Fighting Racism through Neighborhood Tolerance Committees

Fighting Racism through Neighborhood Tolerance Committees

On January 21, the house of Professor Yaakov Malkin, provost at the International Institute for Humanistic Secular Judaism and himself an atheist, was vandalized, and the perpetrators left a note with a knife. In response, the “Neighbors Tell Their Stories” team in Katamon and the German and Greek Colonies immediately decided to act and show their support of the traumatized family. The women wrote a letter of support and visited the family the following day, bringing with them the letter, signed by dozens of neighbors, wine, and flowers. Diana, a founding member of the “Neighbors Tell Their Stories” team, wrote about her experience here.

Letter sent to Prof. Malkin and his family

Letter sent by the “Katamon-German-Greek-Colonies Tolerance Group” to Prof. Malkin and his family

The “Neighbors Tell their Stories” team is part of a growing network of neighborhood ‘tolerance teams’ that we are setting up all over Jerusalem as one way to fight racism and xenophobia in the city. It is part of a larger program, Grassroots Campaign for Tolerance, which is supported by the UJA-Federation of New York and the Jerusalem Foundation.

“In the multiply-divided city of Jerusalem, where difference is often perceived as more of a threat than a blessing, it’s very hard to recreate that gorgeous variety in a single room. But last Monday night, at our first evening, […] I had the sense of finally coming close.” This is how Diana  described the first event, in which neighbors from various backgrounds told their personal stories in order to create a better and friendlier neighborhood, regardless of race, gender, background, or political beliefs. “The audience — drawn mainly by posters on the street and Facebook posts — listened with rapt attention. Their own journeys to this neighborhood began from all corners of the globe — from Persia to Paris, the east coast of America to Eastern Europe, Tunisia to Thailand, and even Meah Shearim. Most people in attendance did not know most other people, or at least not well (a woman who looked familiar jogged my memory: ‘We know each other from the bra shop’). Yet conversations flowed like rivers…”

Neighbors Tell their Stories

Neighbors Tell their Stories in German Colony

Diana, along with three other women, has created the series of monthly meetings in order to break down the barriers between the separate ethnic groups who live in Katamon and the German and Greek Colonies. Together, this neighborhood “tolerance team” has chosen to call themselves “Neighbors Tell Their Stories,” and they already have a few other ideas to implement in the coming months…Their monthly meetings bring together 30 neighbors to hear stories of people like Yosef, whose family survived the Holocaust in Hungaria; Nili, who was born and raised in Paris and moved to Israel out of Zionist ideals; Ruth, who works with the Ethiopian community in Israel; and others.

Listening to neighbors

Listening to neighbors in Katamon

Professor Malkin’s family was very grateful, and the meeting sparked a new relationship between neighbors who’ve lived near each other for decades, but have never met or spoken. They decided that Sivan, Professor Melchin’s daughter, would speak at the next “Neighbors Tell Their Stories” event next month.

In addition to the team in Katamon/ Greek and German Colonies, there are six more teams who work in other neighborhoods: Abu Tur, Katamonim, Baka, Nahlaot, Rehavia, and French Hill, which have done some pretty amazing things. The key to this project’s success is that each neighborhood is setting its own goals and objectives, according to the nature and character of that neighborhood.

Take Abu Tor / A-Thuri, for example, which is concentrating on Jewish-Arab relations in these adjacent neighborhoods. This is extraordinary, since Abu Tor is one of the places that the Israeli army and police set up makeshift roadblocks when violence flares up, and these areas are sources of particular tension. Despite this, at the beginning of January, in cooperation with the Metropolitcan Baka’a Community Council, Jewish and Arab residents held a most productive evening based on Open Space Technology. The positive energy that infused the 50+  activists that met in Beit MICHA, Abu Tor starkly contrasted the roadblocks that had been temporarily placed just down the street a few months ago. Some of the initiatives presented are already being implemented: an Arab-Jewish team of women walkers in the public sphere, meetings over coffee between the Arab and the Jewish neighborhoods in a different home each time, and the continuation of neighborly Arabic and Hebrew classes, resulting in meetings to practice speaking together. One of the Arab children who attended the meeting drew this, as a sign of hope for a better future of living together. Other ideas that will be implemented in shortly in Abu Tur include a Jewish-Arab soccer group, a Jewish-Arab community garden, a street festival, and more.

At the Open Space Technology Meeting

At the Open Space Technology Meeting in Abu-Tor

The French Hill group also focuses on bringing Jews and Arabs together, and works in full cooperation with the local community center. As the neighborhood is made up of many young families, the group decided to focus on activities for children of all ethnicities to work together, creating art, learning about traditions, and celebrating holidays together. During the joint Christmas/Mawlid (Prophet Mohammed’s Birthday)/Hannukah celebration, a neighbor commented that “it was incredible meeting everyone – Arabs and Jews, young people and old, Ashkenazi and Middle Eastern Jews – and warmed my heart to see all the children playing together, and hearing their parents talking together. We filled the room with light, happiness, love and fun.”

Playing dreidle alongside a Christmas tree

Playing dreidle alongside a Christmas tree at the French Hill

Both Baka and Katamonim teams are currently organizing their first events, both aimed at a series of events to meet the neighbors. The Baka events will empower the elderly and enrich the young by coming together to hear stories from veteran neighbors about their personal histories in the neighborhoods. The Katamonim team events will bring together Ashkenazi and Sephardi, religious and secular, young and elderly, by creating evenings with traditional music and personal stories, and local, home-made Kubbeh!

Poster advertising the Baka'a event

Poster advertising the Baka’a event

Matan, a member of the Nahlaot team, is initiating of the Political Coffee idea. Matan wants Fridays at the Machane Yehuda Market to look a bit different: he wants to put up signs and bring coffee to the Strawberry Garden which is next to the market, and use Effective Dialogue (a special method of dialogue with a non-compliant ‘other’ that was developed by the Speaking in the Square initiative) to encourage people to hold complex political conversations in a fashionable and tolerant manner. He’s already gotten some friends together to learn about the Effective Dialogue technique from Speaking in the Square activists, and they plan on hosting the first Political Coffee day in the beginning of February!

And, inspired by the Nahlaot team, we found this graffiti sprayed around Nahlaot this week: Simple words and phrases, such as: ‘What’s up?’ ‘See you later’ ‘You’re right’ – painted in Arabic, French, Hebrew, and transliteration.

Seen in Nahlaot

Seen in Nahlaot! – pro-tolerance Graffiti for a change!

The Rehavia team has just gotten started and is made up of Ultra-Orthodox, religious, and secular residents; men, women; parents, students. They are interested in breaking down the barriers between the groups through neighborhood tours told by different residents with varying perspectives, joint Shabbat dinners, creating a Street TED Talk Day about ‘What Rehavia means to me,’ and by hanging large banners between porches in the neighborhood, displaying messages of tolerance in various languages.

Two special groups that are also getting started today are a Facebook talkback (comments) group that will work in the all-pervading ‘neighborhood’ of the Internet and social media, and an English speaking group that will work in breaking down the walls between the Anglo community in Jerusalem and the rest of the communities here.

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2016-01-30T07:24:14+00:00January 25th, 2016|Blog, Effective Activism, Promoting Tolerance in Jerusalem|