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Interview Archives

Between 2004 and 2010, Just Vision interviewed more than 80 Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders. The interviews in this archive represent a fraction of the civic leaders working in the field at a particular moment in time, and aim to provide audiences access to a range of perspectives and approaches.


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Kitty O. Cohen

Kitty Cohen immigrated from post-war Europe to the newly established State of Israel in 1948 when she was twelve years old. After studying in the United States, Kitty took part in various dialogue experiences between Israelis and Palestinians during the late 1980's, including the Interfaith Association in Israel, and went on to design programs focusing on therapuetic aspects of dialogue. Later, Kitty established a project focusing on the importance of art for dialogue and peace; she now works with elementary schoolchildren on both sides of the Green Line through theatre and painting projects. The joint exhibition entitled Children of Jerusalem Painting Pain Dreaming Peace opened in Jerusalem in 2004 and is now a travelling exhibit.

  • What is your name and where are you from?

    My name is Kitty Cohen. I was born in Vienna, Austria. I grew up during the Second World War in the hell that then was Europe. I arrived in Israel, with my late mother only in 1948, since prior to the establishment of the state of Israel, immigration for young Jews was prohibited by the British Mandate.

  • Please tell me about how you came to be involved in peace work.

    That's connected to my experiences from the Second World War. What I witnessed in Europe left a lasting impression on me. The war years shaped my views and my outlook on life. My work today has its roots in the traumas of my childhood. From family members I learned one can retain one's humanity. In spite of the persecutions and the fear, I was taught not to condemn any group or people. It was their humanity and their behavior to others that enabled our miraculous survival of the Holocaust.During a seminar we held at the Van Leer Institute1 in 1998 or 1999 one of the Palestinian principals asked me, "Kitty, why are you doing this work?" He knew that I volunteer and that I work wholeheartedly. I hadn't considered the matter until that point. I replied that I knew what it was like to be discriminated against and be dispossessed of all that was mine. I said I understood their predicament and was trying, in my own small and modest way, to do what I can. People who have suffered from discrimination and oppression, people who could have been or have been refugees can identify with others and their suffering.I believe in doing rather than talking. Work done quietly, with little publicity, is often more effective. At times, programs are reported in the media. Publicity may cause Palestinians embarrassment, even endanger them. It can force them to go to places they don't want to.

    • 1. An intellectual center in West Jerusalem for the interdisciplinary study and discussion of issues related to philosophy, society, culture, and education.

  • Have you had such an experience?

    Yes. It was a very grave situation. I have a friend whom I have known for many years. She had been active and effective. I called her prior to the Ramadan, her holiday, as I often do, to wish her Id Mubarak [happy holiday in Arabic]. I heard a kind of chill on the other side of the line. I sensed she wanted to end the conversation. So I ended saying, "I just wanted to wish you and your family a happy holiday." When I told a common friend about it, she said, "Didn't you know? The imam at the mosque mentioned her name as being a collaborator". It was very grave, indeed. Were you in touch after that? Yes, but only on her mobile phone, I never called her house again. Palestinians, many of them, can be active only in peace activities and organizations if they are led by Palestinians or approved by the Palestinian Authority --or if they have received the Palestinian Authority's approval. Palestinians who try to work privately or work in new forums, novel projects or initiatives that could lead to alternative approaches are often ostracized, condemned and worse. When I called another (Palestinian) friend, he said very clearly, "I can't cooperate with you at this time, if I do I'll be shot!"

  • How is your work received on the Israeli side?

    On the Israeli side, many talk and complain about the situation in social gatherings, but few act or decide to do something about it. Some do. In the small town where I live one person is involved in the Bereaved Families Forum, another established a dialogue on the web, a third established an educational program. These are people who are active, and often dedicated in terms of energy and commitment. I can't say there aren't any. Some have different agenda though.Can you explain that?Some are dedicated to peace work, believe in the human cause. Others have a political agenda. Still others use their work as an axe (or as Lord Denning1 said 'a sword') to strike with. If I understand correctly, you're saying that the smaller organizations are more productive.The smaller organizations do important work in building networks "on the ground. The crux of the matter is good relations with the Palestinians. Peace initiatives are no longer on the forefront because of attrition and disappointment resulting from the current situation. Still I believe that when there is peace, when there is a breakthrough, all organizations will receive the encouragement and recognition they deserve from the establishment and the public. It will be like streams flowing to the river and from there to a lake, and finally they will reach the sea. The streams will all converge, this is of primary importance.

    • 1. Tom Denning was a judge in the Court of Appeals in England and Wales. He was renowned for the wit and prose of his judgments as well as for the intellectual persuasiveness of his legal reasoning.

  • Please tell me about the work you're doing now.

    My focus now is on two projects: one is Art for Dialogue or Art for Peace, the other is the writing of an educational pilot project, the goal of which is to educate for understanding and respect for "the other". Interethnic and interfaith relations have interested me ever since I can remember. I was a member of the Interfaith Association in Israel,1 and led numerous seminars in Israel and in the United States on behalf of the Israel Colloquium. In the 1980s I published two surveys on African American-Jewish relations. The outbreak of the first intifada in 1987 was a turning point. Until that time, I had been concerned about the status of the Arabs in Israel. In 1987 the average Israelis, from their own living-rooms, were confronted with Palestinians face to face, as people and not merely as street cleaners, laborers or construction workers.What brought about the change?There was excellent footage and very good reports (on the Palestinians). I became more aware than I had been before of our neighbors next door. In the 1960s, I was a graduate student in the States. I was a witness to the civil rights movement. Even though I was a young mother and had no time to be active, the events of those days were a very important experience. The assassination of John F. Kennedy, the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. later left a profound impact. These are moments one never forgets.Witnessing the first intifada, I realized something needed to be done. I thought we needed academics, sociologists and psychologists to bring people together for a few days and have talks and group discussions. I designed some programs and managed to raise the funds for their implementation. However, even though the program continued, its results were disappointing.

    • 1. An independent organization that has been working since its inception in the year 1959 throughout the country to promote understanding and mutual respect between all the sects, religions, and ethnic groups within Israel. www.israel-interfaith.co.il

  • Why did you choose to work with therapists?

    I believed therapists were better qualified to let people talk and make others listen, with open hearts and minds. Ten years later narratives were the trend and you could hear all sorts of stories on the radio and in books, and every week you were flooded with narratives. I realized that we needed to listen to people and hear what they had to say, not only listen to ourselves. These were very interesting exchanges, and some of the things said were very good, but I sensed that it didn't make a difference, didn't change attitudes or reduce stereotypical thinking. A few years later, I cooperated with another Arab-Jewish dialogical center based in northern Israel. To make a difference, I now believed we needed programs for young people, not adults, to build young leadership, the next generation. Socrates said that children are the basis of society. The program I initiated for these young people was based on the heritages of Muslims, Christians and Jews. It enhanced the identity of the participants, created mutual respect and a common ground for dialogue. That's why it was successful. I was in touch with academics, scholars of folklore, folk literature, beliefs, customs. I believed that we needed to learn about the folklore of the 'other', we needed more than dialogue programs on the human level—you are a woman and I am a woman, and he is a man and we have children, brothers, families, we are the same, so let us be friends. No. Our geographical region, the Middle East, is characterized by a rich diversity of cultural, religious and national differences, and social traditions. There can be real dialogue when we understand the other side's intellectual, emotional and social identity. It isn't enough to talk about how we fast during Ramadan or on Yom Kippur, how we visit family and bring gifts. It is superficial. What needs to be understood is more profound: it is what makes the other "tick", what they deem important and what their values are as a result of their heritage and their social structure, what values are important to them, and how these values must be understood and respected. Only then can we hold a real dialogue with the "other". Can you give an example of such a meeting? Yes. There are practical considerations: you mustn't invite women for a meeting at night. They [Palestinian women] don't go out at night, they don't go out alone. You need to consider the social position of the women with whom you work, their social limitations, familial constraints, and understand and respect these. An example: I organized a seminar in Jerusalem in 1997-1998, and there were many people there, many of them women. The goal was to initially strengthen the Palestinians’ identity and the Israeli Jews’ identity before holding a meeting or beginning any joint activities. The goal was to empower the participants before their encounter. There cannot be a situation in which one side feels strong and the other feels weak or inferior. That isn’t a good basis for dialogue. We initiated the program on their ground, in East Jerusalem. The location itself was important. The program lasted a year. Even though it had its problems, it was fairly successful. At times, there was no place to meet, or this person couldn’t come so someone else filled in—the logistic problems every activity encounters. On the whole, the program was successful. People I meet remember it to this day. Within the framework of the program, I was invited to an Arab village in the vicinity of Jerusalem for a holiday celebration. The teachers had chosen children’s stories that they learned, Palestinian folk tales, and parallel Jewish folk tales and put together a play, a celebration in honor or Id el-Adha.1 By the time I found the place it took a while and I arrived a little late at the school and stood at the entrance of the gymnasium. One of the teachers spotted me and said, “Come in! This is Id el-Adha, like Pesach.”2 On stage, there was a performance on Juha3 and Hershele,4 which are humorous stories. They were making the point that the stories are the same in different versions, and the audience applauded—parents, children. It was a happy affair, a wonderful meeting.

    • 1. The most important feast of the Muslim calendar. It marks the conclusion of the Pilgrimage to Mecca. Literally translates to "Feast of Sacrifice" it last three days and marks Ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice his son for God. Traditionally when families observe this holiday they eat about a third of the meal and donate the rest to the poor.
    • 2. The Jewish holiday of "Passover" that commemorates the exodous of the Israelites from Egypt.
    • 3. An Arabic fable originating in Iraq.
    • 4. A Jewish fable

  • Was this a joint project?

    Yes, it was. All the projects I initiated are joint, involving cooperation, based on enhancing the identity of every participant. Only when people feel sure of their identity, personality, their society, their heritage, their culture, only then can they hold a real dialogue with their counterpart, who must also feel that way. There is no point in holding a dialogue between an Israeli secular person and an orthodox Muslim. It won’t work. Most of the Israeli peace activists are secular. I’m secular too, not orthodox. However, when I talk to an observant Muslim, I will speak as a Jew and refer to my Jewish heritage, when it is relevant. Here is a story I heard. There was a discussion at the State Department with Dennis Ross,1 Daniel Kurtzer2 and several other young Americans and Palestinians. A dialogue was taking place about peace at the State Department. One of the Americans (a Jewish person) at a certain point said, “Excuse me but I’m in mourning, I need to say kaddish”.3 Others joined him and said the kaddish prayer with him. There was a break and then the discussion resumed. The response of the Palestinians who participated was fantastic, “You also have this tradition? You also respect it? This is the first time we are witnessing this”. This was very important. It is very important not to invalidate ourselves. To borrow Ahad Ha’am’s4 term, not to invalidate, but rather adapt your cultural values to your beliefs. If you need to say kaddish and you believe in it and it’s important to you then go ahead and say kaddish; the “other” ought to respect that. The Palestinians did. It strengthened the atmosphere, it improved the dialogue. This is another great difficulty in peaceful relations, if you want to have real dialogue and real peace, it is very important to be confident enough to stand there and say, I am Jewish, I am Israeli, and you are Muslim or you are Christian or Orthodox or Catholic, or Armenian, Palestinian. It is very important to establish where we come from and not say, “I am an Israeli woman who wants peace so I am willing to give up my narrative. I have no narrative” as if I had no story, no language, no culture. As if I were an alien come from another world, here to the Middle East, which is holy Muslim territory and I have nothing, no roots here. This is not conducive to peace.

    • 1. served in the U.S. State Department for over 20 years. Among his most notable posts was handling Mid-East foreign policy for the Clinton administration.
    • 2. served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005. He is currently chair of the Princeton University Middle East policy studies department.
    • 3. In this instance, refers to the mourner's prayer that a Jew recites following the death of a close relative and at anniversaries of their death.
    • 4. Pen name of Asher Ginsburg, an early Zionist writer from a small town near Kiev who lived for the last five years of his life in Tel Aviv.

  • Please tell me more about your current work.

    My last project, the two last projects, were with even younger children because I saw that teenagers had already some formed opinions and I really thought we have to work on the heritage of the Palestinians and the heritage of the Israelis and try and find common ground on the basis of their culture, tradition, language. And we have to do this not in a so called dialogical setting or a peace setting and sit and discuss things for two days or three days, but we have to do this in a sustained manner, as an ongoing project. My last two projects were focused on younger children in elementary school. The theatre productions with children and with children and their families took place over a period of one year. Our art program lasted for over three years. What brought you to that conclusion? One-time meetings, even if they are three days or a week, often have no follow up. At best, there’s a perfunctory follow up. Meeting once or several times is a nice experience, pleasant to talk about when you meet your friends, to write emails about. But it doesn’t leave a permanent impact. I started a project based on traditions with 5th and 6th grade children, first with teachers then with children in Jerusalem, from Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and Jewish children from conservative schools in the city (West Jerusalem). The program focused on their holidays, the folk tales, their traditions and customs. We then found a drama teacher, a playwright who put on plays, creating them with parallel classes (Palestinian and Israeli). The teacher was bilingual, fluent in both Hebrew and Arabic. He worked with four classes on their own texts and encouraged them to be creative. The children loved it because they created a play, with the playwright, on the basis of parallel folk-tales. That year, 1998-1999 was a terrible drought in our region. There was no water and everybody suffered, in Jordan as well as here. Israelis and Palestinians all suffered from the lack of water. The common theme I suggested was prayers for rain and folk tales about rain. There are quite a few Arab folk tales and Arab prayers for rain and parallel Jewish, similar tales. And that’s what the playwright worked on. The children put on plays that were a big success (and they were invited to perform in a center for the arts). Which languages did they use? The Palestinians used Arabic and the Israelis used Hebrew, but they worked together on the stage, they met, they sang together, they played together, there were joint meetings about once a month. At the end of the year The Jerusalem Duet for Rain was produced a few times in East and West Jerusalem. We also produced other plays with children of both groups in their respective languages: we produced a play based on David Grossman’s Itamar meets a Rabbit1David Grossman came to the play performed by second graders or third graders from two schools. There was excellent cooperation between the teachers. What was marvelous with the theatre plays, as well as with everything else, was that the parents came to the meetings. Jewish parents and Palestinian parents met in a wonderful get-together. So these productions became community events.

    • 1. a well-known Israeli author who writes both for adults and young people. Some of his most famous work, The Yellow Wind and Sleeping on a Wire, deals with Palestinian life.

  • How do you plan to continue?

    Our last play in Jerusalem was in the year 2000, the year the second intifada broke out. As a result, we had to move the program to the North of the country, where it continued. We hope to bring it back to Jerusalem, when it is possible. What happened then? When the second intifada broke out, it was impossible to continue. Ongoing frequent meetings, get-togethers became physically and practically impossible. The people involved said, "No we can't do this comfortably now. Let's wait". This is when the art program was initiated.

  • What kind of restrictions did the second intifada pose on your work?

    It [the second intifada] posed worse restrictions than the first. The Palestinians were afraid to cooperate, to be involved in joint projects. Officially, they didn’t get the parents blessings, not to mention the fact they wouldn’t travel to West Jerusalem. The West Jerusalemites couldn’t travel to East Jerusalem. There were severe restrictions on travel for groups of children. In the fall of the year 2000 a good program collapsed in Jerusalem. It was a pity. What was beautiful in that program was that the children were encouraged to be creative and could express themselves. The teachers, the principals and the parents saw the children really flourish, express themselves, they were enthusiastic about it, they raved about it. It was something different. In Palestinian schools in particular and to a lesser extent, in Arab Israeli schools the children are disciplined. There are more male teachers in Palestinian schools than in Israeli schools. The discipline is stronger: you do what the teacher says! You behave as the teacher says and you repeat what they tell you to repeat. Whereas the atmosphere in our [Israeli] schools is much freer, with more room for individual chutzpah [literally, cheek] imagination and behavior. Since cooperation was now so difficult, I decided to continue cooperation through art, in a medium that would need fewer meetings. Children would be working separately and still meet but less often; whenever possible. With the help of artists, a joint art program was formulated, an art for peace program, entitled Children of Jerusalem Painting Pain Dreaming Peace. Is that the project the municipality [of Jerusalem] co-sponsored? Yes, I could not have done it without the excellent cooperation I enjoyed. It was hard work and I couldn’t have done it alone. Their co-sponsorship was essential.

  • Please tell me about the painting exhibition in Jerusalem.

    The children worked separately at first, in East Jerusalem and in West Jerusalem. The basic assumption was that the children on both sides were undergoing traumatic experiences with the intifada. They were not allowed to go out, they were afraid, there were bombings, there were casualties. There was tremendous fear on both sides. The municipality had to give its accord, since I had an exhibition in mind from the start. The idea presented to both Israelis and Palestinians was “Let’s give the children a chance to express their fears”. The parents read the press, they watch television, the teachers in class have to teach the curriculum. The children needed a means to express what they felt. My suggestion was “Let’s do it through art, let’s do it through painting”. We found art teachers, met with them and explained the concept. The two art teachers worked wonderfully together. It was joint work; they first worked separately with two groups of children, a Jewish group and a Palestinian group, again, elementary school children. The teachers coordinated on a weekly basis; if they didn’t meet they were on the phone with each other. Then they had the children meet, and the children met quite a few times. The result was amazing, in particular the joint paintings the children produced.

  • What were the children's initial responses?

    Fear, suspicion; we had an evaluator who followed it. And at the beginning they didn't want to meet each other. They were afraid. "The others are different from us, they dress differently, they talk differently". The Palestinians knew the Israeli as a soldier with a gun, the Israelis knew the Palestinian as someone who plants bombs on Ben Yehuda Street1 and on buses. Those were the mutual images, the perceptions they had of each other. Quite understandably so: this was on the news, this is what happened.Gradually, the ice melted and we witnessed a tremendous process of change. The children opened up, were glad to meet each other, paint together. During the second year already the art teachers told them, "Well, what would you do to make life better?" And then, "How do you visualize peace?" The teachers, artists themselves, coached them and encouraged them to express their thoughts in paintings. During the third year the children did lots of painting together. It was an amazing project: we had 100 paintings exhibited at the Municipality of Jerusalem. It was then exhibited elsewhere, in the Galilee, back in Jerusalem (at the International Cultural Center for Youth2). Then the exhibit was invited to Geneva.3 We've now been invited to Westminster Palace, the House of Commons, as well as to a museum in San Francisco. We hope to have the funds to continue the program, because it is a marvelous project; it's a creative, fun program. It expresses the identity of the children, their pride in their people and symbols. The Palestinians could come and paint with the Israeli group, the Palestinians of East Jerusalem were permitted to come to West Jerusalem. Israeli children were not given permission to come to East Jerusalem. That was very bad as far as I’m concerned, because it offended the Palestinians’ deeply ingrained culture of hospitality. They wanted to host the Jewish children—they were hosted by them, they were given food, they played, they were well received and they wanted to reciprocate in the same way and could not. This was bad. It was a serious drawback, an objective difficulty. I could do nothing about it. These were the police or security instructions. Had we been granted security, can you imagine a bus with a guy with a gun coming to East Jerusalem? It would have been totally counter-productive. Were the kids’ families, or whoever wanted to see the paintings from the Palestinian side, restricted in any way? No! Many of them came. Hundreds of people came to the municipality—I’ll show you a few press clippings. They came for six or seven weeks, as long as the exhibit was at the municipality.

    • 1. A pedestrian street in West Jerusalem lined with shops and cafes. It has been the target of several suicide bombings.
    • 2. is a Jewish Community Center in Jerusalem. They provide social, cultural, and educational programming to the community.
    • 3. The second largest city in Switzerland.

  • Did you cooperate with any formal levels aside from the municipality?

    No. How about on the Palestinian side? The Palestinians cooperated but did not provide funding. I raised funds privately, had I gone through the motions I might have had funds in a year, or two years’ time. When the intifada broke out I realized I had to do something right away. I just raised a little bit of funding to start, and as I went on, I covered the basic expenses.

  • Are there any future projects?

    Yes, I want the program to continue; I’m already in touch with artists. I want to work with other children. The children who participated in that project have grown up by now. I would like to have a group of them meet if possible. There are several who are interested in meeting. It would be focused on art, painting. It has to be fun, it has to be creative, it has to be relevant to the identity of the participants, not to discuss peace. We are meeting to paint a situation. I’ll show you some of the paintings. On Monday, November 21, 2005, Children of Jerusalem Painting Pain Dreaming Peace opened at the House of Commons. The exhibition received a warm welcome from Mark Todd, MP1 and from Lord Janner of Braunstone2 and invited guests. However, the highlight of the event was the attendance of four of our program participants, two Palestinians and two Israelis, led by their two art teachers: Issam Sabbah and Aliza Cohen. The Palestinians spoke Arabic, and all enjoyed the assistance and translation of Mrs. Suhad Jarrar, a new friend we made in London. The teachers and the four students arrived in London the previous Friday. That same day, I brought the group to the Mosque in Regents’ Park, in time for the afternoon prayer, followed by a stroll in the park. In the evening, we were all hosted for a traditional Friday night dinner at the home of our hosts, the Posens. After dinner, young people from the neighborhood joined our youngsters. They all played and laughed together. Mohammad al-Khatib delighted the Jewish young guests teaching them to count in Arabic. The week in London was spent in visits of Parliament, including a session on the Middle East in the House of Lords, tours of London, including the British Museum, the Tate Modern and many workshops - all organized by the board of Ben Uri Gallery,3 which had arranged for the students and their teachers to come to London. After the exhibition closed in the House of Commons, it was hosted at the Ben Uri Gallery in December 2005. On December 10, 2006, the exhibition opens at the Imperial War Museum North, in Manchester, where it will be shown for three months. Children of Jerusalem Painting Pain Dreaming Peace will then travel to the United States. It is scheduled to open at the Zeum, in San Francisco, in April 2007.

    • 1. A Member of Parliment in the United Kingdom.
    • 2. Is a Jewish Member of Parliment in the United Kingdom. His career includes an emphasis on working with different religions to foster good relations.
    • 3. A Jewish Museum of Art in London, England. Founded in 1915. Is Europe's only museum dedicated to featuring only Jewish art.

  • How does this work contribute to building peace?

    This work contributes in that it reduces prejudices; it breaks down the wall of prejudice that lies between Palestinian and Israeli children and between their communities. As a result of the exhibitions, the children’s siblings and parents shared their pride and met in good spirits. This helped as well. The other child—Jewish or Palestinian—no longer was an enemy but a friend they loved to meet. The children and the teachers were interviewed by an evaluator, who gave them questionnaires. The children wrote what they felt. Their interviews were translated and transcribed. What they clearly show is that the 3 year program effectuated a change. A precondition is to have a marvelous human relationship of trust and cooperation between the art teachers. Middle people, moderators are not needed! Children don’t need someone to tell them, “We’re now meeting for peace, let’s do this according to this pattern”. We need two people who love art, who love painting, who love teaching, and they have to become friends and cooperate on the basis of trust, and then the project succeeds. It’s the same with theatre. That’s all you need, people.

  • What do you hope to achieve through this work?

    I hope to bring about understanding. The exhibition tells people that friendship, neighborly relations, positive human contacts are possible between people of different faiths, of different national traditions, cultures, languages. The message of the exhibition is that peace is possible. In other words, relations are built on positive common ground that empowers the groups and does not discriminate between them, relations build on the identity of the different groups. The Middle East is characterized by many religions, communities and nationalities, which are very different from each other, and it is essential to understand these differences and to build upon them positively...and not to find a common ground outside the identity of these people. That is my basic philosophy.

  • What are your biggest challenges in your work?

    Getting support, getting people to say, either “we will support you,” or, “why don’t you tell us and we will initiate a similar program in our community”. One of the biggest problems is publicity. I worked very quietly to be able to carry out projects with the Palestinians. When the intifada broke out, it was practically taboo. There were many parents who didn’t want it. I had a group of children and a group of parents and the parents said, “No. Our children meet with Palestinians? No, not at this time”. So I went to another group. The challenge is to get people to approve contacts, to see the positive aspect of the project. Our work is positive in the sense that it brings people together, not with the goal of “let’s bring peace”, but with the suggestion “let’s paint”, “let’s do theatre”, “let’s do art, we can do things together”.

  • What does the word peace mean to you?

    Everything. We must have peace here, normal, neighborly relations, without hostility. We must understand the Palestinians, we must try to work with them and be good neighbors. And they must understand us. We must understand that they are not going to leave, but they also must understand that we are not about to leave, that Israel is here to stay. That is, we have to build a dialogue that is positive and creative: how do we live together. What will be the relationships, how will we work together? The people I worked with saw this as quite natural, and enjoyed it and had fun with it. They came home and invited people to join them. It’s the only way to be open about it and to say “I am here and you are there. This is where I stand, this is what I believe in.” During holidays such as Pesach [Passover] we won’t plan activities; we won’t plan anything during Ramadan, on Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashana. Not to bend over backwards, not to say, we have no identity, we have no language, no culture. We should not say, this is your land, or this is our land. No. This is our land and your land; it’s both.

  • How are you going about disseminating the program?

    Well, I’m taking it to London and the US. Afterwards I want to put the groundwork of the educational process on the internet so as to encourage others to adopt it.

  • What do you gain from your work?

    I gain satisfaction when I see something succeed, when I see people being friendly to each other, and children together.

  • What do you consider a small success in your work?

    Any positive contact, any new outreach, any new people I meet who accept and want to work with Israelis, I think it a breakthrough, I think it’s a small success. I’m not looking for big things. I think that success is in small things.

  • Do you ever have doubts about your work and its effects?

    I have no doubts about the contents of what I’m doing, I have doubts about its feasibility in the future, for lack of funding and support. Do you encounter any resistance from your family? None. On the contrary, I enjoy their support. How has your involvement affected your life? It has affected my life greatly, all my free time. Everything revolves around that. Even family obligations change in accordance with the parameters of the program.

  • When did you start getting involved?

    I really started being committed in 1987.1 The turning point for me was in 1987. It took me about a year to define what I wanted to do about it. I had lots of meetings. I went to all the organizations in Israel. I think I met with many people involved in peace or co-existence programs. I tried to meet as many Palestinians as I could. I basically didn’t want to start an organization. I wanted to suggest programs to existing organizations but everyone had their own very strict agenda and followed their own pattern. That’s why I worked to implement my own ideas. What are the drawbacks to having your own organization? It’s very time consuming, energy consuming and requires funding. Have you received support from your community? I’ve received some support from friends. How has the conflict affected your life? It’s all-consuming. I talk about it, I get up in the morning, I look at the news, in the evening I think about it and I read about it. It’s constant.

  • Can you point to a certain occasion that affected your life directly during the conflict?

    The extremism in both societies was absolutely devastating, beginning with Baruch Goldstein and ending in the lynching of that poor boy This is devastating. It is terrible, the extremism, the brutalization of both societies. I think this is terrible. You see it in the language used, you see it in violence at schools, on the roads. It affects the psyche of both peoples. This is something terrible. It's frightening.

  • What is most important for you to achieve for your country, for your people?

    For my own people? They should be more accepting and respecting of the other. We, who have suffered so much, who come from such different communities, from so many countries, we must learn to accept the other, to respect them; if we respect ourselves, we will respect the other, the neighbor. What will it take to achieve that? An integration of this basic concept (respect for the other) from kindergarten and upwards, beginning with parents. People don’t listen to each other anymore. They are violent in their language, in their behavior, in their driving... they are disrespectful of their elders, disrespectful of their own people, so how can they respect the other? We need to change, we need to have educators and people at the helm who understand this and who will behave accordingly. I have a different vision for Israel, I have a different dream for Israel. This is my dream: that we become more respectful, accepting of all our different communities. That we not discriminate against the Ethiopian Jews or Indian Jews because of color or culture, that we accept them, that we respect them. When we do that we will have peace with the Palestinians as well.

  • I want to talk about previous peace processes and ask you where you think they failed.

    I think that peace must be made between Palestinians and Israelis. The fewer outsiders are involved the better off we’d be. I don’t think a peace process can be achieved outside of Israel—neither on the White House lawn, nor in Geneva and not in Paris or Oslo. It has to be negotiated and achieved here. There was the initiative of Ami Ayalon with Sari Nusseibah1; that was positive. It was initiated here. It has convinced people here. If we don’t convince the people here, as the Israelis say, “on the ground”, if we don’t convince them that peace is possible, that we have to work for that here in the Palestinian public and in the Israeli public, among both peoples, then no outsider can do it for us. There is this sense sometimes that peace should be coerced. There must be an outsider—you hear this from time to time—an outside power will impose it and then there will be peace. I don’t believe it and I don’t think it’s going to last. I think there’s going to be opposition, but if both peoples are educated, are convinced from within that it is possible, that it is to their advantage, that they will have peace with dignity and respect for their identity, peace has a chance. We have to respect the Palestinians, we have to respect their narrative as Israelis and they, the Palestinians, have to respect our narrative and our understanding of the past and our vision for the future. This is what we have to work on, to have a just vision, as your organization says.

    • 1. 1949-) A professor and President of Al Quds University and former Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) representative in Jerusalem. Nusseibeh is considered a leading Palestinian intellectual and vocal advocate for a non-violent resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He co-authored the People's Voice Initiative with former Israeli security head Ami Ayalon. See http://www.hashd.org

  • Who needs to be involved in peace work on the ground?

    Everybody! Beginning with kindergarten teachers, parents, reporters, businesses, everybody; all sectors of the population, everybody needs to be involved, in a totally different way. It has to be through the media and in businesses and in education on all levels. Israeli Arabs should be invited to contribute to Israel's cultural life; they should appear on television, their language and culture should become part of the mainstream and part of our educational system. The Arabs of Israel should be encouraged to be involved and play a special role as a bridge for peace with the Palestinians. More Palestinians need to be interviewed in Hebrew or simultaneous translation on Israeli television, more dialogue is needed. This is a two way road. There were attempts with children's programs on Israeli television and Palestinian television, I monitored this years ago when it started. It's affected the Palestinians less than it did the Israelis. I am referring to a pilot project for children, Israeli and Palestinian, who participated in a Sesame Street joint TV program. It was hoped the project would change mutual perceptions. The change the program brought about in the Palestinian children participants was smaller than in the Israeli group. They have to do more to change the perceptions. It has to be on their television, on their radio as well. There has to be more public education for respect and acceptance. There are so many good people, intelligent people. There's no reason for the hatred. They love the land. This is what we have to do: more education for mutual acceptance and respect.

  • What would you suggest to someone who wanted to get involved in a productive way, what would you suggest they do?

    If they’re young people, I suggest they refresh their Arabic, take a year of spoken Arabic, and then in addition take a few courses in Arab civilization, Arab culture. All schools should teach Arabic and their schools must teach Hebrew. They must not learn Hebrew only in prison. Most Palestinians I meet who are fluent in Hebrew have been in prison. First learn the language and then meet without any preconceptions or ideas of reconciliation or dialogical methods that come from overseas. We need to listen to them, to take away the fear that the people have. Fear has to be taken out of people. The fear is ridiculous. We must take out the fear of each other. How and where can we begin? It must start on television—their culture, their life, must be integrated in the media, in the educational system.

  • What is wrong with reconciliation?

    There’s nothing wrong with the idea. The goal is reconciliation. There are various models and techniques of peacemaking that are prevalent in the West - America and Europe. They don’t necessarily work in the Middle East. All kinds of mediation, seminars I’ve been to— wonderful speakers, wonderful people, good workshops, on a very high level, that spoke to me, that I understood, but that didn’t speak to the others. Get to know the Arabs, the Palestinians, get to know their methods—sulha 1 for example—get to know where they come from, their culture, their customs, and then get involved in programs. Don’t come from France, from England, from Ireland, or from the United States and tell us, “This works over there, it will work here.”

    • 1. The Sulha Peace Project is a grassroots organization, rooted in the spirit of the prophetic voices from the Holy Land, dedicated to the healing and reconciliation of the children of Abraham through developing a culture of coexistence between Arabs and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians. www.sulha.com

  • What misconceptions do you think international audiences have about the conflict?

    They don’t understand the Middle East. They don’t understand the culture of the Middle East, which is based on communities, less than on the individuals. The western hemisphere societies are built upon the individuals and not on communities. The Middle East is built on communities.

  • Do you think you will see peace in your lifetime?

    I hope so, yes. Knowing quite a few Palestinians, yes, I think in my lifetime. I hope to live that long. If I live another 20-25 years I hope to see it. It is not going to be within the next couple of years. I hope there is a breakthrough within the next decade and that then it will work. Both peoples will have learned from the mistakes of past agreements.

  • Where do you see signs of hope?

    In cooperative programs on technical matters, in science, medicine, agriculture, anything that has to do with technology, natural science, there is a great deal of cooperation that is successful. It’s less successful in subjects pertaining to the humanities and the social sciences. It’s less successful there. That’s what I’m working on. We call it art for dialogue, for peace. The basis is an understanding of the culture, the ethos of the “other”.

  • What do you think the roots of this conflict are?

    They are political and geographical, but they are now intertwined with strong religious influence. The concept among a minority of Israelis is that the land of Israel is all ours. The parallel concept exists among Palestinians, that this is Islamic land, holy Islamic territory and that there is no place for outsiders like the Jews, a western society. Some say that yes, we could live here as a minority; there are many who say, “We have lived together in the past. But look, this is Islamic territory, this is Islamic land.” Both are dangerous views influenced by religion. There is a revival of religion all over the world, not only in Jewish and Muslim societies, there is a revival elsewhere as well, and this is dangerous - any absolutist view that only my belief and my faith and my culture is the true one that leads to God, any exclusivist view is very dangerous. This is one of the roots of this conflict.

  • How do you envision the region in the future?

    I personally would like to see a Palestinian state next to ours. I think that minor conflicts and even armed conflicts may erupt but I think if there is a Palestinian state it will survive and in the long run we may well reach a wider agreement,—a federation—with the states around us and create a Middle Eastern union. That would be the ideal. But for that again, we have to be accepted. Israel is being accepted, beginning to be accepted.

  • By whom?

    By Arab states in the region. In Palestinian schools the “other” is the Christian, and sometimes the Jew is mentioned, not always positively, but Israel doesn’t exist, Tel Aviv doesn’t exist, the state doesn’t exist on the maps, in the curriculum. In the paintings of the children, they exist side by side. This is the marvelous change that occurred during those three years when they worked together, in a sustained project. There was a change, an educational process. My vision is that there be a Middle Eastern union; that Jerusalem not be a divided city, but an open city for three faiths and many more. There are so many churches and denominations so let it be an open city for all faiths. That is my dream for Israel, for the region. I think it’s possible, it will depend on our leaders. If our leaders are people of vision, the dream can become reality. What part do grassroots organizations have in this vision? They play an important part. As I said at the beginning, there are many organizations and they are all important, each and every one of them is important, and we should not discount the work of any of them. Each organization has its own way according to its beliefs, its own worldview, and that’s fine. But they will converge. Is there a greater importance for political work or grassroots work? They operate on totally different levels, and both are essential.

  • How do you differentiate between politics and grassroots?

    In politically bad times there is more need for grassroots work, and when the political situation is positive then grassroots can be co-opted into the system. Then they can contribute. Their think tanks, their activists and their people can be integrated into the political vision. But in times of need, in times of trouble, there is great need for grassroots organizations precisely to counter the violence, the hatred between our peoples. The new friendships and honest dialogues between Palestinians and Israelis have given me the hope and cou.rage to continue. As one of our second century Sages said, I need not complete the task, but neither am I at liberty to desist from it (Rabbi Tarfon, Avot,2,16).1

    • 1. Pirkei Avot, literally, "the Teachings of the Fathers" is a collection of Rabbinic teachings. It is a tractate of the Mishnah largely composed of ethical maxims.