Building bridges between Jewish and Arabic children

Tel Aviv Israel

Fredrik Söderling

The Tel Aviv Museum of Art brings together Jewish and Arabic children who live in a society characterised by antagonistic segregation. SPANA! has visited the Museum and reports on an impressive educational programme to bridge fear, hate and prejudice – and which could definitely be used in Sweden.

The Jewish and Arab children are paired off with each other. Their name tags show their names in Hebrew and Arabic. The first activity consists of each couple helping each other to make shadow images with their hands on an illuminated wall. A horse head, the wings of a bird, a flower. 

This activity is part of The Art Road to Peace project, a multifaceted program at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. This major museum, with its numerous galleries and a large collection of modern art, is comparable to Moderna museet in Stockholm. The objective of The Art Road to Peace is to bring Arabs and Jews together through art.  It targets kids all over Israel from kindergarten up to secondary school level.
On the day of our visit, two middle school classes from the city of Nazareth in northern Israel are here together, one Arab and one Jewish. Jews and Arabs live in separate parts of Nazareth, as in most other Israeli cities. The two ethnic groups rarely meet – due to the political situation and the antagonism between them.  
   In part two of the workshop, the children cover their photographed shadow figures with transparent plastic sheets and cut out the contours.  The Jewish and Arab students only know a few words in each other’s language and have to communicate with gestures. It turns out that this is an intentional strategy by the Museum.
Fredrik Söderling
The trio in charge of the art project, Orit Vassoly, Adi Katz Shapira, and Eran Barnahum.

“They don’t need to talk to each other. Instead, they use their hands, colours and shapes to get to know one another. That’s the core of this project, that the spoken word is not necessary, but the language of art is all the more important, and cooperation is the key,” says Adi Katz Shapita, head of the Museum’s educational department.

Educational skills
The Museum’s task is not an easy one. It requires both a highly skilled educational staff and a developed network. An unexpected military operation or a political incident in Israel can spark a situation that causes escalating counter-actions and sudden outbursts of hatred. It is feelings such as these that The Art Road to Peace is doing what it can to offset.

“Remember that we are living in a conflict-ridden country with a complex geopolitical situation and constant tensions. We’re working in the midst of it. Urgent problems need to be solved daily, for instance if the kids don’t want to come her any more, because of something that happened. We contact the teacher, the parents and the children themselves. Nearly always the kids come back. Nowadays, temporary conflicts hardly ever stop our activities.”
The children visit the museum around once a month during a term or school year. But preparations are needed. The Museum usually offers its workshops via the school, where the class teacher is the vital link to the kids. The teachers also take part actively in the museum visits, they don’t just go off for coffee while their students are engaged in the workshops. Jaida Zoabi from A New Way (one of many organisations in Israel working to promote opportunities for Arab and Jewish children to grow up as friends) says that before meeting for the workshop, the Jewish and Arab children have sessions in their own classrooms where they express their feelings and expectations. Fear is sometimes one of them.

“On their first visit to us at the beginning of the school year, when the kids don’t know each other, they have all sorts of prejudices. ‘He’s a Jew, I don’t want to sit next to him. She's an Arab, I can’t look her in the eye’,” says Adi Katz, and continues: “So above all, our educators must have a very good knowledge of group dynamics. We had a group here from Lod, north of Tel Aviv, and in the workshop one of the Arab kids made a print of the Hamas flag on a t-shirt. Obviously he was winding the other kids up, and a few Jewish kids were provoked.”

Instead of telling the troublemaker to remove the flag, the educator started a discussion about freedom of speech and other democratic values. The differences of opinion temporarily simmered down.

Lowering their guard
The children visiting the museum today have been here several times before. With each visit, they have lowered their guard a little bit more, and now they are joking and talking to each other with the help of the interpreter who is always at hand. The museum teacher hands out cloth wads that are used to spread paint onto the cut out motifs. When The Art Road to Peace sessions is coming to an end, parents arrive at the Museum to see what their children have been doing during the term. The adults are often more prejudiced and less flexible than their kids. Some do not see the point of this activity. Does that mean that they would prefer the school not to take its pupils to the Museum?

“No, on the contrary, actually. Our initiative was welcomed. The parents come here and discover to their amazement that the kids have made contact with each other, and that the hate is gone from their eyes. When the parents see this, it sometimes leads to rather emotional scenes, and that demonstrates to us that we’re on the right track. Through their children, the mothers quite often start meeting on their own and doing things together,” says Orit Vassoly, who is in charge of the practical aspects of the art project at the Museum.
Fredrik Söderling
One of the participants cutting out a hand shadow motif.

The children in the workshop proudly display their finished “prints”. The colourful plastic sheets are dampened with wet paper and then rolled through a printing press. Later the same day, they will look at art in one of the galleries, also on the theme of cooperating on practical exercises.
Six years ago, 350 children took part in The Art Road to Peace. This year, numbers are up to 2,000, which is the maximum the Museum can handle. Despite the success, Adi Katz Shapira has no illusions about brokering peace in the Middle East.
“We never talk politics with the kids. Full stop. Instead, our ambition is that they can leave the outside world for a few hours at the Museum, to take a break from the ongoing conflict.” 

Discovering similarities
The Museum educators feel rewarded when they notice how the children gradually discover their similarities where they previously saw only differences. That Arab boy loves football, just like me, that Jewish girl also likes ice cream. After the Museum sessions, some become friends on Facebook. Art has served as a forum for human development.

“The children slowly realise that there is a human being behind the stigma. From having been totally biased, at the end of the year they are sitting together and laughing.” Says Orit Vassoly.
Similar social projects through art are organised by the municipal museum in Haifa, and at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Adi Katz Shapira is not averse to the idea of using the model in other parts of the world with ethnic conflicts. “All countries have their minorities, they don’t share the same language, but they might be able to communicate in other ways. In countries such as Sweden, where the arts are being squeezed out of the curriculum, the museums have the potential to fill the gap left by the schools,” says the head of education.
 In addition to NGOs, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art also cooperates with municipal governments and Israel’s Ministry of Education, which offer advice, not funding. Financially, the Arab-Jewish programme gets sponsorship from Germany (Tel Aviv Museum of Art in Germany). The programme has been running for 15 years, and around 30 Museum staff are engaged in The Art Road to Peace.

Fredrik Söderling
freelance journalist

Latest update: 14 Dec 2016 14:27 Print