Young Leaders may sound like a new program to many of our readers, but it is really just a new name for an older program, albeit the change in name reflects its evolution through a meaningful process of adapting to changing needs and circumstances in the light of our long experience working to bridge the gaps between Jews and Arabs in Israel. When it began more than twenty years ago, the program was called Neighbors, but we didn’t want to throw such a relevant and meaningful name to the garbage, so we “transferred” it last year to a new program working with young Arabs and Jews in High School; but that's another story!
One aspect of the Young Leaders program outward looking, when the young leaders meet and interact with visiting groups – young and old – from North America and Europe, and engage in conversation in English. But this is just one aspect of the program, whose main aim, as the name reflects, is to work with Jewish and Arab teenagers through the year with the goal of building a cadre of Young Leaders. It was about both these aspects of the program that we interviewed one of the Young Leaders, Suzan (from Majd al-Krum, a Muslim Arab village just northwest of Karmiel) and one of her Mentors, Ofer (from Tuval, which overlooks Karmiel and Majd al-Krum from the ridge above the cliffs of Mitlol Tsurim).
For those of you who haven’t been involved in one of our Young Leaders encounters, you can get a good feel for the “buzz” from this video, filmed in mid-July by Lafez Assadi, director of Deir al-Asad Community Center, one of the venues we use.
Editor (Ed): Suzan, How long have you been participating in the Young Leaders’ program?
Suzan: About six months now I guess.
Ed: And how did you first get involved with it?
Suzan: Well, Samia [Nasser, who is also involved working with Young Leaders and other programs] called my mum and told her about the program. My parents were really excited when they heard about what the program was doing, and when they asked me if I would like to go to it, I was really excited too and thought it sounded a really fantastic idea. Now I have really close friends in the group there and have great fun, but it was a journey really, and now it is such fun!
Ed: Ofer, tell me about your role in the Young Leaders program and how it developed?
Ofer: I have worked in the project for more then four years [as coordinator]. When I started the program was called Neighbors, and so I thought that the fact that I am a Jew could not be ignored but had to be part of the discourse we were trying to build. Then I saw that there was almost nothing going on [for the youth] in the villages [Majd al-Krum, Deir al-Asad, Bi'ina and others] except for a few names on a paper and few drafts of optional programs. With all this in mind it took me a while to understand that my goal should be to see how I could develop the program to make connections in the villages in a way that would create a sense of something meaningful and not just “a discussion in English.”
Ed: How do you mean exactly?
Ofer: Well it struck me that these are not classic co-existence meetings but groups of Israeli Arabs/Palestinians that spend time with a Jewish person, maybe for the first time in their lives, and this is an opportunity for them to ask questions and to say things to a Jew – me – who is someone that doesn't need to argue with them! And I think this concept is working pretty well until today.
Ed: Ofer, it sounds as though the program has benefited from your spirit and influence to refreshed itself. But tell me, what do you think the Young Leaders program achieves?
Ofer: I believe it achieves a couple of things. Primarily, among the young Arabs who participate in the program, it brings about a better understanding about who are the J, what are they like, what do they think, and also how diverse we are, both as Jews and/or Israelis and in terms of our different shades of Judaism. For instance many of them are surprised when they realize that there are Jews living outside of Israel! They get a more diverse picture, even a nuanced one. But secondly, we also enable the participants, or facilitate them, to build up their self-confidence...
Ed: Yes, I have seen and heard that they are very self-confident both as a group and individually. For instance Suzan, you come across really strongly in both your confidence and your level of English.
Suzan: Thank you, but you know, that was something that I found most difficult at first.
Ed: What, your self-confidence?
Suzan: Yes, finding the confidence to speak out, generally as well as in the group, but in these last six months it has become progressively easier; I don’t even think about it now.
Ed: So Ofer, you were saying how self confidence is also a goal of the program?
Ofer: Yes, I think it is very clear to all of us. Many of the participants actually speak very fine English, better than me perhaps, yet sometimes they are afraid to speak in the beginning because they are not fluent, or they feel they are not. But after a while we manage to give them the security they need and they build their confidence in the group so that they are ready to engage with the visiting groups of native English speakers later on. But I think that this process is true not only about language but about other aspects as well, somehow giving the participants the realization that their thinking, their opinions, are valuable, and creating an atmosphere of questioning without attacking.
Ed: Suzan, do you have anything to say to that? Has it really changed you already, after just six months?
Suzan: Certainly, of course it has changed me a lot, not just in building my self-confidence, even assertiveness in mixed groups, but also my knowledge of Jews and Judaism. Meeting Jews from abroad, too, I have been surprised by all the different views and traditions, and learnt new things I didn’t know. There are so many different Jews with different views.
Ed: Ofer, do you see other changes in the young people who participate?
Ofer: Besides what I said already, I think that for many of them this is the first opportunity to practice their skills of conversation, and some of the subjects we are dealing with are very meaningful, such as identities, living as a minority (which Jews from abroad also feel), gender issues in society and more.
Ed: So Suzan, what aspect of Young Leaders do you enjoy the most, apart from the pleasure of being with a group that has become your friends?
Suzan: I really enjoy the groups that come to speak with us from abroad. We really quickly get on and discuss everything, not just serious things, and see how we are similar or different, and it is often so surprising and interesting and fun!
Ed: So this will seem a silly question, but I’ll ask it anyway: would you recommend the program to other young people?
Suzan: Yes, of course, everyone should try it, and we should spend even more time than we do already in this activity. It’s cool, we should continue and even do more!
Ed: Suzan, we have talked a lot about what effect the program and the visiting groups have on you. But do you think you have an effect on them?
Suzan: Yes, just as we learn things we didn’t know about them, so they learn about us as Arabs; about Arab life, about our villages. We even can correct them about preconceptions they have, because we are there as Arabs in person; they see who we are. We can give them new information.
Ed: What about you, Ofer? Though you live in Israel, and work a lot with Arabs over many years, has it changed you, being involved in Young Leaders?
Ofer: I have learned a lot about the Israeli Palestinians: their lives, their way of thinking and their struggles. I still have things to learn and I intend to do so!
Ed: What do you like most about the program?
Ofer: Definitely the connection that I have with both the young people and the parents is great. I like the fact that we are playing together (a lot!), thinking together and having fun despite the fact that we are dealing with some very heavy issues.... I like the balance that we have between fun and seriousness.
Ed: Do you feel it makes a difference to the Arab villages where these young people live, as well as to them as people, that they are exposed to the Young Leaders program?
Ofer: Yes. In most cases, we [the Galilee Foundation’s Jewish staff] are the only Jews who come on a regular basis to the schools or the community centres where we meet. I think it is very important and even unusual to the whole situation that a Jew from outside [the life of the villages] is coming to facilitate such sessions, and the fact that the program is well established and has been ongoing for a long time is important too; it shows our commitment.