Building peace in a fractured land
During a meeting of about 50 teenagers in Israel’s western Galilee region, students were grouped in pairs and asked to identify how they were similar and different. Although half of them were Jewish and half were Arab, none of them mentioned that seemingly obvious distinction. When asked why, they told a moderator, “We are all human.”
The meeting, involving students from four schools in Jerusalem and the western Galilee, was part of a peace education program designed and led by Arik Gutler Ofir, a former Rotary Peace Fellow. It was supported by a 2016 Rotary Foundation global grant and implemented by the Rotary Club of Jerusalem, just one of the club’s many peacebuilding initiatives.
The students stayed at each other’s homes and learned about each other’s food, music, and cultures. The project was so successful that when the grant money ran out, a local education board integrated the initiative — which had been co-sponsored by the Rotary Club of Mönchengladbach, Germany, and supported by Rotary clubs and districts in Australia, Germany, and the United States — into the civics curriculum.
“When you bring children from both sides to get to know each other, you create a situation where the other is not an enemy,” says Dan Shanit, a former medical clinician, researcher, and program developer who has served as the Jerusalem club’s president twice, most recently in 2021-22. “Enemies are anonymous. They don’t have a face. What you want is to know the face.”
Since its beginning, the Rotary Club of Jerusalem has focused on peace. The club was chartered in 1929 during a period when the region, including the future state of Israel and what would become the occupied Palestinian territories in Gaza and the West Bank, was under British colonial rule. Most of the charter members were from the city’s British elite. Today, the club continues to hold meetings in English.
Peacebuilding tips for clubs
The Rotary Club of Jerusalem focuses its energy and fundraising on peace education for Arab and Jewish youth, and humanitarian aid for Palestinian children. “It’s our specialty,” says Dan Shanit, past club president and a former deputy director general and medical director of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. “I hope it continues to be.” Shanit has this advice for clubs in places of conflict that are looking to make an impact in peacebuilding:
- Partner with health care organizations to provide medical help to people on the other side of the conflict. Medical aid is an excellent instrument to bridge divides because it is difficult for either side to refuse it.
- Expose children to the ideas and values of peace and coexistence from a young age, before they develop prejudices.
- Support projects that bring together children from both sides of the conflict to get to know each other.
For decades, its members have met at the Jerusalem International YMCA. With its elegant arches, domes, and tower, the building is a city landmark and a place for finding common ground. Arab and Jewish members were quick to join and within five years, the club had its first non-British president, D.G. Salameh, an Arab who had been vice mayor of Jerusalem. The following year Leon Roth, a Jewish professor of philosophy, became president.
The club’s ability to serve as a place where people of all faiths, ethnicities, and political views could find common ground was tested during the war that surrounded the withdrawal of the British and the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. The fighting split the city between Israeli and Arab control, with Arabs to the east and Jews to the west and barriers between them. The YMCA was on the Israeli side of the city.
“When the war ended, Jerusalem was divided,” Shanit says. “Most of the Arab members had lived in the wealthy neighborhoods in the west side of the city and were expelled or fled.” As a result, the club lost its Arab members.
War returned in 1967 when Israel attacked neighboring Arab states and conquered East Jerusalem, along with the Arab territories of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights, and put Palestinians under military occupation. Jerusalem was whole again, and people could travel freely. But the Rotary club that had formed in East Jerusalem soon dissolved, and the Palestinians there did not want to join the Rotary Club of Jerusalem, located on the Israeli west side of the city.
Rizek Abusharr, 86, who first learned of Rotary while working at the YMCA as a youth director in the 1950s, says he was one of the few Arab members of the Jerusalem club when he joined it about 40 years ago. He felt welcomed and became both president of the club (in 1987-88) and the director general of the YMCA, an oasis amid the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. “Outside there was anger and inside there was peace,” he recalls. “We kept the YMCA and the Rotary club above politics, so that Jews, Christians, and Muslims could all stand on equal footing. That’s what Rotary is about.”
But it wasn’t easy.
“The hardest job of the club was being the program director,” says Abusharr, who remained a member until moving to California and joining the Rotary Club of Claremont in 2007. “You had to find a speaker who didn’t speak about something divisive. We were living Rotary’s Four-Way Test as much as humanly possible.”
For many years the YMCA has been home to what it calls a “peace kindergarten,” where it teaches Israeli and Palestinian children about each other’s holidays in both Hebrew and Arabic. The Jerusalem club became a key supporter of the school, providing scholarships to the children’s families and building a playground on the roof.
Amid the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the club currently has no Palestinians among its 22 members, but it remains international, reflecting the presence of nongovernmental organizations and other global institutions in the region to address conflict. In addition to native-born Israelis, the club has American, Dutch, German, and Nigerian members. One member joins meetings online from her home in Hawaii.
And the club’s focus remains peace. In recent years, it has implemented its peace education initiative for Jewish and Arab youth as well as a project that provided medical assistance to Palestinians. With the help of a global grant, the club arranged for Palestinian children with congenital heart problems to receive heart surgery at a hospital in Jerusalem.
This year, the club participated in a project that provides training in advanced trauma life support to Palestinian and Israeli surgeons at Israeli hospitals. The initiative, which is supported by a global grant, is a partnership with Project Rozana, which helps ill Palestinian children and trains Palestinian health care professionals. The grant is sponsored by the Rotary Club of Holon, Israel, and the Rotary E-Club of District 7610, Virginia, and is supported by other clubs in Israel, Australia, Canada, and the United States.
The latest Jerusalem club initiative is a traveling theater show by five Jewish and five Arab actors who perform at schools and in the street, in both languages. A sister club, Wiesbaden-Kochbrunnen in Germany, supported the effort by raising money. “Theater is the perfect platform through which you can convey a message about how to deal with the conflict,” says Shanit.
This story originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of Rotary magazine.