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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

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Israeli Arab and Jewish teens at camp together

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Heart to Heart participants Maayan Mamet, 15, left and Hamada Masarwi, 14, share a moment at the Noor Cultural Centre last week. [Ron Csillag photo]

TORONTO — Like a long-married couple, Maayan Mamet, a Jewish 15-year-old Israeli, and Hamada Masarwi, 14, an Arab-Israeli, complete each other’s sentences.

“We are all the same,” says Hamada, who lives in the northern Israeli town of Kfar Qara, referring to the Jewish and Arab teenagers with whom he’d just spent several weeks in Canada.

 “I don’t believe in war,” Hamada goes on. “If we kill Jews, they kill us. We must find a solution. We are all human.”

Maayan, who lives not too far away in Maor, a moshav, interjects. “They are just like us,” she says of her new Arab friends. “They love the same things. We are like family now.

“We prove that Arabs and Jews can be together. We are the key to change.”

Which was the point of Heart to Heart, a program, now in its third year, that brings 20 Jewish and Arab/Palestinian youths from Israel to Canada for a three-week “coexistence” program hosted by Camp Shomria in Perth, Ont.

 It’s an outgrowth of an award-winning program in Israel, Children Teaching Children, which provides tools to middle schoolers as they grapple with issues of national identity and conflict over a shared land. CTC is operated and funded by Givat Haviva, a non-profit educational foundation that fosters equality and understanding between Arabs and Jews in Israel.

Also partnering in Heart to Heart is Hashomer Hatzair, a secular Jewish youth movement founded in 1913.

For 2-1/2 weeks at Camp Shomria, the 11 Arab/Palestinian Israeli teens and nine Jewish Israelis, all aged 14 or 15, frolicked in a typical camping environment. At a meeting last week at Toronto’s Noor Cultural Centre before some 200 Jewish and Muslim supporters of the project, the teens spoke glowingly of the experience, with some privately recounting their first terrifying time in a canoe.

They also took in the sites in Ottawa and Toronto.

But more importantly, in living, sleeping, talking and eating together, they learned about dialogue, mutual respect and seeing “the other” as human.

“The idea is that this is going to be Israel’s next generation of leaders,” program co-ordinator Dalia Kursner told The CJN. “There are big differences between hearing parents saying they are tolerant and liberal, and living it. Never again will they be able to say they have no partner for peace.”

While the kids did speak among themselves “specifically” about the Arab-Israeli conflict, rarely did they get into topics like terrorism, Hamas or Jewish settlements, Kursner said.

All the participants live in northern Israel, she noted. The program is open only to Israeli citizens – Jewish and Arab – but not to teens in the West Bank and Gaza.

Many of the Jewish teens, including Maayan, learned to speak some Arabic. The participants have also pledged to stay in touch on Facebook and other social media tools.

But as keynote speaker Patrick Martin sees it, keeping up contacts so impersonally reflects ongoing tension.

“Some of these folks live only a few kilometres apart,” said Martin, the Globe and Mail’s Mideast correspondent. “Keeping in touch [personally] may be difficult. The sad fact is that there is an awful lot of work to be done inside Israel.”

Recent uprisings in Arab lands like Tunisia and Yemen began with a single person, Martin said. Change “begins with small steps from real people, and they can topple governments.”

Last week’s meeting of the participants and their supporters came on the heels of reports of a breakthrough in U.S.-brokered peace negotiations, in which diplomats said that reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal within nine months is a target.

Martin also made note of a meeting that very morning in Jerusalem, where a delegation of Palestinian officials was greeted at the Knesset, with Israeli and Palestinian flags displayed side by side. “To my knowledge,” he said, “that has never happened before.”

Martin praised the program’s young participants for breaking down barriers. “You have not locked horns but joined hands.”

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