"We don't care about politics; we just like each other," says Shira Ben Yaakov, a cheerful brunette who is an eighth-grade student at Tel Aviv's A.D. Gordon Junior High School.
Ben Yaakov is referring to Israeli-Arab friends she has met through the Peace Child Israel drama group, which meets weekly, alternating between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. The group consists of 20 Arab and Jewish teens from Jaffa and Tel Aviv, proof that friendship between Jews and Arabs can exist, even in post-Intifada Israel.
"Even though Arabs live close to me, I have never had the chance to get to know them. I have always been afraid of Arabs as a group and now I know this fear has been unjustified," Ben Yaakov says.
Maya Smolian, another member of the group, says she was "thrilled" to meet Arab kids her age. Having the opportunity to perform together is just another incentive to be a part of the group.
Peace Child Israel was founded in 1988 by the late Israeli actress Yael Drouyanoff and uses theater and other art forms to encourage dialogue between teens who might otherwise never meet. So far, seven groups have been formed, pairing Jewish and Arab towns throughout Israel, among them Misgav-Sakhnin, Raanana-Qalanswa, and East and West Jerusalem.
In January, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa group toured the United States, visiting Philadelphia and communities throughout New Jersey. Their hosts were Jewish families in each of the cities, as well as students from Changing Our World (COW), a teen drama and arts group with similar methods and objectives. Students from the two countries bonded quickly.
Deb Chamberlin, a singer, songwriter and co-director of COW, initiated the venture. She contacted Peace Child after two visits to Israel, where she was touched by the country and its people.
"I looked to cooperate with a group similar to my own. Once I heard about Peace Child, I knew this was the group I was looking for," she says. "When I returned to the States, I looked to share my feelings with other people, [to] let them know what Israel is all about."
Chamberlin wrote Peace Child's new anthem "The Time Has Come for Peace," which the group sang on a Philadelphia television morning show and then subsequently recorded with help from some local singers.
"We made a beautiful CD and now wish to promote this anthem as a song for global tolerance and peace," Chamberlin says.
The group's original musical, "On the Other Side," was also adapted for American audiences and has been performed in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The play is inspired by the students' personal experiences in their native Israel and addresses the sensitive issue of Israel's security fence from the teens' point of view. The two groups found they share many of the same challenges in overcoming barriers between cultures.
"The COW group brings together students from different backgrounds," Chamberlin explains. "Our group consists of Latin, Afro-American and Jewish students; they study in a public school of 3,000 students, most of whom are white Christian Americans. Before meeting with Peace Child, the students would usually socialize with their 'own kind.' When they witnessed the beautiful friendships that exist between the Jewish and Arab members of Peace Child, they realized what they were missing. As a matter of fact, many stereotypes were broken on that tour."
"During one of our workshops, Hiba Salila an Arab student, admitted that before coming on the tour, she was convinced the Americans would prefer the Jewish students to the Arab ones," Chamberlain says. "It surprised her when they didn't. Another Jewish student says COW students form a bridge between Arab and Jewish students with their love for us."
Language was not a barrier. "Though the Jewish kids had better English, the Arab students compensated with their Spanish, so they could all communicate," Chamberlin says. "On the bus from Washington to northern New Jersey, the students cried because it was their last journey together. We promised to keep in touch and start making arrangements for our visit to Israel. The hosting families intend to help me found 'The American Friends of Peace Child'. Knowing there are more people willing to work for the success of this project was quite a relief for me. I delivered this baby but now a whole new future awaits it."
The 10-day tour culminated at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, where groups of American teens joined Peace Child along with an appreciative audience of 500.
"People were deeply touched by the show," says Melisse Lewine-Boskowich, director of Peace Child, who noted that North Star, an African American teen group, and Intellectual Journey, a band of Jewish and Arab musicians working in the U.S., joined them on stage. "The tour opened many ... opportunities for us and now the sky's our limit."
Sima Borkovski is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem.