In May 2009, 22 of us from Canada shared a very special visit in Jerusalem with Dalia Landau. She co-founded Open House Ramle with Bashir Al-Khayri in 1991. She continues to serve as Co-Director of Open House as it celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2011. On that day in May 2009, she described the story that she shares with Bashir, as recounted in the book, The Lemon Tree, by Sandy Tolen. In describing how her life is intertwined with Bashir’s life, I came to appreciate how Dalia has, time and again, chosen to live in the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many times, she has been presented with a choice to leave the tension, confusion, and pain of the conflict. Each time, she has chosen to continue to lean into it to try to make a difference.
On that evening with Dalia, I came to appreciate how we, EAs, have been able to develop relationships with both Palestinians and Israelis. Yet, due to the Israeli Government’s ‘security’ efforts, Israeli and Palestinian societies are separated more and more each day. You might recall how I quoted Angela Godfrey-Goldstein’s comments in December about this apartheid state: “It will change only when ordinary people understand what is going on.”
Here’s a glimpse of what Dalia and the Open House staff and volunteers are doing to help children and youth in Israel and Palestine to make informed choices with each other in mind. With the support of Open House, these young ones are growing into extraordinary people, working for social justice and peace. Click here and here
“There’s a whole generation that is growing that doesn’t know each other. Before the First Intifada [started in 1987], Israelis used to go massively to Bethlehem – it was good to know each other – going for the restaurants and the souk. Now, there’s a whole generation [of Palestinians] who doesn’t know Israelis. For them, we’re a mythology. And, the same is true for the other side.”
“Just knowing each other makes a difference. We work long term with people at Open House. We start very early [for example, at two and three years of age]. Mainly, we work with Arab Israelis; it’s more difficult to arrange for West Bank youth to participate. One individual serves as a window to a whole other world. This has been very strong in my life. How through one person with an authentic relationship, you realize: They’re like me.” [Click here.]
“It was also when I met Bashir when they knocked on the door in 1967 to see the house, their house, they were three people, from the same family. Then I went to Ramallah to visit Bashir’s family; it was just after the  war… . His family was probably asking, “Who is this person?” I could see their thoughts…. But it’s through the ‘joy in the encounter’ – then, one creates trust. Depending on the age group, you can bring up issues. Like teens, during the [Second] Intifada, they would discuss incredibly deep issues – it moves the heart – how they stuck it out. They came back every week – it was unbelievable – the courage of it. One group of Jewish Israelis, they were 18 years old, pre-army, found us on the Internet. They were doing social service (e.g., volunteering at schools to speak about ethical issues). They wrote describing, “We’re going to the army in one year yet we haven’t ever met any Arabs”. They had grown up in Jewish neighbourhoods in Tel Aviv and had had no dialogue with Arabs. They wondered, “How were they going to justify going into the army. They asked Open House if we would arrange a dialogue for them [with Arab Israeli teens.] We met with them for one year. They were very evolved human beings. It was during the [Second] Intifada. The richness of the issues they raised! Of course, the Arabs [teens] confronted them: “Why don’t you do conscientious objection?” Most of the Arab and Jewish teens agreed to disagree. Some friendships broke down. Of course, the encounter is very, very deep. If it’s compulsory service, a person has no choice. But they wanted to explain why going into the army was important [for them]. For example, “We protect all citizens including you [as Arab Israelis].” “I want to be in the IDF – the Israeli Defence Force. Without the army, Israel wouldn’t exist for a moment. So, we’re paying the price.” Click here.
“If you visit the website and then, scrolling down on the left-hand side, you will see “Highlights”, including a discussion by young adults after the “War in Gaza” – it was so deep – that type of discussion needs careful facilitation to avoid acrimonious dynamics. A discussion can make tensions worse than they were prior to the discussion. Through my life, I have learned methods for creating sacred space in the middle and appreciate how each person brings their reflection where they are in the moment – allowing silence – calling the other person by name – “What do you feel after this war” – It’s extremely important when people start to become defensive – that’s the opposite of inner listening. Developing these techniques of discussion has been part of my own journey.”
“In the Open House summer camps, the children are choosing to participate in an amazing act of courage to know ‘the other’. While parents support the activity, each child is making the choice to participate. Some grow up to become counselors in the summer camps. The first summer camp was held in 1992 with children who were 8 to 10 years old. Then we included children up to 13 years and children as young as 6 years.”
“The summer camp and teen programming have two objectives: (i) affirmative action for the Arab population (e.g., developing respect for culture and promotion of the Arabic language); and (ii) co-existence – two communities living together. Both types of programming require funds not only for staff but for materials and resources; the children are not just spending time together but also working together (e.g., creating a sculpture of sheep in a public garden in Ramle). They have created an Open House mosaic in the centre of Ramle – they used discarded materials which required breaking them down and designing a concept for the piece.”
“For older children, high-school students, “The Journey” program, they travel throughout the country and hear the narratives of all parties. It is an intense week-long experience.” Click here and here.
“We also have big events in cooperation with Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam in which we bring together young people for two or three days, twice each year, for music, dance, tents, and discussion. That programming has been supported by a Japanese Buddhist organization for over ten years. Developing and continuing funding relationships is critical. Some organizations offer three-year, seed funding; however, regular and dependable support is needed. For example, one woman in Holland has created a tax deductible venue in which four churches participate. Another example is one professor who turned to his friends at a university. They now do an annual collection at Christmas time, in support of Open House. A group at a synagogue in the US, working with local Palestinian Muslims, created a postcard project in 2010. They asked for drawings from children in the Open House nursery school and the summer camps. Those drawings were scanned and printed on postcards and cards which are sold in packages of ten cards for $20 (US). The postcard idea would be easy to adopt elsewhere because the drawings are already scanned.”
As Open House Ramle celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2011, they will be renewing the year-round co-existence programming. The summer camps have continued every year but the year-round programming stopped for a few years due to lack of funding. The hope is to undertake a joint sculpture project. Through the course of one year, children in an Arab school and children in a Jewish school will each develop a sculpture or a complex of sculptures with a professional artist who is an Orthodox-Christian Arab. At the end of the year, the children will exchange the pieces as gifts. For that year, they will be thinking of ‘the other’.
As I begin to wrap up my time as an Ecumenical Accompanier in Palestine and Israel, reflecting on these co-existence efforts of Open House is helpful for seeing the hope that persists in this place. I invite you to watch this two-minute video [Click here. A new window will open. Scroll sideways to the right – drag the bar sideways at the bottow of the browser window. Wait for the video to download – will take about 2 min.]
To visit additional resources, look for the underlined words (they’re hyperlinked) throughout this posting including three links below.
Radio documentary about The Lemon Tree by Homelands Productions
A clip about Dalia Laudau and Bashir Al-Khayri’s story in this documentary film, “Holy Land: Common Ground”
Sandy Tolen on writing the book, The Lemon Tree