Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Balance Between Coexistence and Justice

Sarah Sheafer is a current Tikkun Olam volunteer from Indianapolis. As a participant on the Coexistence Track, she spends her time interning at the Windows – Channels for Communication and volunteering with children in Jaffa. 

Silence consumed the room as I stared into the eyes of three teenage girls. It wasn’t until one of them blinked did I clear my throat and continue with the next activity. Being a 22-year-old Jewish American, I feel somewhat out of place. I teach English once a week at an all Arab high school in Jaffa as a participant on the volunteer program Tikkun Olam. I don’t feel out of place because of the Arabic written all over the white board or because I don’t wear a headscarf like my students. Nor do I necessarily feel out of place because I “look” different. I feel out of place because they know I’m Jewish.

As I now reflect on that day, I remember the anxious feeling that spread throughout my body when one of my students asked me in the middle of our lesson, “Are you Christian?” I had paused for a second before answering “no.” She then asked me, “Are you Jewish?” For some reason, I experienced a mixture of reluctance and guilt when I told them “yes.” I was shocked she would ask me this the first day of class, but I also expected it coming from a girl who cannot escape the religious tension surrounding her life.

Later that day, I went on a run along the coast. Usually when I run alone, I tune out the world around me by listening to music. But this time, I decided to open myself up to the many sounds of Jaffa. As I ran farther south, I began to hear more Arabic and less Hebrew. The tidbits of conversations I heard were both foreign and familiar. When I listened to people speaking in Arabic, sometimes I would recognize a word or two. After having studied a little of both Arabic and Hebrew, I knew they were similar languages, but the words I recognized weren’t just “similar” words; they were Hebrew words spoken by Palestinians to other Palestinians. For the first time, I intensely observed the people around me as I tried to remember all that I had witnessed since coming here. Experiences that had just been “experiences,” suddenly became much more than a mere moment of happiness, sadness or bewilderment. They became living and breathing insights into life in Israel and the conflict that plagues this region.
Sarah's view on her run in Jaffa

Hearing Palestinians use Hebrew words in their daily speech should have made me feel happy, and maybe at the very least, indifferent. In Jaffa, Jews, Christians and Muslims coexist, and it’s not uncommon for Palestinians here to speak fluently in Hebrew. But something felt wrong. I began to reflect on everything I had observed since being here. At the same time, I analyzed the meaning of the word “coexistence.” In Jaffa, I shouldn’t feel uncomfortable being Jewish because it is known as a place of coexistence, but I can’t help but feel like I am intruding. The degree to which tension fills even a city like Jaffa makes me wonder the authenticity of this “coexistence.” Beneath the exterior of this forced relationship - Jews, Muslims and Christians - there are many narratives unable to penetrate the surface. While Jaffa may appear relatively peaceful, I found myself asking: “How can there be true peace when there is no justice?”

I ask myself this question every day during my time interning at the non-profit organization Windows – Channels for Communication. When I first visited its office, I remember glancing upon a white board with words connected to the organization’s name. One of the words stood out: anti-normalization. The process of normalization occurs when certain ideas and actions become “natural” in everyday life, regardless if they are just or unjust. Critics against normalization sometimes call it the “colonization of the mind,” referring to the process by which an oppressed subject comes to believe their situation is “normal” reality and accepts the status quo. Windows is a unique peace organization because it recognizes the danger of a creeping normalcy. Instead, it realizes the need to promote not only coexistence, but also justice.

The organization empowers Palestinian and Israeli youth to openly speak about their
beliefs regarding discrimination and the violation of human rights. The participants engage in discussions and workshops, exploring various narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As part of the program, the youth produce a magazine in Arabic and Hebrew. Because of my experience with design and journalism, I am the intern in charge of the magazine’s layout. Last week, I transcribed an interview in order to write an article about one of Windows’ graduates.

The interviewee’s story left an impression on me. The young Jewish Israeli talked about the moment when she realized her life was built on the missed opportunities of others. When she was 10 years old, her mother took her to Atarim Square in Tel Aviv, pointing to the bustling place and told her, “This used to be a Muslim cemetery.” From that moment on, she struggled to cope with the reality around her. It is her desire to change this reality by addressing the Israeli education system and tackling the language barrier. While Jewish Israelis study Arabic in school, they do not study it to the extent they focus on English. Some school graduates are barely able to muster words like shukran (thank you). For those who remember the language, many never speak it to their Palestinian neighbors. There are two official languages in Israel, but one is pushed to the side.

In addition to interning at Windows and volunteering at an Arab high school, I teach English at a mixed middle school in Jaffa. During our orientation, the volunteer coordinator told us that some of the Palestinian children have better Hebrew than Arabic because all of their classes are taught in the former. Some of their parents intentionally placed them in this school because they realized a strong grasp of Hebrew is necessary to succeed in Israel. If both Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages of Israel, one shouldn’t be considered secondary.

I’ve also noticed language serve as a barrier when I volunteer at Shahaf, a center where kindergarteners from all over Jaffa come and learn about the environment. Many of the kindergarteners speak only Arabic, and I find myself struggling to communicate with them. I’ve made an effort to learn a few words in Arabic, but I can’t help notice that some of the Hebrew-speaking staff members refrain from even trying to communicate and only speak in Hebrew to the confused children. If Israelis work with the Arabic-speaking community, why don’t they make more of an effort to learn the language?

I’ve only lived in Jaffa for two months, but I’ve already observed the intricacies of the issues present in Israel. I decided to volunteer on Tikkun Olam’s Coexistence Track because I thought “coexistence” meant peace. As I learn that there’s more to peace than just an absence of people shooting at one another, I’m starting to notice the need for more open dialogue and the promotion of justice. My participation in Tikkun Olam has opened my eyes to a necessary shift in social perceptions and attitudes about the conflict. We should not only be focusing on coexistence; we should be struggling for a just peace.

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