications division in the Northern District. "We are trying to do something different. Next year, Keren will visit Ala'a and he will visit her grandmother. This is not an attempt to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, but it is an attempt to legitimize personal stories on both sides that do have a national element. I know that sounds naive and that the surrounding reality is difficult and it never appears to be the right time, but how long can we ignore the history of people who live here? You can't change the entire reality, but teaching communications and film at least gives us the power to try to effect change."

The group at Ramat Hashofet included six Palestinian students, who participated in a similar project last summer in Canada. H., 17, of Ramallah, refused to be moved by the films that placed a greater focus on Jewish-Israeli history. " You can't just present one perspective. There has to be greater balance," she says. Teachers promised that balance would be maintained next year. "Now everything's just fine for the Israeli students. But next time we will meet on both sides of the roadblock," added one Palestinian student.