Interns for Peace: Esther Lafontaine, David Lafontaine, Gershon Baskin, and Tamar LaFontaine

In Israeli Village, Jews and Arabs Erase Stereotypes

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Gershon Baskin, a 25-year-old Intern from Smithtown, L.I.,thinks that Both Jews and Arabs are interested in creating better relations between the two groups, but both sides have the perception that the other isn’t and that Jewish stereotypes of Arabs are generally that Arabs are closed, that Arabs are dirty, that Arabs are stupid, that Arabs are all antiIsrael.

KFAR QARA, Israel— ”Even though we live side by side, we don’t know each other,” said the tall Arab, Farhat Igbaria. ”We don’t know anything about the customs of the other side. I believe if we can bring together Jews and Arabs, we can bring change.”

For more than half a century, the Arab village of Kfar Qara, 22 miles south southeast of Haifa, has existed four miles from the Jewish village of Pardes Channa, but aside from some contact in the marketplace of goods and jobs, the two communities have lived apart.

Two years ago a few idealistic young men and women, most of them American Jews, learned to speak Arabic and took up residence in Kfar Qara and another Arab village, Tamra, to try to break down some of the barriers.

The Interns for Peace, as they call themselves, have been working under a 35-year-old rabbi, Bruce Cohen, from New Haven, Conn., and Mr. Igbaria, an Israeli Arab from Galilee, who is the program’s deputy director. Stereotypes Wide of the Mark

They have organized social visits by Arab and Jewish couples to each other’s villages and have brought teen-age dropouts together for movies, hikes, camping trips and home visits.

Gershon Baskin, a 25-year-old Intern from Smithtown, L.I., said: ”Both Jews and Arabs are interested in creating better relations between the two groups, but both sides have the perception that the other isn’t.

”Jewish stereotypes of Arabs are generally that Arabs are closed, that Arabs are dirty, that Arabs are stupid, that Arabs are all antiIsrael.”

He said Arab stereotypes of Jews were that the Jews did not care at all about Arabs and that they ”would really prefer, if they had an opportunity, to throw them out of Israel.”

When Mr. Baskin talked to a group of ninth graders recently about a joint program with Arab youngsters, their reply was: ”We’re interested, and we’re willing to try. But you should know that we’re scared.” A Lone Israeli Jew

Esther Lafontaine, the lone Israeli Jew among the eight original Interns, recalled that when she accompanied her American-born husband, David, into Tamra, she ”felt Arabs were very dirty, very bad and very dangerous.”

”I was afraid that men would shoot me in the street, or rape me,” she went on. ”The first day we came to the village I couldn’t sleep. All night I was shaking. Now I’m comfortable, with open doors.”

Mrs. Lafontaine’s parents came to Israel from Libya; their antiArab attitudes were so strong that at first she did not tell them she was living in an Arab village. But gradually her parents’ attitudes have softened, her husband said, so that now her mother comes to visit, to cook and sing songs with the Arab women.

This has been a significant discovery of the program: that Jews from Arab countries seem to move most easily into friendship with Arabs, sharing language, music, food and other elements of culture.

Still, the predominant reaction to the project among Jews in Pardes Channa has been one of apathy, according to the residents.

Very Little Interest Shown
”There’s very little interest,” said Michael Solomon, who employs Arabs on his vegetable farm. ”They say, ‘We’ve got so many social problems of our own, why run over to Kfar Qara?’ ”

He and his wife, Amalia, are involved, he explained, because of their children. ”The only talk they hear of Arabs is negative,” she said. ”For them, an Arab means a terrorist. I want my children to learn that they are also Israelis.”

Arab reactions have been mixed. ”I was one of those who was suspicious in the beginning,” said Kfar Qara’s Deputy Mayor, Adnan Modlige. ”Bruce came to me talking about Jews coming from the United States and settling among us in the village and all sorts of programs to bring Jews and Arabs together, and I thought he was sort of out of his mind. But I am for all types of experiments like this.”

The 8,000 Arab residents of the village are torn by their twin identities as Israeli citizens and as close cousins to the Palestinian Arabs living under Israeli military occupation and military law on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Attacked as C.I.A. Agents

”They say sometimes you are traitors,” explained Nawaf Masalha, a prominent village resident who is on the executive board of the Israeli trade union federation. ”The atmosphere here, because of the Communist Party and because of the extreme right of the Jews, creates a very difficult situation for us, people who believe in relations with Jews.”

When the Interns started living in apartments donated by the village’s council, they were attacked as agents of the United States Central Intelligence Agency by Al Itihad, an Arabic-language Communist Party newspaper based in Haifa. The paper printed the group’s letter of denial, but Mr. Modlige said he believed some people in the village were influenced by the attack.

The Interns have been motivated largely by ”a concern for Israel’s welfare internally,” as David Lafontaine put it. Mr. Baskin, who was in a Zionist youth movement in the United States, came as an immigrant ”to help the state which I believe is mine.”

”People who pat themselves on the back and call themselves Zionists are not giving enough thought to the future,” said Michael Chyet of Los Angeles, part of a new team of Interns now in training. ”By antagonizing the Arabs they’re endangering the future,” he said. ”If this country is going to have a future the gap has to become smaller.” Seem Themselves as Catalysts

Being outsiders sometimes makes them subjects of hostility, although Mr. Igbaria sees some advantages. ”They are coming here without any stereotypes,” he said, ”without any heavy load on their backs.”

”We’re not here to make the changes,” said Sarah Kreimer, a Yale graduate in Soviet studies. ”We’re here to be catalysts. If we do our jobs well we’ll be able to start processes of change.”

Rabbi Cohen has ambitious plans for the program, which runs on private contributions, mostly from American and Canadian Jews. Within five years, Rabbi Cohen hopes for an annual budget of $2 million and up to 100 Interns in the field, with a much heavier representation of local people, rather than the one Israeli Jew and one Israeli Arab working now.

Originally Published in the New York Times

History of Interns for Peace

David K. Shipler

David K. Shipler is an American author who won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction in 1987 for Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land. He also wrote the book The Working Poor: Invisible in America. He is a former foreign correspondent of The New York Times.

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