The teenagers gather around their instructor Bruce as they begin their photography lesson. The group of 13 to 15-year olds, equal parts Jewish Israelis from local settlements and local Palestinians from down Route 60, shyly avoid each other.
Originally from Denver, Colorado, Jerusalemite Bruce runs through photos on the computer screen and explains the visual techniques and qualities in English. Shaul Judelman, a founder and director at Roots, simultaneously translates into Hebrew for the kids from the settlements of Efrat and Alon Shvut while Ghada, a dynamic, smiling young lady from the village of Al Khader in Area A, some six kilometers away, translates into Arabic.
Ghada’s mother manages the small kitchen at the site, which they call the Ard, or the land. She speaks only Arabic, but is learning words in Hebrew and English as she makes tea and coffee for the dozens of visiting groups from Israel, Europe and the United States.
“You see, the visual perspective looking upward is great,” Bruce continues, “and this next photo offers us distance.”
Hearing the familiar words in translation, the young people, mostly girls, begin to relax and glance at each other with hesitant smiles. Bruce knows what he is doing. Within minutes, the kids are gathered tightly and comfortably around him.
‘Nowhere in the West Bank do Israeli pre-teens meet Palestinian kids from nearby towns and villages’
And then they are out in the grass, paired off in twos, taking photos of each other and their surroundings with good quality smart cameras. They laugh while completing the assignment to capture the emotions of fear, anger and happiness on their faces.
This gathering of teenagers may sound rather ordinary. But the chance of these neighbors ever meeting is slim.
“It never happens,” Judelman says. “Nowhere in the West Bank do Israeli pre-teens and young teenagers from settlements meet Palestinian kids from nearby towns and villages. They live in two different, absurdly parallel worlds.”
There are several coexistence programs throughout the country, including Kids4Peace, which brings together youth from east and west Jerusalem, as well as the surrounding villages and settlements, to explore each others’ faiths. Other programs, such as Seeds of Peace, transport participants to foreign “neutral” grounds for leadership training.
The Roots program, however, has a more modest goal: regular, joint class time.
“Kids from families in left-wing groups from Tel Aviv or elsewhere have always met with Palestinian young people over the years,” notes Judelman, who lives in the settlement of Tekoa. “And we have no pretensions about reaching out on a large scale here — not yet anyway. But settler and Palestinian kids in a class structure like this? No way. What you are seeing here is a first.”
And the kids appear happy. “This is a beautiful thing,” says 13-year-old Samia from Al Khader, a suburb of Bethlehem in Area A. Her village is located in a part of the West Bank where Israelis are unable to travel without permission from the Israeli Defense Forces. “No, I have never spoken with an Israeli before this.”
‘No, I have never spoken with a Palestinian my own age’
“She is really sweet,” says Maya, age 14, from Efrat. “This is great. No, I have never spoken with a Palestinian my own age.”
It is because of these similar reactions among the teens that the Roots initiative — Shorashim in Hebrew, Jedour in Arabic — is gaining traction — and funding. Judelman and Palestinian partners, the Abu Awwad family on whose three-dunam (0.8 acres) piece of land where the group sits just off of Route 60, are anxious to begin regular Arabic and Hebrew language classes for early teenagers or younger.
Most Palestinian kids learn English, but no Hebrew, in either public or private schools. Some women and many men learn the language through work in the settlements or in the State of Israel. Some men learn Hebrew in Israeli jails.
In theory, Israelis learn some classical “Fusha” Arabic in school, but many if not most do not get much beyond, “Hello, how are you, what are you doing?”
‘We believe that learning the language of the other is a part of a process of reconciliation’
“This is not about developing political solutions for the moment,” Judelman stresses. “But we believe that learning the language of the other is a part of a process of reconciliation, without which I find it hard to imagine any political solution.”
Judelman himself speaks conversational Arabic.
His mentor at Tekoa, the late Rabbi Menachem Froman, inverted the classic maxim of exclusive ownership of the land by the Jewish people and recognized a mutual belonging. The land does not belong to the Jewish people, he said. The people belong to the land, the Jewish and Palestinian people, in Hebrew and in Arabic.
Meanwhile at photography class, the kids are saying goodbye. Parents have come to pick them up, men with kippot from Efrat, women with hijab, headscarves, from Beit Ummar. Most politely ignore each other. The crew from Al Khader piles into Khaled Abu Awwad’s sports utility vehicle for the ride home.
All the kids on both sides say they want to return next week for another class — and they want to learn the language of the other.
“For us, it is most important to target the kids as a part of reconciliation,” Abu Awwad explains. “We want to give them the tools to deal with the situation in the future better than other kids, with the fear and anger that are definitely going to be a part of their reality.”