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Jewish Journal

Requiem for a Dream?

Will organizations promoting Jewish-Arab coexistence buckle under Mideast pressure?


by Michael Aushenker

May 17, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Seeds of Peace participants Adham Rishmawi, left, and Aviv Liron, right, stand with former U.S. Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross during a recent event at the home of Stanley Sheinbaum.  Photo by Sidney Friedman

Seeds of Peace participants Adham Rishmawi, left, and Aviv Liron, right, stand with former U.S. Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross during a recent event at the home of Stanley Sheinbaum. Photo by Sidney Friedman

Deanna Armbruster doesn't pull any punches.

The Los Angeles-based executive director of a Jewish-arab cooperative village in Israel is used to promoting an often-controversial cause, but these days her job has become even tougher. "We have been greatly impacted, obviously," she said the Los Angeles-based executive director of American Friends of Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam. Neve Shalom, midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, has served as an ethnic-relations experiment for nearly two decades.

About 300 Jewish and Palestinian children attend the village's School of Peace each year. The intent, of course, is part of a long-term investment to improve frayed cultural ties between both communities.

So it was dismaying for Armbruster last fall when, during a visit with the residents of Neve Shalom, she learned that violence had broken out between Jews and Palestinians just beyond what in English translates as "oasis of peace."

"It was extremely stressful," she recalled. "People were up all night watching their television sets. The mood was somber."

The idealistic promise symbolized by this model village seemed to be collapsing all around them, reverting to bloody conflict.

What Armbruster wouldn't realize until her return to Los Angeles was how uphill the effort to keep American Jews committed to her cause would become. As her organization and other nonprofit enterprises devoted to Israeli-Palestinian coexistence have discovered, the latest intifada in Israel has had a ripple effect on the morale and fundraising efforts of American organizations that support lofty mission statements of unity and peace. Neve Shalom's L.A. headquarters, for example, was forced to drop plans for both its biannual fundraising events.

"In the past, we have had events bringing two sides together," said Myer Sankary, director of Neve Shalom's national board and chairman of the L.A. chapter. "We're not doing any public events; the emotions are too raw. We're going to foundations and individuals, but right now it's getting hard to get individuals to get up and take the heat."

"There's been concern over the village and the school" among L.A. benefactors, Armbruster added. "Either friends have stood by and continued to support us more avidly than before, or they have stepped back and said that they need more time to understand the situation."

American Friends of Neve Shalom is not the only group reeling from the situation in Israel. Others have also been feeling the pinch of skittish donors or have had to redirect their efforts as they adjust to the deteriorating situation overseas.

Melisse Lewine-Boskovich, who with her Palestinian counterpart, Rula Hamdan, directs Peace Child Israel in Tel Aviv, recently made a stop at Santa Monica's 18th Street Arts Complex to talk about her program. While the work that Peace Child does -- uniting Israeli and Palestinian 10th-graders in a yearlong, performing-arts-based cultural exchange -- was inspiring, attendance at Boskovich's West Coast appearance was underwhelming, drawing fewer than 10 people, including restless kids and a few adults who nodded off during the presentation.

"People are incredibly depressed," said Boskovich, speaking of the mood back in Israel. "I don't call it a setback. It's an awakening."

Evidently, that mood has dampened the fundraising spirit. Boskovich commented that four of Peace Child Israel's 10 workshops closed this year, due to a lack of funding.

L.A. resident Judith Jenya founded and runs the Global Children's Organization (GLO), which provides cross-community summer programs for children from conflict-torn environments. Since 1992, nearly 2,000 children have taken part in her camps, which include Protestant/Catholic programs throughout Ireland and a camp at a Bosnian/Croatian site. A day before she was due to fly to Bosnia to oversee the latter project (now in its ninth year), Jenya discussed with the Journal her organization's one aborted mission. Originally slated for last November, "Children of the Red Sea" was supposed to have brought Israeli and Palestinian youth together. Unfortunately, parents from both communities made creation of the camp a logistical nightmare.

"It became very, very hard to get people to cooperate, from all sides. People were incredibly frightened about crossing a border," said Jenya, 60. As a Jew and a Holocaust survivor's daughter, she felt this disappointment very deeply.

"There's definitely been a breakdown of communication" between Arabs and Jews, reported Jordan Elgrably, who, with Munir Shaikh, co-directs Open Tent, a local Arab-Jewish cultural coalition. For a decade now, the part-Moroccan, part-Jewish Elgrably has been on the forefront of working to remedy stilted relations between members of what he has tagged as "a dysfunctional family." In fact, Open Tent will hold its latest forum at UCLA this weekend (see information on page 46), when progressive Jewish and Palestinian speakers will engage on panels discussing issues affecting both communities.

Elgrably believes that the need for forums such as Open Tent and the recent JUNITY conference in Chicago is more crucial than ever. As he sees it, the deterioration of ties between Arabs and Jews will continue as long as both sides avoid doing the real social interaction required -- especially mainstream American Jews, who, he said, continue to view Israel as an underdog rather than an oppressor. From his experience, most Palestinians have made peace with the idea of a Jewish state.

"They're not thinking we're going to destroy Israel one day," Elgrably said. "They just want to have their homeland and move on."

Sankary echoed Elgrably's sentiments regarding what he calls a ham-fisted Sharon administration and post-Oslo failures. But politics, he observed, are almost irrelevant.

"What about the people who have to live there?" he asked. "How would you feel living there? Have we done everything possible? Are we going to blame the Arabs for this situation, or are we going to do something about it?"

Some organizations supporting coexistence programs nevertheless maintain that recent violence has not dampened fundraising efforts.

The Shefa Fund, a national Jewish progressive grant-allocating foundation that invests in institutions such as the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development in Israel, will embark on creating a local presence beginning June 1. Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, who directs the Shefa Fund out of its Philadelphia national offices, told the Journal, "We really haven't had much of an impact. They were contributing before, and they're giving now. Our particular experience is that there continues to be a solid commitment toward efforts for peace and building bridges between Palestinians and Israel."

Liebling noted that his nonprofit group raised $80,000 to publicize its Olive Trees for Peace campaign and recently ran a full-page advertisement in The New York Times calling for Israel to end its West Bank occupation and for Palestinians to stop the violence. Liebling emphasized the importance of continuing to reach out to Palestinians and said he hopes to see Shefa's effort to replant trees destroyed in Palestinian villages by Israeli tanks culminate next Tu B'Shevat with a formal West Bank ceremony.

Regional Director David Moses of Los Angeles' New Israel Fund (NIF) chapter confirmed that, regarding funds at his organization, "some were reallocated internally, some externally, but we've had no decrease in contributions." The mission of the group, a grant-making entity, is to promote pluralism and equal rights in Israel.

Then there was last month's successful gathering at Stanley Sheinbaum's Brentwood home, which attracted a nexus of high-profile people, including American Jewish Committee National President Bruce Ramer and OLAM's David Suissa. Ostensibly, the draw at this private reception was Oslo accords negotiator Dennis Ross. Yet it was the pair of Israeli teenagers who followed, speaking in broken English, who made the biggest impact. Aviv Liron and Adham Rishmawi, both 18 and citizens of Israel, were on hand as ambassadors of Seeds of Peace, a neutral, apolitical program that each year brings 400 Israeli and Palestinian teenagers to an Otisfield, Maine, summer camp in an effort to put historical baggage aside and encourage social bonding.

Both Rishmawi, an Arab, and Liron, a Jew, held their audience spellbound with personal accounts of discrimination and suffering in Israel and testimony of the constructive work being done at Seeds. The teenagers' impassioned endorsement apparently resonated with listeners. According to project coordinator Michael Wallach, Seeds of Peace has been able to sustain its annual $2 million budget, despite the events of the past few months, thanks to continued enthusiastic support from individual donors and small foundations. (Next week's Circuit column will have more details on this event.)

If anything, say organizers, the events that have unfolded in the Middle East since Sept. 29 have added a deeper layer of meaning to causes bent on Jewish-Arab unity.

"We believe that coexistence is inevitable, and the sooner these issues are dealt with, the sooner these conditions will dissipate," Moses said.

And key to bringing about the dissipation will be education and awareness.

"The attitude, from our perspective, [is that] there is more demand than ever before for coexistence programs," Sankary said. "The hostilities and violence are the result of the failure to do what we've been saying -- that is, to educate both sides."

Locally, nonprofit arms of NIF, Neve Shalom, and other organizations have been countering their PR problems through a more vigorous dissemination of information and updates to prospective benefactors.

"On the one hand, we can look where we have to go. On the other hand, where we've come," said Moses of NIF, which supports such enterprises as the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (Israel's ACLU), Arab Women Leadership Training, and Lel-Khwarezmi, which assists college-bound Bedouins. "We need to continue to address these issues, to empower these people and advocate on their behalf, so they can be more productive members of Israeli society. If Arab kids have a stronger education, they are more likely to have higher education."

Those involved in promoting coexistence ventures are understandably defensive about being portrayed as naive or idealistic.

"What we do is not naive," said Wallach, the son of Seeds of Peace founder John Wallach. "My father was a reporter for 30 years. He wrote books on the Middle East. Not all of the kids that come through our program become best friends, but a good amount become very good friends. That's real. That's not fake, that's not phony."

Americans for Peace Now (APN) founder and policy director Mark Rosenblum insisted that, judging from past APN conferences between Jews and Arabs, "many relationships were forged from these dialogues. They put brakes on violence and incitement and stereotyping."

"The sad fact is that peace advocates are lumped together as post-Zionists," said Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of UCLA Hillel and no stranger to Los Angeles' progressive Jewish circles. "Coexistence is not a foreign term that comes out of the left as a critique or as a contrary force. It's the very essence of Zion and of establishing and sustaining the State of Israel."

Ultimately, those in the grass-roots trenches admit that they don't have all the answers. Yet they are confident that they are raising the right questions and promoting the right actions.

To accusations of being Pollyannaish, Sankary responds that the 20,000 kids who have passed through Neve Shalom's School for Peace over the years represent a good start in replacing the cycle of hate with a cycle of peace.

In fact, Neve Shalom supporters see plenty of reason to keep hope alive. In October, at the Neve Shalom village, something positive emerged during all of the tumult. For the first time, the community's Arab and Jewish members took a proactive stand, organizing more than 200 people to demonstrate in Tel Aviv in the name of peace. And, as if by a miracle, the village of Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam thus far has weathered the turmoil unscathed.

"Being there, it renewed my faith in the whole project," Armbruster said. "People were coming together and dialoguing. I'm not trying to present the village as some sort of utopian vision -- there was real pain and emotional conflict. But they were coming together and sharing their experiences, their fears, their worries."

"It's not easy to change people's attitudes that they've harbored for a long time," Sankary said. "It's going to take a lot of commitment from people considered idealistic."




Open Tent Middle East Coalition will host "The Israeli/Palestinian Crisis: New Conversations for a Pluralist Future" at UCLA on Sunday, May 20. The event will feature roundtables, entertainers, and, among other speakers, Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian historian and director of the University of Chicago's Center for International Studies, and former Knesset member Marcia Freedman. Americans for Peace Now, New Israel Fund, Workmen's Circle, Muslim Public Affairs Council, and UC Irvine Center for Global Conflict are among the co-sponsors. For more information, call (323) 650-3157 or visit www.opentent.org.

The Los Angeles Chapter of New Israel Fund's New Generations Young Adult Group will be hosting "Empowerment From Within: Building the Bedouin Community," featuring personal reflections of young Bedouin activist Amal al Sana-Alhajuj, on May 22, 7 -- 9 p.m., at the Ruth Bachofner Gallery in Bergamot Station, Santa Monica. For more information, contact Andrea Nussbaum at (310) 282-0300 or via nif@lanif.org or visit www.nif.org.

For more information on Americans for Peace Now, contact David Pine at (310) 858-3002 or visit www.peacenow.org.

For more information on American Friends of Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam, call (818) 325-8884 or go to www.nswas.com.

For more information on Peace Child Israel, write to Peace Child Israel, P.O. Box 3669, Tel Aviv, 61036; or contact New Israel Fund at (310) 282-0300.

For more information on Seeds of Peace, call (212) 573-8040 or visit www.seedsofpeace.org. Tracker Pixel for Entry

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