As Israelis and Palestinians battled each other this summer, Nitzan Gordon came to Baltimore seeking money to support coexistence in Israel.
The intractable conflict between the state of Israel and Palestinians living in the occupied areas of the West Bank appears to be escalating with no resolution in sight. The unrest also has eroded relations between Israelis and their Arab neighbors who are citizens of the Jewish state, and tested the efforts of Gordon and others who seek social justice for all residents. Yet the small groups of Arab and Israeli women whom Gordon has helped bring together for the past five years have found a refuge from hatred. It is a place, Gordon says, "to experience joy."
The program the women are participating in, Beyond Words: Moving Towards Coexistence in Israel, is designed to achieve much more than simple joy. Co-founded by Gordon and Israeli-Arab educator Mariam Mar'i, Beyond Words trains Arab and Israeli kindergarten teachers to become leaders in the coexistence effort. It is Gordon's hope that in turn, the instructors will help their students embrace the concept, multiplying the program's impact with each new generation.
Gordon, 41, who received a master's degree in dance therapy at Goucher College, spent several months in Baltimore this summer visiting friends, and asking local foundations for contributions to her program based in Acre, a town in Israel with a large Arab population.
Through dance, massage, games and talk, Gordon and three other teachers (two Arabs and two Israelis) seek to penetrate fear and pain to tap into the humanity that unites their students.
Drawing upon Martin Buber, Bruno Bettelheim and other thinkers, Gordon's premise is that oppression stems from deep psychic wounds and insecurity.
"People who are nurtured, who have safe and supportive places in which to release their most painful feelings, can make meaningful changes in how they feel about themselves and how they relate to others," says Gordon in the Mount Washington home of a friend. While she speaks, her children, Shir, 13, and Ben, 9, play hide and seek with a young neighbor. A woman with sensual, dark eyes and unruly hair, Gordon often breaks into Hebrew to answer their questions.
Timing is everything
In Baltimore, Gordon met with Art Abramson, director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. While he applauds her goals, he says they are a tough sell at a time when suicide bombers strike, "when these kinds of attacks leveled against Jews get in the way of support. To everything there is a season, including Nitzan's program. I would not give up on the program, but it needs proper nurturing."
Gordon has received support from New York philanthropists Harold and Myra Shapiro, as well as from the Abraham Fund, which currently supports 60 coexistence projects in Israel, including a circus school for Arab and Israeli children. The fund is based in New York and Jerusalem.
Investor Alan Slifka, the fund's founder, speaks highly of Gordon's project, of which he has observed: "I was very taken by the way she was able to get a group of strangers to all of a sudden join in dance and join in games and join in the experiential process."
Teachers "who are educated in feeling comfortable in talking about the issue of `the other' " are in the frontline of the coexistence effort, Slifka says.
He doesn't consider Gordon's approach to be idealistic. "When you live in a violent society like Ireland or Israel, you can either build bridges between two communities, or you can not do anything, which creates stereotypes and alienation. You know all the people who have done coexistence work know that [it] works."
Coexistence efforts are critical, "now more than ever," says Terry Rubenstein, executive director of the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Fund, a Baltimore philanthropy that supports such programs. "My sense and knowledge is that funding is continuing and people are not backing away," says Rubenstein.
Moving beyond pain
When each Beyond Words session begins, participants first struggle with the suspicion, frustration and hatred that prevent them from reaching out to one another, Gordon says. The teachers guide them past their emotional wounds to a common understanding. "We've all suffered, let's try to end it," is how Gordon puts it.
Gordon hopes that upon completing the course, Beyond Words participants will take steps to work toward greater equality for Arabs in Israeli society. The program also helps to empower Arab women, traditionally repressed within their own communities. "When women have such little voice," they have little control over the cultural beliefs their children are raised on, says Gordon, who lives near Acre in the Western Galilee town of Mitzpe Hila.
Wafa Bubo is one of the Arab women from Acre who works with Gordon. "We have to live together," she says by phone. "And if we have to live together, why can't we live together in peace?"