At a meeting in the Israeli city of Acre, Osnat Aram-Daphna and Najeeba Sirhan, two school principals, one Jewish and one Muslim, looked across a table and became friends. It was during the Second Intifada, a Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000. Both were attending a principals’ co-existence workshop, and there they discovered a shared vision: Through education and cross-cultural contact, Arabs and Jews can learn to respect one another; and respect can ultimately become acceptance, trust and even friendship. Osnat described Najeeba. “Like me, she is a doing woman, not a talking woman.”
Their paths to Acre could not have been more different.
Najeeba, the oldest of eight children, was born into a working-class family in the religiously mixed village of Kafr Yasif. Her father, a farmer, had recently returned to Israel from Lebanon. Poorly schooled, he believed in education and worked to ensure that all his children attended university. After finishing her Master’s degree at the University of Haifa, Najeeba taught for 15 years before making an unusual transition: she became a female Arab school principal at the Al Salaam school in Majd Al Kurum.
In contrast, Osnat was born in 1955 into a very liberal, and proudly Zionist, family in Tel Aviv. In the 1940s, her father was a member of the Palyam, tasked with escorting illegal Jewish immigrants from Europe to what was then the British Mandate of Palestine. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, she attended university in Tel Aviv, became a teacher, moved to the Galilee and, later, was selected as principal of the Kalanit school in Karmiel.
Osnat and Najeeba’s communities, Karmiel and Majd Al Kurum, are as different as the women’s personal histories. Only a few kilometers apart, they are separated by visible religious, cultural, economic and linguistic differences. The predominately Jewish city of Karmiel has the feel of an urban center, while Majd Al Kurum is a smaller, traditionally Arab village. The village’s historic buildings and crowded, narrow streets stand in marked contrast to the modern, planned suburban neighborhoods of Karmiel. Arabs often came to Karmiel to bank, shop or take advantage of other services not readily available at home. Before the Second Intifada, Jews could similarly be seen enjoying Arab restaurants in and around Majd Al Kurum. After the outbreak of violence, everything changed. Fewer Jews ventured into the surrounding Arab villages, and many Muslims cut short their trips into Karmiel.
In this diverse corner of Israel, Osnat and Najeeba launched what is now known simply as “the Project.” The idea was simple: by bringing together Jewish and Muslim children, some no older than 6 years old, for positive shared experiences, the framework for lasting relationships would be built. Typically, Muslim and Jewish students in Israel do not mix in educational settings until university. By that age, many students already have experienced emotional and physical encounters and heard stories that frame negative worldviews of “the other.”
Not surprisingly, there was much to be done just to lay the foundation of the Project. Many other initiatives throughout Israel had failed, and Osnat and Najeeba understood that without the support of their teaching staff, the Project would never gain traction. Initial meetings therefore included only staff, and later, local religious leaders. Even with their respective principals urging them, however, many of the educators were hesitant to participate. Osnat and Najeeba were determined. After a year of cajoling and exhorting, bonds of trust were slowly established and the educators began to plan suitable activities for the children.
Osnat and Najeeba were ready.
Next, they set about winning over the parents. Because of the Second Intifada, many parents refused to visit the other’s communities or to permit their children to become involved. After some initial successes with the children, Osnat and Najeeba planned a “market” in the Arab village, where Jewish and Arab students sold their crafts and food prepared by their parents and gave their proceeds to poor families in both communities. Karmiel’s Jewish parents agreed to participate in the event, but only if Najeeba promised full security. She unequivocally agreed.
Yet, when they arrived, there were no security guards. The parents confronted Najeeba. Standing tall, she responded, “I am the security.” Najeeba made it clear – the children of Karmiel were her children too, and she would not let anything happen to them. Though undoubtedly skeptical, the families remained, and Jewish and Muslim families began interacting in unfamiliar ways. These fragile relationships were strained by the 2006 Lebanon War and the 2008-2009 war in Gaza and southern Israel. Despite this, the foundation remains and, through continued engagement with the parents, the Project’s leaders are determined not to give up.
The Project’s activities are mostly secular, focusing on community involvement and service, though the children occasionally meet with Muslim and Jewish religious leaders. Osnat and Najeeba especially liked environmental activities, such as cleaning parks and local forests, which they viewed as a symbol of their shared ownership of the land. Together, the children also visit elderly Jews in a retirement home to provide companionship. For the youngest children, some of whom do not speak the same language, there are non-verbal, fun-filled activities, including dancing, drawing and music. As the children dance together, one sees simple smiles and pats on the back.
Underlying the Project’s activities is the premise that the children must understand their religious differences and their similarities, including their shared identity as Israeli citizens. Ignorance breeds fear, while exposure to children of different faiths and cultures helps to prevent negative stereotypes from forming and alleviates some that do exist.
Together, the children from the Kalanit and Al Salaam schools visit mosques, synagogues and churches and hear discussions about peace and coexistence. At one meeting, for example, the children learned about the similarities and differences between the Islamic festival of Eid Al Adha and the Jewish chronicle of the Akeda, two recountings of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to God. Through such sharing, the children learn that their religions share not only a common root, but common values and common themes as well.
Osnat always believed that to truly engender change, “You have to start with the children.” From her perspective, children attend school to study mathematics, science and to learn the values and actions of respect.
The Project was in its seventh year when Osnat learned that she had cancer. Forced to leave school and move to Tel Aviv for treatment, she saw the cancer as a “gift,” one that made her take time to focus on herself and her family. An optimist, she looked forward to returning to her children and the Project. It was not to be. Osnat lost her battle with cancer in August 2008.
Osnat would have been proud of her “sister” Najeeba during the fighting in Gaza in January 2009. Still crying over her best friend, Najeeba addressed over a hundred people at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. She told the story of the Project, of how it continues, and of her journey with Osnat. Najeeba shared her conviction that the children must learn to live together in peace. As Osnat once said, “that’s the most important thing.”
Joyce S. Dubensky is Executive Vice President & CEO of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding
Matthew Lucas is Project Assistant for Religion and Conflict Resolution at the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding