Post 4: Project Harmony by Sonia Black

To learn about the background to this blog post and read other blogs from Sonia, please click on the link above.

Salaam Shalom are supporting Sonia Black, a British student, to volunteer with Project Harmony in Israel this summer (2015).

Blog post 4:

After a few weeks living in Jerusalem, I had grown more accustomed to hearing opinions and remarks which would have once upset or offended me. Though I was never expecting a round of applause, I was initially uncomfortable with the criticism I received from strangers when they asked me what I was doing in Israel. Now, I had learned to expect it. If anything, I had grown tired of defending the merits of coexistence to people I did not know. Instead I would provide a vague response to their questions; telling them simply that I worked in an English camp in Jerusalem – hoping for the sake of my sanity that they would choose not to pry for further details.

Writing it now, it is not a reaction of which I am particularly proud. When I arrived in Jerusalem I shared details of my work with confidence and self-assurance. I believe in what I am doing and so it did not phase me if others did not. Perhaps, I thought, just speaking to somebody who can see first-hand the benefits of an integrated programme for Palestinians and Jews will cause them to reconsider their opposition. But, after three and a half weeks, I was exhausted. I was exhausted of being told that Jews and Muslims cannot or should not live and learn together. I was exhausted of being told dismissively, “I just don’t agree with it” along with a refusal to discuss the matter further.

Although I had been sceptical of the insulated environment which Project Harmony provides and its wider impact on Israeli society, I have been finding it increasingly difficult to be part of the “real world” on my days and evenings off work. While the criticism I have received throughout my time in Jerusalem has not shaken my belief in providing children opportunities to coexist, it can be an isolating experience. It can make you feel as though it is easier to bite your tongue and be told – yet again – about the “problem with Arabs” than to subject yourself to yet another argument. It can make you feel that the job you are doing is just a small drop of positivity in an ocean of hatred and prejudice.

Jerusalem can be an overwhelming place to live. The conflict that exists in the city is complex and multifaceted. It is felt not only between Palestinians and Jews, but among the respective groups. Its proximity to the West Bank, the growing size and number of settlements as well as what seem like continuous disputes over access to religious sites create a lingering sense of tension. So this week, my friends and I noted our surprise that the municipality had hung the rainbow flag throughout the city centre in preparation for the Gay Pride Parade. Jerusalem is such a conservative city, we said, isn’t it great that they are having a public celebration of LGBTQ rights?

Living in a city as conflicted as Jerusalem, the Pride Parade felt like an opportunity to reset the clock. To celebrate equality, love and community, and to shake off the negativity I had allowed to cloud my mind of late. But six people were stabbed at the rally that day. Six people who were targeted for no reason other than they had chosen to celebrate equality. Then, just hours later, 18-month-old Ali Saad Dawabsheh was murdered in an arson attack in the West Bank.

In Jerusalem, the response to both attacks was one of grief and defiance. Israelis with whom I spoke were quick to shun both assailants from the ‘real’ Israeli society. The attackers were disowned and their beliefs rejected. I was heartened to see so many people speaking out about the atrocities that were committed. But, to consider the attackers as somehow divorced from Israeli society would be false. They are a product of their society; acting in the name of religion, blood and soil.

I don’t attempt to equate the criticism I have received throughout my time here to the stabbings at the LGBTQ Parade of the murder of the Palestinian baby. What I attempt to illustrate is that the resentment to which I have been subjected – for something as “radical” as facilitating friendships between children of differing ethnicities – is another symptom of the same problem. It is a symptom of widespread intolerance to the ‘Other’. Though it can be painful, recognising that hatred and anger is thriving within parts of Israeli is necessarily in order to stop its spread. While their actions may be incomprehensible to most, a failure to acknowledge that such extremism is indeed a part of Israel is as good as committing to see it happen again.

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