When Efrata registered to participate in 2015, it was the first time a National-Religious school did so. But for its principal, Gila Sadon, it was natural. “My students,” she said, “should know Palestinian Arabs as individuals, with dreams, pain, lives like ours.”
Samah Uthman, principal of Beit Hanina Coeducational Elementary School, agreed. “My students encounter only Israeli soldiers, and they’re threatening and scary,” she said. At the museum, students get to meet their peers.” How does Ms. Uthman buck anti-normalization pressure? “It isn’t easy,” she said. “But I believe that firsthand experience alleviates some fear of Jews.”
Dr. Nava Sonnenschein, a former director of Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam’s School for Peace, questioned whether participants in people-to-people programs like The Image of Abraham generalize from the “micro”— meeting individuals — to the “macro” of dismantling stereotypes. “If you don’t directly address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” she said, “even with children, you can’t inspire meaningful change.”
For me, a person-to-person experience did spark a far-reaching shift. I’m a religiously observant American-Israeli Jewish woman. One of my closest friends, Ibtisam Erekat, is a Palestinian Muslim woman who lives on the other side of the Separation Barrier. We met through an Israeli-Palestinian breast cancer support group. She’s a natural part of my life, through good times and bad. While I supported peace beforehand, having a Palestinian friend who is like a sister propelled me to learn more about Palestinian society and educate myself about Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. Our closeness also inspired my greater involvement in peace movements and made it difficult to forget the disparity in life experiences between Israelis and Palestinians.
Before, I cared about the Palestinians I knew. Now I care about the Palestinians as a people. It’s a lesson that even a child can learn.
Ruth Ebenstein is an American-Israeli journalist, historian, public speaker and peace activist. She is writing a memoir about an Israeli-Palestinian friendship begun in a breast cancer support group.
To receive email alerts for Fixes columns, sign up here.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: firstname.lastname@example.org.