"Building Walls, Breaking Walls" \ "קצה המדבר" גיליון יוני 2022

"Building Walls, Breaking Walls" is a decade-old project operating in Israel, Switzerland and Ireland to bring people together through cultural exchange. כתבה: מרווה קובי | צילום: מרווה קובי | תרגום: דב רייך

I met with Mark Naveh, a member of Kibbutz Lotan since 1989 and a married father of three, to hear about the most recent cohort of the program at Lotan at the end of March.

Director of the Center for Creative Ecology at Lotan, and a lecturer, teacher, and group facilitator, Mark is enthusiastic about BWBW: “The program was founded by Oliver Schneitter of Switzerland and Adi Schneitter Ashton of Ireland… The idea was to bring together young people from five countries: Switzerland, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Israel and Palestine to share an experience of nature in the desert, combined with practical work to benefit the community.”

Why this arrangement specifically?

“Switzerland is home to four distinct cultures roughly corresponding to geographic areas: German, French, Italian and Romansh. The differences are enormous and people from one culture often know little of the others. In Ireland there’s the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and a history of political conflict. The focus for the program wasn’t on a particular type of conflict, but rather on the understanding that political and cultural boundaries do exist. They came up with the concept of Building Walls, Breaking Walls to address that.”

And the name?

“In Switzerland, Ireland and Northern Ireland, a very old method of dry stone building is still used today: just stones, without mortar,” Mark explains. “Modern methods have gradually displaced it, but experts in the craft still exist and they employ it with great pride. The idea is that the young people in this program would use the traditional method to build or repair a wall – that’s the “building walls” part – while meantime “breaking walls” that separate us culturally.”

“Today there are four versions in Switzerland, one for each of the cultural regions, all centering on a mountain theme. In Ireland the theme is the ocean, the sea, fishing, and so on. They looked for an Israel theme and chose the desert. So today, there are six cohorts a year: four in Switzerland, one in Ireland, and one here.”

With different participants each time?

“In principle, yes, but quite a few participants end up wanting to do the program again somewhere else. There is funding from the European Union with a modest fee for participants, but mostly it is subsidized.”

“My vision,” he adds modestly, “is that Hevel Eilot should host this program, with mostly local young people participating. They would meet people from other places and have a lot of fun. In Israel, of course, the problem is funding. I’m hoping that the regional council will underwrite part of it. And since we don’t build dry stone walls here, we are building with mud. The participants live at Lotan’s ecological campus, with the mud-wall houses and composting toilets.”

The Lotan Tea House is busy today. People come in, say hello, exchange news. I feel suddenly like I’m back trekking in South America, living the moment. An energetic man with a broad smile approaches us. Mark introduces Oliver Schneitter, who conceived the program with his wife Adi, whom he met as a tourist in Israel in 2011. “I set up the project in Switzerland,” Oliver says now. “I work at Bethlehem University and I know Jewish people on my wife’s side and also the people in Bethlehem… After my studies in Switzerland, I came to Mt. Scopus to study community leadership and religion… I was looking for Jewish and Arab nonprofits as potential partners for new projects. My wife is Jewish, and I’m Catholic, so we have a religious dialogue at home. We live in Switzerland, our children attend a Swiss school, but at home our culture is Jewish.”

As a scholar of religious conflicts, what is your view of the local conflict here in Israel?

…”One issue we address is whether religion helps or hurts in resolving conflicts… Every religion has a connection to peace. Respect for God, respect for creation and for people. Respect for the stranger. Religions aren’t about warmongering.”

What can be accomplished in just one week?

“The program is structured to introduce easier content initially and then gradually go deeper. By the end, it’s about conclusions: What am I taking away from this? We try to create groups that will stay in touch afterwards. Getting together later is harder than in some other programs because participants don’t live in the same country, but we’re also trying to build groups in the local community,” Oliver explains.

We’ve had a tough week with two terror attacks and six fatalities. What kinds of feelings did the group express in that context?

“Right now is only Day Two of the program,” Mark notes. “We’ll get into deeper content soon, and maybe then this will come up. In terms of talking about identities, the Palestinians in the program are Israeli citizens from Haifa and Acre, and typically have questions around: How Israeli am I? How Palestinian am I?”

Is there movement, a process, during the course of the week?

‘Possibly from the standpoint of stereotypes and understanding the other side. We want people to feel comfortable with their identity but also open up to the other side’s narrative. For [Jewish] Israelis it’s not simple to hear words like occupation or racism and it may be the first time they are hearing stories that aren’t easy to hear, but this is part of the process they go through,” he explains calmly.

Over the years, did anything radical happen? Or did someone ever have trouble with the content?

Mark: “Sometimes the discussions are heated. Sometimes we talk about physical borders and sometimes about invisible borders, as in Switzerland, for instance, where the borders are cultural. We talk about the question of whether there should or should not be boundaries. Whether it’s about segregation or about security depends on which side you’re on. Arabs, for example, discuss the Separation Barrier as apartheid, while [Jewish] Israelis may see it differently, depending on their politics. We don’t focus on the Israeli Palestinian conflict… Sometimes we have to move things toward a more general perspective because there are conflicting narratives, and many participants may be listening to the narrative of the other side for the first time… “ And he adds, “We ask them to consider how it is possible to live in the same place with two different narratives…”

 “A few years ago,” Oliver recalls, “during Operation Protective Edge [in 2014, in Gaza], we were in the Alps with a group and there was a tough dialogue between an Israeli guy and a Palestinian guy from Silwan. Finally they decided to extend their stay and travel together.”

The complexity of the Israeli Palestinian conflict also manifests physically, it turns out: “When the Palestinian group presents itself, they offer a map showing Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, and then when there’s an Israeli evening, the Israelis will present the same map.”

How do you feel about that, as an Israeli, Mark?

“I’m not obliged to agree but it’s very important to acknowledge that there is another narrative,” he replies.

It’s more than a narrative; there is something here that can be perceived as a threat…

“It’s threatening only if we say that they are threatening our existence, and I don’t see any statement here of an existential threat. It’s about getting to know each other better and granting legitimacy to a narrative, and they are seeking equal rights. I’m involved in other projects with Palestinians and I meet a lot of people, and everyone I meet wants to know the other side better and have a dialogue of peace that acknowledges that there is a history on both sides, and I really believe that this can be done.”

What in particular do you want people to know about the project?

“It’s an amazing experience and a chance to meet people, go abroad and see some very special places,” says Mark, his eyes shining. “Because of the community focus, I’d like this to be a project of Hevel Eilot. Every year I’d like to see kids from our southern Arava communities do this program.”

Oliver adds: “The Israeli Palestinian conflict is one of two populations on one land area and it’s not the only such case in the world. Although details differ somewhat, there are similar conflicts… This is an aspect of humanity, having different narratives and different histories. It’s not that important who is right and who is wrong, but more about taking a look and saying, well, we are all here now and how are we doing to get along together? Maybe we made mistakes but that doesn’t mean we have no right to be here.”

When are you guys not optimistic?

Oliver (smiling): “We are not trying to achieve world peace through this project. We know that we can’t. But we see that people learn from one another and enjoy being together. Especially in this age of the internet and social media, it’s so easy to receive misinformation and fake news. This encounter shows that we are all ultimately human beings and are all the same, with dreams and aspirations and everything… Afterwards everyone goes back to their country and their society and it would be unfortunate if they didn’t use the experience as a point of departure for creating change. The social pressure to stick to the existing framework is powerful.”

“Generally, the Israelis participating are right before or right after their army service,” Oliver continues. “The ones who are pre-army go on to serve with a slightly different approach… Often we tell them something like, ‘After you’ve spent a week with us, then when you stand at a checkpoint, you might feel differently if you imagine that the person standing opposite you is me.’ The participants who were already soldiers come with a somewhat more difficult background,” he says candidly. “We had someone who had just finished their army service and had a very nationalistic approach and, at first, didn’t feel comfortable sleeping alongside someone from Ramallah. A little later, he opened up.”

Does a one-week encounter really mean anything? How can it contribute to ending a conflict hundreds of years old?

“There’s been a lot of criticism of the ‘contact’ approach,” admits Mark. “As in, ‘we’ll eat hummus together and everything will be great.’ People say that after the program, the Palestinian participants will go back to the same reality… Yet, the personal encounter causes some kind of inner movement or shift that can change perceptions, which I think is the only possible way we can do the work on the narratives and on the identities and on the acceptance of one by the other – when people open their hearts to learn to know one another personally.”

One of the groups from the program is sitting next to us, and I join them to hear what they are chatting about. Mark from Northern Ireland is explaining that they are dealing with marriage in terms of how it differs according to different religions and cultures. I ask him about his experience and he says, “I am really enjoying meeting people, and everything is very different than where I come from, with all the awareness of recycling and all that… Before I got here, I was very stressed. I didn’t know what to expect and now, being here and seeing it for myself, everything is very calm.” He says that although Israel’s image in the media in Ireland is very harsh, when you get here you can see that it’s entirely different… Laughing, he adds that “when I told my mom what I was seeing, she was very surprised because the media portrayal is so different.”

Gilad from Israel says: “I was very emotional before the encounter, meeting new people… I was pleasantly surprised how easy it has been for us to get along together and how open we are to talking about different issues…”

As we walked around the campus, I met Muaz Abu Sneineh, a counselor with the program, age 23 and originally from East Jerusalem who is currently living in Haifa. He tells me about his peace work with young people over the last five years, as a participant and a counselor with Building Walls, Breaking Walls and with other nonprofits.

How is a project like this important, in your view?

“It develops people’s ability at a relatively young age to get to know people from other places who live with ongoing conflicts – amongst themselves or with other countries. It provides a different way of looking at the world. It provides hope for a different future where people can sit down and understand one another,” he explains. “We don’t have to agree about everything but we allow space for talking and thinking and we support these spaces, to give this sort of option to the next generation, for coping with the complexity that each of them has internally and between themselves and the other.”

You grew up in East Jerusalem – a very difficult place in terms of the conflict and identity. How did you feel when you first came to this project five years ago?

“I started meeting people and opening up to the other side of the city I live in,” he says. “Until I was 18, I had never met an Israeli. L studied all my life in East Jerusalem… I only knew people who thought and spoke as I did. Certainly it’s easy and nice to speak and think like everyone around you, but that doesn’t allow you to explore your own potential in talking with different people… It gave me another direction for my thinking. I started to think differently about things, things that I always saw as self-evident.”

Such as what?

“A lot of my culture I naturally took for granted, about the conflict and about myself personally. This program gave me hope and tools to examine myself and my life and think again about everything I know. It gave me tools to think differently… I participated in a lot of projects with nonprofits and this is my favorite, so I always come back to it…” he says, smiling. “What happens here is just amazing. The combination of cultural exchange, dialogue and ecology and the environment is really important, because that allows us not just to acquire tools for relating to the other but also to change our attitude toward nature and the environment.”

What makes the project unique in Israel?

…It’s true that we talk about these countries (Switzerland and Ireland) where there is political, cultural and social conflict but a lot of it is clandestine, you could say. Here, we have a hot conflict with something overt happening all the time.”

In the week prior to this interview, there were two serious terror attacks during which five people were killed. We are in a very tense week now. Do you think that affects the program’s atmosphere?

“On the fist evening, I heard them talking about the political situation. It seemed to me that it was having an impact, but not negatively. Instead it motivated us to talk about things more deeply, about the tougher things we might not have discussed ordinarily but when stuff is happening on the ground, it opens up a discussion about them. The schedule creates a kind of bubble, and the kibbutz distances us from the world outside… My impulse is to tell everyone to be good, to be kind to everyone.”

After meeting Muaz, Mark and Oliver, touring the campus, and getting to know the participants, I was left with a sense of cautious optimism. It is difficult to detach from the everyday reality, especially during such a bloody week, yet it is impossible not to be moved by the magic that happens during the encounter between these people. I freely admit that I wanted to stay awhile longer in the special atmosphere of young people building walls and breaking walls, but real life was calling me. I got into my car and drove home, and the evening news brought me back to reality with the announcement about another attack. Mark and Oliver are right. It is impossible to bring world peace with a program like this one, but I still believe that there is power and importance to encounters between people.


Author: Marva Kubi

Translator: Deb Reich


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