By Mirit Sulema
Two weeks after the violent events that took place in Akko, I walked into the high school classroom where I teach a new media course. Sixteen sixteen-year-olds looked at me with tired eyes, their glances punctuated by more question marks than exclamations marks. They’ve grown accustomed to a kind of routine-less routine, accustomed to classes being cancelled at the last minute because of some national emergency or other. A pandemic? Military operation? Civil unrest and race riots? They are learning to live between crises, learning that the adults around them have answers to too few of their questions.
This time, as I entered the classroom, I felt different. It’s amazing that Israel has served me up so many different crises over this past year, but this is the one that made me feel different. For the two weeks before seeing the students, I had no words to describe what I went through during the violent events that took place in Akko against the backdrop of the clashes between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza. I found myself walking around with a lump in my throat, tears in my eyes and fear in my heart. All day. Every day. Walking into that classroom in such a frazzled state was pretty scary.
What am I meant to talk to them about? What do I have to say to them?
We read a poem together. I told them what happened on the street beneath my building. I told them that this was the first time I have ever feared for my life. But I also told them that I haven’t lost hope for shared Jewish-Arab existence in Akko. My last sentence was: I’m here to hear what you went through.
Maxim, one of my students, is fifteen and a half. His dad is a Muslim, and his mother is Jewish – an Olah from the former Soviet Union. He lives in the Arab town of Shfaram. He was the first to open his mouth: “I went to Haifa, my friends called me to say that there was some street violence going down. I went there to tell them to go home. That they were looking for trouble. My dad called and I told him in Arabic what was going on, that’s the language we always speak. Some Jews on the street heard me speaking Arabic, and they started chasing me. I ran away, I don’t even know what I was running away from. I felt like I was in danger. That evening I came home and there was a violent demonstration taking place outside our house. Two friends called me; they were injured. They asked for help. They came up to the house and I took care of their wounds. They had rocks and iron bars in their bags. I don’t agree with the path they chose, but I understand their anger, and they are my friends and they needed help. They tried to convince me to join them. I refused, and they left.”
All that I could think about as Maxim was talking, was that I’m proud of that boy for choosing the path of nonviolence. And that I’m proud of him for helping his friend, even though he disagreed with his chosen path. And, most of all, why? Why does a kid, fifteen-and-a-half years old, have to get caught up in a situation like that?
At that moment I understood that these kids live to be heard, they have stories to tell.
Two days later, we met with the youth leaders who run the bike workshop – a project of the Akko Educators’ Kibbutz. This is a group of eight guys between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, most of them are at least twice my height, Arabs. They speak a little Hebrew, a little English. We decided to open a dialogue about what went down, together with a professional mediator from the city, to speak about violence, and to ask together about what should be the role of the bike workshop, a project that takes place in the street and serves Jews and Arabs, at a time when the street is no longer a safe place to be.
All of the members of the group have friends who participated in the demonstrations. One of them even went out, planning to join, but went home when he saw that it had turned violent. All of them expressed anger at the establishment. They spoke about feeling like they are treated as inferior and that they have fewer opportunities in the society where they live. Not one of them said a single word about al-Aqsa, or about Sheikh Jarrah. They weren’t thinking about that at all. I wanted to give them all a chance to vent, to share their frustrations and their anger. The dialogue was entirely in Arabic. I understood about 80% of the words and 100% of the emotions.
At the end of the dialogue, we asked them if it would be hard for them to go to the street workshop that day and help fix bikes for Jews. Basel answered in Arabic: “Bikes aren’t Arab or Jewish, bikes are just bikes.”
None of those conversations were easy. We have found ourselves in a situation where a crack has formed in the trust between Jews and Arabs in the city where race riots took place right outside our homes, where a Jewish man was lynched.
It has become harder to be an educators’ kibbutz in Akko during this recent period. It is harder to arrive at every encounter with the perspective of an educator. It has become harder to let the Jewish population of the city feel the whole spectrum of feelings that accompany the violent events, including distrust, fear, trauma, hatred and at the same time raise the alarm against building walls that we won’t be able to take down. However, as always, I am discovering that education is the path to breaking down walls and defenses. When I set out to do Tikkun Olam armed with words, with dialogue, with the perspective of an educator, it is much easier to build trust.
Akko saw violent riots in 2008, but we also saw peace and solidarity reign in 2014 when Yom Kippur and Eid-al-Adha fell at the same time. The violent events of 2021 will become another chapter in the story of this city. We cannot ignore it, we must not fail to perceive it as a part of our reality. We must not simply move on as though nothing happened and pretend that everything is OK, even though the desire to go back to life as usual is stronger than anything. Jews and Arabs will need to continue living here for many generations to come. In order for us to do that, we need to choose to see what happened as part of this city’s story, to remember that violence exists within us, but inside each human being is the power to choose another path.
Mirit Sulema is a member of the Akko Educators’ Kibbutz – Dror Israel