Twenty 17-year-old budding photographers, half secular Jewish students and half Arab Muslim students, are showing photos at Givat Haviva’s Peace Gallery in Behind the Mask, but unlike other exhibits, the names of the individual photographers are not labeled next to their creations.
The exhibit is the culmination of a year-long project under the auspices of Givat Haviva’s Center for a Shared Society, an initiative called Through Other’s Eyes. Givat Haviva was founded in 1949 as the educational center of Hashomer Hatzair’s youth movement.
In a sense, the students needed to set aside their individual egos for the larger group goal, an uncommon act for creators. The photographers were credited only as a group, underscoring the joint process. They shared professional-level equipment, made suggestions for subject matter and locations jointly, gave each other feedback about the photographs guided by their mentors Rama Yazda and Rauf Abu Fane. To decide which photos to exhibit, Yazma asked: “What is the message you want to bring to the world?”
Givat Haviva is ringed by Pardes Hanna-Karkur, Hadera, Caesarea, Kafr Qaria, Umm al Fahum, Tarkum and Jatt, The program had 150 applicants from 6 participating schools. Candidates were interviewed, recommended, and the twenty students chosen needed to obtain permission from both parents since also their participation was required.
Typically in Israel, communities live in distinct communities; some call it a mosaic. Yaniv Sagee, Executive Director of the Center said “… Givat Haviva is confronting the social divide head-on. Our project… has been connecting young Arab and Jewish teenagers for 18 years as part of a wider goal to build an inclusive and socially cohesive society based….”
The multi-tiered program met one afternoon a week, studying elements of photography and explored issues affecting Israeli citizens. The students explored their own and each other’s origins, customs, societal questions and were encouraged to ask what might be considered beyond the pale in their home communities, such as exploring Yom Haatzamaut and Yom HaNakba, the national anthem Hatikva, women’s freedom and attitudes toward homosexuality. Nothing was off-limits; cautious curiosity was replaced by mutual understanding.
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The participants shared experiences all year, traveling together in Israel and – the ‘cherry on top’ – participating in a three-week New York summer camp run by Hashomer Hatzair.
Their exhibit centered on a white mask, chosen as an identity neutralizer, hiding and exposing in equal measure. Yazda said, “Working with the group made me more attentive. These kids have a lot on their shoulders; the conflict is complex. We wanted to relate differently.” She sees the success in the works. “The white masks covered differences. The strength of the photography shed light on the conflict and made people think.” The photos were exhibited in NY and New Jersey and after this show, will be exhibited at the 6 participating schools.
Noga Barzon from Pardes Chana, the second oldest of 4 sisters, whose mother is an environmental consultant and whose father works in high-tech, attends Mava’ot Yaron high school. She describes her home as a small rural house. At first, volunteering to host the group was both “fun and also a bit awkward: having all see where I live,” said Noga. She helped prepare by cooking with her grandfather, originally from Tripoli, their traditional Friday evening Libyan-style couscous, a food unfamiliar to their Arab guests. “Ultimately, it was very satisfying to have everyone over,” she concluded.
Abdalla Watted was motivated to apply out of a desire to meet Jewish people and hear their opinions. His family is many generations in Jatt, a “Muslim conservative village” of 1400 residents. His mother lectures and has a Technion Ph.D. in civil engineering and his father studied computer science in Germany and lectures at Beit Berl. Abdalla, the oldest of five, attends Jatt high school, where “everyone must comply with the rules of Islam,” and his school is not part of the project.
The Watted family also hosted the group. Noga recalls their home as a “castle” with two kitchens and public and private living rooms, and Abdalla’s mother prepared numerous varied platters.
Abdalla spent time in England and participated in the Model UN program, but visiting the US was a first. They knew ahead they would be 10 Arab Israelis with a hundred and fourty campers from around the world. Before arriving they learned about Kabbalat Shabbat and they enjoyed Israeli and Arab folk dancing, a stand-out memory for Abdalla. A violin player from age 7, Abdalla played Arabic music at the exhibit opening.
Despite the many problems, Abdalla says “we must think outside the box, we must focus on a shared society, break through barriers and have equality.“
Noga thinks the barriers are already broken, they stay in touch on What’sApp and get together. Noga said, “We don’t always see the whole truth; we see what we show outwards. Now I see their side and see them as human beings.”