On the road to tolerance
A group of 19 year-old youth who had completed a year of pre-military service working in different communities on behalf of the Tzofim (Israeli Scout Movement) decided to mark the end of their service by a trip to a number of places in Israel. The purpose of this trip was to meet various communities and discuss with them ideas of intercultural relations. They selected for this purpose to start with towns with both Jewish and Arab populations, as well as settlements across the Green Line.
The first stop of the Garin Hamidbar (“Desert Troop”) as they called themselves, was the market place of Ramla where they met people who had come from villages in the area, to make their weekly purchases as well as those from the Ramla town itself. The conversations the young people had with the townspeople and visitors concerned tolerance among people with different backgrounds. Some of them had attended the local high school where Jewish and Arab pupils learn together the scholastic subjects and how to live and work together in an atmosphere of tolerance through joint projects.
Another city with mixed population they visited was Lod where they began by meeting the community center director Fatnan Zinati who tries hard to inculcate tolerance and intercultural relations among those who visit there. The members of “Desert Troop” joined discussion groups of young people from youth movements, both Jewish and Arab. The “Desert Troop” members told the participants about bereavement suffered by members of their family or of close friends who had been the victims of conflict between communities. They stressed the need to find ways of living together in tolerance, understanding and the desire to strive for peace. The participants in these discussions spoke about negotiations to bring about solutions to guaranteeing basic human rights.
During their visit to Lod, the “Desert Troop” members met Leah Shakdiel, an Orthodox religious woman spoke about religious Zionism to promote peace as a religious precept. Leah was born in Jerusalem, but in 1978 went to live in Yeruham, a town with a population originally from North Africa. She became active in attempts to bring about improved relations between the communities resident there and others in the vicinity. Leah joined the citizens’ rights movement and is active in the women’s rights movement. She fought in the courts for the right to become the first woman to serve on the religious council in Yeruham.
The next phase of the Desert Troop’s trip was a religious settlement Karnei Shomron, in Samaria.
They met the head of the local council Yigael Lahav, and had a discussion on the necessity to inculcate in the younger generation respect for others and the need for tolerance.
The group divided up – the boys went to a Yeshiva and the girls to a midrasha (a religious seminary). Each group discussed problems in Israel regarding religious and non-religious communities, as well as the question of religion and state.
The next phase of the Desert Troop’s trip was a meeting with Moshe Zar, a religious settler in Karnei Shomron, in Samaria. He was wounded during the Sinai War (1956) and his son was killed in the attacks of marauders in 2000. Moshe expressed his radical ideas and the Desert Troop members found it difficult to cope with these extremist right wing ideas which are found among many Israelis today, and yet realized that they have to deal with them.
In the evening, Desert Troop met with young settlers with whom they discussed religion, relations with Arabs and the stigma prevalent among young Israelis about the Jews who live in these settlements. The young settlers clarified many aspects of their lives previously unknown to the members of this Troop. Despite the many disagreements voiced, both groups ended with proposals for contacts in the future to continue clarification of ideas.
A most interesting experience was the Desert Troop’s meeting with the members of Kibbutz Tamuz, an experiment in communal living in an urban environment. The members go out to work in various places in the town of Beit Shemesh, which began as an immigrant village and expanded to a full-sized town. As in the traditional kibbutz, they pool their earnings and take decisions about their way of life. They have rules for mutual aid and insist on finding ways to live according to the values of the entire group.
A most interesting experience was the Desert Troop’s meeting with Ultra-Orthodox young people in the town of Beit Shemesh, The discussion they held was on how to overcome the social and cultural gap between these youth and non-religious young people with whom they come into contact in the town. The subject touched on how unified groups such as the Ultra-Orthodox community cope with necessity to find ways to deal with the stigma the non religious persons had concerning the religious people, to bring about understanding and solidarity.
On the way home, the members of Desert Troop expressed their feeling that the meetings and encounters those days enabled them to clarify many aspects of intercultural relations in Israel and especially the road to tolerance.