The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has dragged on for so long and with such persistence that many have begun to wonder if it is has simply become Israel’s new “normal.” Despite the constant fighting and amplified tensions between the two populations, some hopeful pockets of coexistence do exist.
One such example can be found at Ono Academic College in Jerusalem, where an experiential education program focused on disability inclusion brings together young Jews and Arabs to develop educational programming for a segment of society that is often neglected.
‘Our connections are real and mutual’
The experience extends beyond the scope of the projects developed for the children with disabilities to the team members themselves, a collection of students with diverse backgrounds. Working side by side in the classroom and on the same projects in the field, the intense emotional experience, which is void of politics, unites the Arab and Jewish students, allowing them to see beyond their cultural differences and work towards a common goal for the greater good.
“For my students, being able to reach out to someone else and make their world better has the side effect of allowing them to see commonalities between people who are different on the surface, while simultaneously boosting their own self-esteem,” explains Felsenthal-Berger. “It is in an empowering experience.”
Many of the program participants grow up believing that they will never be able to change Israel’s “status quo,” and that there is a possibility that Arabs and Jews will always be at odds with one another. Yet through their work with the disability community and each other, they become galvanized in ways that allow them to make positive changes, realizing that they have the power to forge their own paths in life and influence the world around them.
Rasha Aliyan, one of students in the program, was raised in the eastern Jerusalem Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa. For years, she lived next door to a boy with disabilities but rarely interacted with him. After joining the disability-studies program at Ono, she became interested in learning more about her neighbor and made an effort to get to know him.
“When I started the program, I told my neighbor about it. He was so happy that I was helping the disability community and learning about people like him,” she recounts. “I wanted to be closer to him—to really understand his struggles, and how I, and society, could help him and change the way that we look at people with disabilities.”
Rasha also became a mentor to a 16-year-old girl, who is blind and has cerebral palsy, at Ilanot, a school for children with severe disabilities in western Jerusalem. Although the girl is from Beit Safafa, Rasha had never crossed paths with her prior to meeting her at Ilanot. Rasha’s interactions with individuals with disabilities in her own community inspired her to create her own project, which would partially integrate Ilanot students into Beit Safafa public schools in an effort to bring the community’s children together.
“I come into class and my students are all so excited to see me—to see someone who knows them and who accepts them. Our connections are real and mutual, and I have realized that there isn’t much of a difference between us after all,” she relates.
While working to promote disability inclusion and education in her community, Rasha also became friends with many of the Jewish students who collaborated with her on the Beit Safafa project, realizing that they were also not nearly as different as she had been led to believe in her youth.
“We all had an amazing connection throughout the course. We worked well together and learned a lot from each other. In the end, we realized that our differences weren’t so drastic, and we had more in common than we could have ever expected,” says Rasha.
While Jewish-Arab friendships remain taboo throughout much of Israeli and Palestinian society, personal experiences can prove lasting and powerful. They can be used as a tool to chip away at a status quo steeped in conflict and tension, and make way for a brighter future. For Ono’s disability studies students, those experiences have changed how the young participants view each other and reshaped their worldview.
“I grew up in Beit Safafa right next to the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo,” explains Rasha. “While Jews and Arabs live side by side every day, we don’t get to know each other and don’t really see each other as full people. Having experiences like this opens your eyes for the first time. There is just so much there that you didn’t see before. But once you see it, it changes you forever.”