A veteran reporter examines Jewish-Arab relationships in ‘The Branch’ podcast

Dina Kraft talks to pairs of Jewish and Arab friends, colleagues, and workmates for a Hadassah project

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Dina Kraft interviewing Sami Saadi, co-CEO of Tsofen, in Nazareth, November 2019, for the 15th episode of her Hadassah podcast, 'The Branch.' (Courtesy Mitchell Coopersmith)
Dina Kraft interviewing Sami Saadi, co-CEO of Tsofen, in Nazareth, November 2019, for the 15th episode of her Hadassah podcast, 'The Branch.' (Courtesy Mitchell Coopersmith)

Journalist Dina Kraft, originally hailing from the United States, has been writing and reporting, interviewing and capturing stories from Israel for more than 20 years.

Recently, the veteran reporter has been seeking out the noises and accents heard during her interviews collecting the stories of Israel’s Arabs and Jews, in “The Branch,” a monthly podcast created for Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, Inc.

“I’ve fallen in love with voices even more through the podcast medium,” said Kraft, during a recent afternoon conversation in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem neighborhood, just before she interviewed a pair of tour guides for an upcoming podcast. “I think of everything in terms of sound. When you bring someone whose world is very removed from you, when you hear their voice and what they’ve been through, and what they live with, you can’t dismiss them as caricatures. You now have the timbre of their voice and the echo of their laughter.”

It is this kind of candor, sensitivity, and comfort that Kraft has always brought to her writing, and now lends to “The Branch,” a project conceived of by Hadassah nearly two years ago, hosted and written by Kraft and produced by Josh Kross and Skyler Inman.

The Jewish women’s organization wanted to capture a slice of Israel beyond headline news. Given that the organization’s main institution, Hadassah Hospital, is “an island of shared society,” said Kraft, with an apparently seamless melding of Arabs and Jews as patients and on staff, it made sense to explore that relationship in the podcast.

Kraft sought pairs of Jews and Arabs, people who work together in different realms throughout Israel, divining and examining what makes their partnerships work, and how they handle the white elephant in the room, that is, the potentially viscerally emotional political conflict between them.

With each episode, and each pair she spotlights, Kraft said she aims to find “what makes them tick as individuals and what’s the magic between them, the shared obsession, whether it’s music or social justice, or recently, a passion for integration in high-tech.”

“The Branch” is not a podcast about coexistence, a term once regularly used to describe Arabs and Jews working together. It’s considered null and void, referring to people who exist in separate spheres, said Kraft, “little bubbles that don’t touch, people who tolerate one another, as opposed to shared society where people are working to combine societies.”

Instead, the podcast is about “sharing this land, about recognizing the disparities that exist between Jews and Arabs,” said Kraft. “It’s about the people who really are fighters for making it as fair as possible.”

The people featured in “The Branch” podcasts are a varied crew so far, ranging from fellow kitchen cooks, teachers and tour guides to Jaffa rappers, Hadassah doctors and nurses and a pair of feminist activists, to mention a few.

Michal (right) and Mahdi, who work closely together in a Mahane Yehuda kitchen, were the subjects of Episode 9 of Hadassah’s podcast, ‘The Branch.’ (Courtesy Dina Kraft)

There’s Michal and Mahdi, a Jewish woman and Arab man who cook together in the little kitchen of her Mahane Yehuda restaurant, Shakshuk.

They fry onions together and don’t generally speak about political ideals. In fact, until they met and became close work friends, she had no idea why he would feel at risk on the streets of Jerusalem, something they each explain — Michal, in halting English, and Mahdi in Arabic-accented Hebrew.

When Mahdi’s house was torn down for being built in the gray zone determined by both the Palestinian and Israeli authorities, Michal took him to a Tel Aviv lawyer to see if he had a chance of winning his case. That anecdote, and others, are told in Episode 9.

“The Branch” podcasts also told the stories of feminist activists Hamutal and Samah who helped organize a major rally combating domestic violence last December in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, Jaffa rappers who like to say they fight for “co-resistance,” two Hadassah doctors who don’t agree about politics but deeply appreciate one another’s expertise, and a pair of reporters from Gaza and Tel Aviv, who have been friends for decades.

There are also the more familiar stories, such as the Hand in Hand bilingual school, the Arab and Jewish owners of ice cream chain Buza and one of Kraft’s favorites, the first episode of the podcast, which was recorded at the Arab-Hebrew Theater in Jaffa.

Dina Kraft (left), with Hamutal Gouri (middle) and Samah Salaime, the two feminist activists interviewed for ‘The Branch’ podcast. (Courtesy Dina Kraft)

Kraft aims for a mix of Arab citizens and Palestinian subjects.  Only rarely have Palestinians demurred because of the anti-normalization movement, said Kraft, referring to Palestinians who won’t publicize or talk about any kind of normalcy with Israeli Jews, for fear of normalizing the current situation of power disparity between Israelis and Palestinians.

Kraft discussed that issue at length with one “very articulate” 16-year-old Palestinian teenage girl who is a member of Kids for Peace, a youth movement of Arab and Jewish teens, and which was the subject of Episode 13, titled “Kid Power.”

“This is about people who by design or by default have come together,” she said, “whether by rapping onstage or in high-tech or making kubbeh together.”

What she has discovered is that those who do work together are generally less scared to talk about the difficult issues, to touch those raw nerves, and they develop deep and rich connections with one another as a result.

“The message is you don’t have to agree on everything to be friends,” said Kraft. “If the grand goal is go in the same direction of equality and justice in this place, it doesn’t matter how you get there.”

The experience of finding, hearing and telling these stories is often as moving for Kraft as it is for her subjects. In conversation, she quotes often from the podcasts, marveling at the people and their experiences, and what they reflect about life in Israel.

Neta Weiner (left) and Mohammed Aguani, the activist rappers behind System Ali. (Courtesy Dina Kraft)

Kraft currently writes for the Haaretz English edition and The Christian Science Monitor, and was previously based in Jerusalem and Johannesburg for The Associated Press. In her years of writing in this region, she said she has found that much of the segregation that takes place in Israel is not always by design, but is just what happens. This podcast is her opportunity to dig a little deeper and find out what can change the trajectory.

“I’m not trying to do coexistence washing,” she said. “No one would listen to that podcast. You listen to a podcast because you want to go to a place you’ve been taken to before. You want to be transported.”

She loves digging into the personal histories of her interview subjects, finding out where their parents and grandparents came from, hearing the stories on both sides and realizing how much those personal stories impact them.

“I’ve always tried to translate this place for the outside world in print, but it’s always at a remove,” said Kraft. “Here, it’s in your face and I love that so much. I love interviewing people and getting their back story and asking them, ‘how would you describe your friend, your co-worker, for someone else?’ They kind of blush, but sometimes they work together day in and day out and never have time to ask that question.”

As she closes in on 16 episodes, Kraft is taking her show on the road to US, and will be speaking to American audiences about the project and process.

She reflected that it’s an inspiring project, and the passion of her interviewees is “often infectious and definitely hopeful,” said Kraft.

“It’s much easier to put your hands on your head and say everything sucks if you’re not involved with anything,” she said. “People who really care about each other give you hope, because these things are happening despite what’s going on, despite the forces to instill hatred.”

Kraft is launching a speaking tour about “The Branch” on December 15 in Boston and will also appear in the New York City metro area, Washington, DC and Miami, Florida.

For information on her speaking venues, please visit The Branch page or see here for details.

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