I recently got back from the ancient land of Israel/ Palestine, where diverse peoples claim the same tiny slice of our planet and have been unable to resolve their conflict to this day. While politicians fail to find solutions year after year, ordinary Jews and Arabs generally live separate lives and fear one another, even when they live close together. While some believe these two groups cannot coexist peacefully, a brief glance at history shows otherwise. Jews were an integral part of Muslim societies across the Middle East and Northern Africa for centuries, and for most of that time the two lived in peace as neighbors; much more so, in fact, than either group experienced with Christian Europeans. Over half of the Jews in Israel today are descendants of these communities and it was sometimes impossible for me to distinguish between them and Arabs, as they share both physical characteristics and cultural heritage. While the current political climate does not bode well for a resolution of the conflict in the near future, many ordinary people are organizing grassroots initiatives to end the cycle of violence, hate and fear.
Taking inspiration from such initiatives, I partnered with fellow US-based artist and educator Max Frieder and his Artolution initiative to facilitate a series of community-based mural projects with Arab and Jewish young people, many of whom had few opportunities to interact. With support from the US embassy and consulate, we visited communities across Israel and the West Bank to meet people and learn about this fascinating but complex region. We collaborated with local organizations and schools to lead workshops with youth in which we would explore issues important to their lives and the value of bringing together diverse peoples. The students were introduced to the murals of other young people around the world who had participated in similar projects, which was an inspiration to them. Excited, they came up with dozens of ideas for their own mural. As a collective group of Jews and Arabs, they worked together to organize all their ideas into one cohesive mural design, and then painted it as a team.
One of the groups came up with the image of a boat floating on a sea. Out of the boat grew a tree with branches that became human figures. They wanted to send a message that despite their differences they all had the same roots, and that they were all on the same boat together. Another mural in Jerusalem told a story of the journey from disunity and conflict to peaceful coexistence, reflecting their desire to make this journey a reality in their region. While these values may sound obvious to outsiders, it is highly controversial in the Middle East. The school where we worked in Jerusalem, Hand in Hand, is the rare example of an institution where both Arabs and Jews study together. It recently suffered a vicious arson attack carried out by Jewish extremists, illustrating how intensely some elements in society oppose coexistence. The mural we created there was then installed on the outside area of the US Consulate, where people of all backgrounds must wait together in long lines together when applying for visas.
As we worked together, I was struck more by what united our two groups than what separated them. They were both teenagers after all, laughing nervously when around the opposite sex, singing along to the same pop songs and, at the end of one day of painting, they all broke out into a spontaneous dance party, with everyone dancing together to songs in Arabic and Hebrew. Of course, at the end of the project they would each return to their communities and things would not be so simple. After all, it is not easy to forgive when loved ones have been killed by members of the other side or a family’s ancestral home has been taken. But we hope that through many projects that bring the two communities together, there will slowly be an opening up, an understanding of the other’s perspective even if there is not agreement. I felt hopeful listening to many of our students’ words after these interactions; they noted that they had always been taught to fear the other, but that now they had made new friends and had a new perspective. Our goal going forward is to train local Israeli and Palestinian artists and educators to continue these public arts-based projects in order to bring new generations of youth together for dialogue, cooperation and friendship.