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Dreaming of integration, one country at a time

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The Galilee Dreamers, a group of eight Grade 11 Arab and Jewish school children from Israel, recently visited King David schools in Johannesburg. They brought with them a message of social harmony.

by RABBI CRAIG KACEV | May 02, 2019

They are out to break stereotypes and change the way we think. It is their dream to get their fellow citizens to live in harmony and, if they can achieve that, maybe share those lessons with French and English-speaking Canadians, inner city African Americans and their neighbours in the suburbs – or even ordinary South Africans – Jews, Muslims, blacks, and whites.

They spent a day at King David Linksfield and Victory Park High Schools, joining lessons and discussing co-existence in Israel. Questions led to open, flowing conversations, which allowed for the sharing of ideas and thoughts about life in Israel for all its inhabitants.

In a global world, teenagers share a lot of similarities, and within a short time, they found that they had a lot in common, breaking down barriers and prejudices and leading to laughter and friendship.

This is the Dreamers’ fourth year of existence, and the first time they have visited South Africa. The initiative is the brainchild of South African born psychiatrist, Desmond Kaplan, who emigrated to Israel from Cape Town before moving to Baltimore in the United States.

Kaplan was motivated by his own children’s experience. Each year, his children’s school would send pupils to Israel, but they would never ever meet any Arabs. One year, Kaplan went himself. He met and befriended an Arab teacher whom he invited back to the US the following year. The teacher, Mamoun Assadi, promptly offered to host a group of visiting American pupils at his village the following year.

Their experience was an epiphany for Kaplan.

“The Jewish kids came back,” he says, “and it was the highlight of their entire trip, more than a visit to the Kotel (the Western Wall) in Jerusalem, or anything else.”

From there, the seed flourished. “Israel is a world leader in so many aspects,” Kaplan says, “from cyber security to diamonds, technology, agriculture, even the movie industry, but it is not known for its co-existence.

“There’s a lack of social contact between Jewish and Arab Israelis. I never had any contact with Arab Israelis in the 12 years I lived in Israel. We want children to get new perspectives of each other, and break down stereotypes. We want to make Israel a world leader in co-existence, just as it is in so many other fields,” he says.

He and Rabbi Paul Schneider, then the principal of the Baltimore Jewish Day Schools, needed an Israeli partner with the same vision to champion the project. They chose Oranim Academic College of Education, the largest and leading institution of its kind in northern Israel, teaming up with Dr Roberta Bell-Kligler, the director of the college’s international school.

Bell-Kligler oversees the process of selecting the schools who participate in Galilee Dreamers, the pupils, the teachers, and the teachers in training who accompany them. The Dreamers started with two Jewish pupils and two Arab pupils from two schools in Galilee who went to the US. This year, four schools participated in the programme, with two contingents going out to the world; one to north America for the fourth year in a row – including Canada – and a second contingent to South Africa for the first time.

For teachers Evelyn Kadosh, a teacher from Misgav High School (which serves the Jewish population) in the Galilee, and Arafat Osman, a teacher from Al Bian High School (a private Arabic-language school), the success of the project can be measured in the response from the teachers, pupils, and invitations from outside Israel.

Competition to get on the programme is tough, says Kadosh. “We take only four out of a total of 400 students in Grade 11,” says Osman. “They have to write essays, attend selection panels, group-dynamics workshops, and participate in a series of preparatory meetings.”

Osman believes taking the pupils out of Israel is an incredibly beneficial experience for them.

“There’s so much tension in Israel,” he says, “coming to America or South Africa is more neutral, allowing the children to feel Israeli rather than Arab or Jew. This is a brave project. It’s unusual, especially at a time when people are becoming more radical.”

It’s also about exposing teachers to other worlds, and enabling them to teach Israelis, irrespective of their culture,” says Bell-Kligler. “Our vision is to break down barriers between these two very distinct cultural groups. It’s been amazing to see how principals have bought into the project.”

In fact, demand is growing each year, with schools particularly in the US, which might have been lukewarm to hostile at the prospect, now demanding to host after hearing about other schools’ experiences. The Dreamers have now been invited to add Europe to their itinerary for 2020, with a trip to Vienna already on the cards.

Often the schools the groups visit are inspired to send their pupils on reciprocal visits to the Galilee. On a recent trip to Baltimore this year, the Dreamers were so moved by the reception they received from the mostly African American pupils they interacted with and their life experiences, that they invited them to visit Galilee next year.

The Dreamers isn’t a government-funded operation, but raises the money for its outreach work at home and in the host countries’ Jewish communities. No member of the contingent is briefed on what to say when they leave Israel.

Says Dreamer Yiftach Rinat, a Grade 11 pupil at Misgav High School, “We’re showing that we can co-exist in Galilee.” It’s a sentiment Grade 11 pupil Noor Darweesh of Al Bian agrees with. “I want to reach for peace. South Africa is very similar to Israel,” Darweesh says. “There are a lot of different cultures and a lot of conflict here and in Israel. This programme can help to change this.”