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Story Publication logo November 30, 2015

Mideast: Film Project Aims at Bridging Divisions


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Twenty-years after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, Israeli society is as divided as ever, and former...

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Efrat Eyal Hatchwell, youth director at the Jerusalem International YMCA, runs the youth film program. Image by Larry Roberts. Israel, 2015.

JERUSALEM—As Jerusalem teens Nadav and Anan set out to guide each other across the Israeli-Palestinian divide a few years ago, they faced a question: Whose language should they speak?

Nadav, a Jew, knew little Arabic. Anan, an Arab, could get by just fine in Hebrew, but faced risks if he was seen in Palestinian neighborhoods chatting away in the language of "the occupier."

"Everyone would say: 'Who is this? Why are you walking with this Jewish guy?' " Anan said. "They would start to ask me, 'What are you doing with him?' "

Ultimately, they didn't talk much on Palestinian streets. When they did, Nadav stuck to what was then his one sentence of Arabic: "I want some delicious food."

The two were part of a youth filmmaking program at the Jerusalem International YMCA, where they created a 16-minute movie about their efforts to visit, together, the world's most contentious holy sites: The Western Wall and the Temple Mount.

The film, screened scores of times early this year, has been almost entirely shelved since September. That's when conflict around those holy sites inflamed tensions that contributed to a surge in violence. Tempers are now so high that Efrat Eyal Hatchwell, the YMCA's Youth Department director, asked that the young filmmakers' last names be withheld, to prevent reprisals against them. Some of the project's less controversial videos can be viewed at

The filmmaking program, meanwhile, rolls on, with funding from The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Ms. Hatchwell is casting about for a group of young filmmakers from Pittsburgh who might be paired with her crew.

While youths like Anan and Nadav must eventually leave her program, Ms. Hatchwell is on a lifelong journey. The destination: The Jerusalem of her youth, one in which it wasn't necessary to look over one's shoulder for the glint of a knife or the flash of a muzzle. That city is now distilled into a few nodules of coexistence — including the YMCA — scattered about the Jerusalem hills.

"A lot of things went wrong in this [city]," said Ms. Hatchwell this month, in an interview at the YMCA. "Although it seems so dark around us, [the YMCA] is a place of light."

Frozen in pieces

The odometer mileage between Nadav's neighborhood and Anan's village, both in southern Jerusalem, is roughly the same as that between Squirrel Hill and Homewood. The cultural distances, too, are comparable, though in Jerusalem they are littered with the persistently violent history between Jews and the Palestinians in that city and the nearby West Bank.

From 1948 until 1967, a no-man's-land ran through Jerusalem, with Jordanian troops on the Palestinian east and Israelis on the Jewish west. As Arab armies massed in 1967, Israel struck first, taking territory from Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Israel later annexed East Jerusalem, and the West Bank is now a simmering stew of Palestinian cities and Jewish settlements.

Two decades ago, leaders on both sides drafted a path to peace in the Oslo Accords, which turned over West Bank cities to the Palestinian Authority. To many, that seemed to be a step toward Palestinian independence.

Instead, the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist, and later cycles of Palestinian violence and Israeli reprisals, froze the process. Instead of expanding, the bubbles of Palestinian-run territory have been ringed by Jewish settlements, Israeli-run checkpoints and a "security barrier" of walls and fences. Rather than a competent negotiating partner, the Israelis face a fragmented Palestinian society with ineffective leaders, armed factions and young rogues with knives and stones.

The hardened lines between Israeli and Palestinian administration are mirrored in the cultural split. Starting with segregated neighborhoods and schools, the two societies exist side-by-side, but almost entirely separate. Many Jews and Palestinians grow up without ever interacting, on a friendly basis, with the other side.

Watch the interview with Efrat Eyal Hatchwell, here.

It hasn't always been that way. Ms. Hatchwell said that as a girl, she played with Palestinian kids on the vast rooftops of Jerusalem's Muslim-dominated Old City, and ate lunch in Arab restaurants whose proprietors had warm relationships with her parents.

Palestinians have also noticed a change since the bloody Second Intifada, from 2000 through 2005, in which around 1,000 Jews and two to three times that many Palestinians were killed.

"Until the year 2000, I used to go out with my Jewish friends to Tel Aviv, to Jerusalem," said Saad Khatib, 50, a Youngstown State University graduate from Warren, Ohio, who lives in Jerusalem and manages Palestine Online. "It is no longer acceptable in Palestinian society to be seen with Israelis. It is no longer acceptable in Israeli society to be seen with Palestinians."

'A little bit scary'

When Anan and Nadav finished filming each other's homes, they looked for a bigger challenge.

The Western Wall, all that remains of King Herod's Temple that was leveled in 70 A.D., is Judaism's holiest site. It flanks the Temple Mount, which includes the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aksa Mosque, comprising the third-holiest site in Islam.

Since September, Palestinian and Israeli leaders have accused each other of trying to upset the delicate balance of power that has governed the Temple Mount since 1967. That — plus a fatal July arson attack by Jewish extremists on a West Bank family — has helped spur a rash of stabbings, shootings and stone-throwing by Palestinians, and a backlash of shootings and crackdowns by Israelis.

Things weren't quite as tense when Nadav and Anan brought their camera to the world's most contentious hilltop.

At the Western Wall, the secular Nadav was urged to pray by Orthodox Jews. He approached the wall and, as many Jews do, stuffed a note in a crack. His hastily scrawled wish to God: "No one asks Anan to pray."

Twice on separate days, the two were turned away from the Temple Mount by its Muslim gatekeepers. Finally, they figured out how to gain admittance without lying when the guard asked, "Are you Muslim?"

"Thank God!" Anan exclaimed.

It was "weird, a little bit scary," to walk a plaza where Jews are forbidden to pray, and increasingly unwelcome as visitors, said Nadav.

Their film might not be well received today. Anan said he wouldn't want it to be screened in his neighborhood. Why? "All of the problems, what's going on right now."

Nadav said he'd stand by the film, though "some of the kids in my school would not like it."

'Meet the other? No.'

As a girl, Ms. Hatchwell considered the Temple Mount her playground, and she remembers being inside of the Al-Aksa Mosque. Four years ago, she became the YMCA's youth director, determined to use the Downtown Jerusalem facility, with its iconic tower overlooking the city, to foster sanity.

A spiritual city carved into hostile neighborhoods "is wrong," she said. "In the normal, healthy logic of a young teen, they understand that something is wrong here."

Her sales pitch to young people, made in the segregated schools, was initially not warmly received. "'What do you want us to do? Who do you want us to sit with?'" she recounted. "They would all go, 'No. Meet the other? No.' "

She drew plenty of flack. "I lost friends in this new occupation I took on myself," she said. "I have friends who told me, 'You are not putting your effort in the right place.' "

Even her son questioned her. She said she explained her work to him this way: "Because this is the only hope for you to stay and live in this country. … I want my grandchildren to grow up in Jerusalem."

Watch a video of the interview, here.

Her school visits eventually won her a trickle of young converts, swayed by her argument that cross-cultural contact would enhance creativity, and by the plum of international engagement. The YMCA's youth leadership group, for instance, participates some years in Peace Camp Ottawa, held at Ashbury College.

"Having people from around the world supporting this group makes you feel you are not alone," she said. "Someone out there is willing to share my stress."

One war zone to another

The equipment used by Ms. Hatchwell's filmmakers was paid for largely with a $10,000 grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, in conjunction with the Jerusalem Foundation. The federation this year provides $7,500 in operating support.

"The strength of the bonds that these kids have built has made it possible to talk about such difficult and wrenching concerns in an open and honest way that, to me, is the greatest promise for peace," said Adam Hertzman, the Federation's director of marketing.

Ms. Hatchwell is now seeking an international peer for her teen filmmakers — preferably a group with experience dealing with conflict — and she hopes that, too, can be found in Pittsburgh.

Informed of the YMCA's need for a partner, several Pittsburgh Public Schools high school teachers expressed interest.

Carl Kurlander, a veteran screenwriter, runs the Steeltown Entertainment Project, including a 20-person Teen Film Crew. With students from Squirrel Hill's Allderdice High School and Homewood's Westinghouse Academy 6-12, among other city schools, it crosses stark neighborhood boundaries, too.

Some of the crew members "are growing up in a war zone" in Pittsburgh, Mr. Kurlander said. "It would be interesting to have these [Pittsburgh] kids talk with kids in a real war zone."

'Good Arabs and social peacenics

These days Anan is working in a restaurant and volunteering, as he prepares to study veterinary science abroad. He said that after his studies, he'll return to Jerusalem. But he isn't sure whether he'll find work in the Jewish or Palestinian economies.

"For me, it will be hard [in a Jewish veterinary venue], because they don't accept everyone. [They'll ask:] Why do I want to work here? Am I a good Arab?" Anan said. "On the Palestinian side, they don't have money to go to a veterinary hospital."

Nadav is finishing high school, and finally studying Arabic. He's planning to spend a year helping special needs people to participate in sports, before he does his obligatory stint in the Israel Defense Forces.

"This experience in YMCA taught me something," he said. "I see people go around and tell people how they should be, that they're wrong. And I don't see how it can solve problems."

He said that some of his friends go to peace marches, but mostly as a social event. He doesn't think signs and slogans will help. He puts his hope in one-on-one contact.

"I think the first thing is to respect the other side," he said. "I think the way I can solve the problem is to live along with Anan."



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