I never thought I could be friends with my enemy. I never thought I would be able to sit at the same table with someone so different from me and carry on a conversation. I was frightened to open up and let out the feelings I’d been taught to hide to avoid being singled out for retaliation. It was like a mouse becoming a cat’s best friend. Absurd.
Growing up in an environment where I was taught my entire life that the Israeli government had taken my family’s land, which had happened during the occupation in 1948, I had created this perception that all Israelis are my enemies. They had pilfered what was mine, thus, they are all horrible people. I live in a country where there is an occupier and an occupant, in a society that had built these ideas in my mind that the other side is my enemy. Being the ‘underdog’ of the society, I had built barriers I had thought would keep me safe from mixing with the so-called ‘enemy’.
These thoughts began to change after I got the chance to know the other side. It started when I was invited to join a club called Tachles-a commonly used slang word that in both Arabic and Hebrew is used when you are referring straight to the point. Tachles first started as an art center for Palestinian and Israeli youth based in my hometown, Haifa. Haifa is one of the few ethnically diverse cities in Israel where large populations of both Arabs and Jews live together, at least in theory. Unfortunately, these two populations are almost entirely segregated, especially amongst the younger generation. My friend, who was sixteen years old at the time, had founded the club with the goal to establish a platform for urban youth to share skills and knowledge, and to challenge the prevalent segregation by offering, as an alternative, a space of cohabitation. We used art as one medium through which we could have stimulating, engaging dialogue while fostering a community of caring, creative and thoughtful young people.
It was a club consisting of 10 young people. Currently, there are 80 young people coming weekly to the club’s activities and the demand is only growing. We have weekly meetings with Arab and Jewish youth. We do activities together, talk about current events, or just have fun playing games. We have Arabic and Hebrew speakers and bilingual speakers in order to help with translating, that way language isn’t a barrier anymore. It was very important to start this club at a young age because a solid opinion of others hadn’t yet been formed. It’s like a plant. If you plant a tree in a small jar and let it grow big, it’s going to be hard to take it out. But if you try taking it out when it’s still a sprout, most likely, you will be able to do so without causing any damage or having any difficulties.
As an Arab, I harbored many stereotypes against Jews. However, when I went to Tachles, something changed. I realized there wasn’t much difference between us. We watched the same shows. We listened to the same music. We had many mutual interests. The members of the club became good friends and realized that as a diverse group, we can make a difference. Then I thought how ignorant we are because we fear to interact with others who are unlike us. I attribute this to a lack of communication between people, which is the main cause for most conflicts.
The reason many of us have stereotypes about certain groups is because we generalize and create stereotypes about that which we are afraid to encounter.
Now, four years after I joined this club, I lead the next generation of teens on the same path that I have traveled. I am a peace activist; I promote peace and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. I have learned not to judge a whole group by the actions of a few, as well as seeing the impact that a few people can make. Said Margaret Mead, “Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.” I want to be the change.
Written by Nancy Mkaabal
Illustrated by Bethany Burgoyne