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In Israel’s Western Galilee, neighboring Arab and Jewish community centers share a mission of hope

By Andrew Adler - Community Editor, Jewish Federation of Louisville.


 

This is a tale of two community centers in Israel. It’s also the story of two men – one Jewish, the other Bedouin – who have forged a connection based as much on friendship as it is on profession.  


Golan Rosenberg and Ahmed Samniya are bound up in service to their respective constituencies that, whether Israeli or Arab, are far more alike than different. Each boasts a community ranging from toddlers to seniors, who regard their facilities as an anchoring presence amid a fraught, potentially threatening environment. Rosenberg heads a network of five community centers administered by the Mateh Asher Regional Council, located in the Western Galilee area of northern Israel — and the core of the Jewish Federation of Louisville’s Partnership2Gether region. Rosenberg lives on Kibbutz Yechiam, only a mile south of the Lebanese border. Samniya’s home is in the nearby Arab village of Sheikh Danun.  

It is, to say the least, volatile territory. Indeed, residents of the nearby Bedouin village of Arab al-Aramshe had to be evacuated to elsewhere in Israel because of the threat of rocket barrages from Hezbollah, following the October 7 attacks by Hamas in southern Israel.  


Before that terrible day and continuing even now, there’s been a concerted effort to address particular needs of the Arab population.  


“We took those two villages and made a specific program of communication that belongs only to them,” Rosenberg says, “because it’s unique in culture, in education, in the typical things they are doing in their communities.”  


Cooperative energy has been a key dynamic. “We have programs and activities were doing together, that bring Arabs and Jews together,” he explains, adding that post-October 7 realities made it necessary to pause some of these activities “because of the sensitivity of the situation that we are now in.”  


Rosenberg is the first to acknowledge that Israel carries its own skewed sense of the routine. “Let’s say that on the normal days that we have – which are not ‘normal’ on any day in Israel – we have to bring people to the same table to be able to talk about connections between Arabs and Jews,” he explains. “We are trying all the time to find topics and to do deep work — between teens, mostly – and sometimes with adults and seniors. But now some of them are in the Army, so it’s difficult for them to continue with these programs, and in Sheikh Danun, which is Muslim.”  


He is frustrated that outsiders, who obtain much of their information from sometimes unreliable media sources, don’t fully appreciate the complexities in play.  


“They’re saying that there are Muslims, Israelis, Palestinians – and for some of them, it’s hard to understand the situation going on in Gaza and also in Lebanon,” Rosenberg observes, emphasizing that “we are trying not to bring the conflict to the table, which is very tough.”  


The current imperative is to ratchet down tensions that might prove divisive. “We’re saying that we’re going to leave it for a little bit,” he says, resuming certain programs “when the situation will make it much easier to be able to sit around the table.”  


Samniya, in heritage and practice, is a lifelong proponent of Israeli-Arab cooperation.  

“I grew up on a kibbutz,” he says. Nowadays, “you work on a lot of things inside your village, but it’s very important for me to be connected with other kibbutzim. So we make a lot of sports activities together; we make a lot of traveling together. It’s normal.”  


He’s particularly proud of Sheikh Danun’s annual Coffee Festival, which attracts visitors from around the region and beyond – many of whom are hosted by village families. The festival provides an opportunity for people of diverse backgrounds “to meet each other around coffee – for Arabs, for Jews, for everyone in their homes – to sit and talk together. Last year 5,000 Jewish people visited Sheikh Danun. For some of them it was the first time they had visited an Arab village.”  


The events of October 7 forced organizers to cancel this year’s festival, which was slated to get underway just a week afterward. Still, Samniya maintains an air of unfettered optimism about the power of human kinship. “If you know people, when you make friends, you have empathy for them,” he says.  


Asked whether it became necessary to rebuild trust after October 7, Samniya answered this way: “What happened affected a lot of things between us. We are trying to understand these feelings. A soldier – I know he has a son, he has a mother, he has family – the same people who are dying in other ways.”  


Too many people, Samniya believes, treat all Arabs as if they were a single group, to be regarded as intrinsic enemies. He recalls talking by phone to his daughter – who’d been studying in Tel Aviv and was traveling that day by train – telling her to speak in Hebrew instead of Arabic to avoid drawing unwanted attention.  


“What happened on 7 October nobody expected,” he says. For many Arabs who live in the Western Galilee, the weeks immediately following an eerie sense of unease. “After 7 October, we felt a little bit afraid,” he acknowledges. “We were a little bit afraid to speak Arabic, to travel, to study, to speak our language. We hide everything inside. If you put your Facebook status by mistake, there are a lot of Arab people who get arrested, like they were Hamas. I understand the feelings of those people: They are angry.”  


The understandable reality is that “you are living in a Jewish country,” Samniya says. Still, not everything is defined by tension and unease, even in a time of war. “Golan is my boss and is also my best friend. He was trying to talk to me about what his son is doing in the (IDF) Reserves, and he almost cried. I hugged him, and said I wished it was finished. And I know he cared about my daughter, and I take care of his son because it’s very, very dangerous.”  


Lebanon, after all, is almost at their doorstep. “We have soccer fields that are something like 200 meters from the border,” Rosenberg says. “I’m sitting in my home, and we have (an installation) of artillery that’s sitting about 100 meters (away). And each night we hear the booms that go from it into Lebanon. It’s every night and every day. That’s our normal now.” 

 

Given those circumstances, the community centers act as a refuge from the endemic, grinding anxiety. “We serve from birth until 99,” Rosenberg says. “It can be programs for seniors, sport activity, or just the library. It could be meeting to travel and walk in Israel on a Friday or Saturday. Everything is connected to the community. The mayor of Mateh Asher says that we are ‘a community of communities.’”  


It may all come down to one indisputable fact: “We must live together,” Samniya says. “We don’t have any other choice.” 


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