Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

Building Bridges : Introduction

For too long we've been told about "us" and "them". . . . But there can be no "them" in America. There's only us.

— Bill Clinton

In the long run our existence here as a Jewish state is based on our desire and our efforts to bring about coexistence.

— Yitzhak Rabin

It is our duty to nurture the values of tolerance and mutual respect; to foster a culture which accepts the decisions of the majority, while respecting the rights of the minority.

— Benjamin Netanyahu

Once a fire breaks out — whether by accident or intention — the impact on life and property can be devastating. The best firefighting techniques and the most courageous firefighters can limit the damage, but the best defense against the destructiveness of a conflagration is prevention. The same is true for human conflict. It is possible to resolve disputes, sometimes before they escalate into violence, sometimes only after hostilities, but the ideal is to create a tolerant society where conflict does not exist, or at least does not intensify to the point of violence. This should remain our goal and our dream, but, realistically, the next best solution is a community where everyone coexists. As The Abraham Fund explained in its directory of Israeli coexistence projects:

Coexistence is the minimal, least demanding way for people to relate to one another positively. It is not the same thing as love. It may not even be the same thing as friendship. To the contrary, it is an expression of distance, and an acknowledgment that boundaries will remain, that the possibilities of misunderstanding will never completely disappear. It is informed by an attitude of "live and let live" and that is precisely its message. Coexistence is an ideal without illusions. Its objective is not the seamless union of opposites, but a practical relationship of mutual respect among opposites. . . . In a pluralistic society, ethnic and cultural differences are not abolished. They are legitimated, and society strives to guarantee that the law will be blind to them.

By promoting coexistence, we may not prevent human "fires," but we can reduce the risk of them occurring, and minimize the intensity of those that occur.

The recognition, implementation and enforcement of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness codified in the U.S. Constitution are necessary but not sufficient for coexistence. Despite all the work that has been done, and is being done to resolve conflicts in the United States, tensions, intolerance and violence persist.

Prejudice and intolerance are certainly not unique to American society; nevertheless, the intensity of hatred in the United States, and the violence it spawns, is deeply disturbing. According to the FBI, nearly 8,000 hate-crime incidents were reported in 1995. Sixty-one percent of the incidents were motivated by racial bias; 16 percent by religious bias; 13 percent by sexual-orientation bias and 10 percent by ethnicity/national origin bias. Some of the problems may be attributed to extremist groups. Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazi and Skinhead organizations operate in every state of the union. More than 300 hate groups are scattered throughout the United States, according to the Klanwatch project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Still, these relatively small organizations cannot be blamed for all the tensions that exist between Whites and non-Whites, Blacks and Koreans, Blacks and Hispanics, Jews and Blacks, gays and "straights," religious and secular and other identifiable groups in conflict.

The crimes are serious enough, but what is perhaps more alarming are the attitudes of others toward these acts. For example, a 1990 Harris survey asked high school students what they would do if confronted with a racial incident. Nearly half (47 percent) said they would either join in or feel the group being attacked deserved what it was getting. The results are particularly shocking given the fact that most people, even in anonymous surveys, are reluctant to give answers that might be construed as bigoted.

A neglected aspect of crime prevention is prejudice reduction. Though not hopeless at the adult level, the best chance for preempting conflict and fostering tolerance is among children. As schools around the United States become increasingly diverse, the challenge of promoting coexistence and training teachers to manage multicultural classrooms will continue to grow. Moreover, despite the increasingly hostile policies toward immigrants, this nation will remain a melting pot, and conflicts between adults of different religions, races and ethnic groups will undoubtedly endure.

Israel has no magic solutions for eliminating conflict; however, Israelis have their own long, painful experience with similar problems and have developed innovative approaches to promote coexistence that offer lessons for Americans.

The Israeli Experience

The United States has not solved its problems in more than 200 years; therefore, it should not be surprising that Israel has not resolved its intergroup conflicts in its short 48-year history. Moreover, unlike the United States, Israel has faced a daily fight for survival against neighbors seeking to destroy it. This reality has meant that the needs of minorities living within Israel's borders were neglected and internal conflicts allowed to fester.

Israel is a small nation, about the size of New Jersey, with a population of fewer than six million people. More than 80 percent of Israelis are Jews, roughly 15 percent are Muslim, 3 percent Christian and 2 percent Druze and other groups. Israel has fought six wars and had numerous other military engagements with its neighbors and terrorist organizations, but relations between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens of the State have been remarkably free of violent confrontations. Israel has devoted an extraordinary amount of effort to prevent "fires" because everyone understands that a serious one could burn down the entire country.

When Americans think of Arab-Jewish relations, they usually have in mind Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Though many of the Arabs in Israel call themselves Palestinians and sympathize with the struggles of the Arabs outside the borders of the State, they have a distinct identity and have chosen to accept minority status as Israeli citizens. Israeli Arabs also have very different life experiences than Palestinians in the territories, who are locked in what has commonly been referred to as a conflict between two peoples over one land. Arab citizens of Israel have enjoyed the freedoms of a democratic society, such as the right to vote, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, whereas the Arabs in the territories have lived under occupation, with all the hardships that entails. Other Palestinians have lived in Arab countries with few, if any, liberties.

The Arab citizens of Israel have been loyal, peaceful members of the society since the founding of the State. Thus, the level of hostility that exists between Jews and Palestinians from the territories does not pertain to relations with Arabs within the "Green Line" (i.e., those living inside the pre-1967 borders of the State). Nevertheless, mistrust and misunderstanding are characteristics of the relationship between Israeli Arabs and Jews. Though many Israeli projects seek to foster coexistence between the Palestinian and Jewish peoples, those described in this study focus primarily on building bridges between Jews and Arabs who share the common trait of citizenship in the State of Israel.

As in the United States, all Israeli citizens are assured equal protection under the law. Israel does not have a constitution, but is governed by a series of Basic Laws that encompass many of the principles in our Bill of Rights, which have been adopted by Israel's democratically elected legislature, the Knesset. Israel's Declaration of Independence is also considered a constitutional document. It clearly enunciates the principles of freedom and equality:

The State of Israel . . . will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace . . . will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture. . . . we yet call upon the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to . . . play their part in the development of the State, with full and equal citizenship. . . .

Many Israelis, like many Americans, find the promise of equality is not always matched by the reality. Arabs in Israel have suffered economic and social discrimination. By virtually any measure — health, education, welfare — Jews are better off. One reason is that government spending has historically been significantly higher in Jewish municipalities than Arab ones. In addition, Arabs have a far more difficult time getting university educations or jobs. Legally, Arabs are differentiated from Jews in one significant way, they are not required to serve in the military (Druze and Bedouin citizens do serve). The reason for this distinction was primarily to spare the Arabs the uncomfortable requirement of going to war against their fellow Arabs (who might be relatives). Practically, this policy has limited employment possibilities for Arabs in Israel because military service plays a major role in the career opportunities of most Israelis.

Many inequalities have been meaningfully reduced in the last few years. This has been a major objective of the Israeli Government. Though noting a number of areas where more needs to be done, Sikkuy's 1994-95 Annual Progress Report, "Equality and Integration," found "significant progress in the elimination of disparities" in Interior Ministry budget allocations to municipal authorities; in resource allocation and employment in education; in National Insurance child allowances; in the level of service in Arab localities and in the quality of health services.

The distinctions are not only economic. With the exception of a few cities, Jewish and Arab communities are largely segregated, with each group living in its own villages and attending their own schools. It is important to note that this is the preference of both communities. By maintaining a separate school system, the Arab students can study in Arabic (which, along with Hebrew, is a national language) and emphasize their culture whereas the Jewish students study in Hebrew and focus on Jewish culture.

This separation means the two groups have little interaction. For example, according to Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam (see pg.18), 83 percent of Israeli Jews have never visited an Arab home, even though they live no more than a 15 minute drive from each other. As a report by Givat Haviva (see pg. 35) notes, "This separation reinforces the barriers that obstruct good communication and understanding and fosters ignorance and suspicion between the two communities. In addition to this physical separation, there is a strong history of stereotyping and ethnic generalizations."

Coexistence Projects

According to the National Association for Mediation in Education (NAME), more than 5,000 dispute resolution programs are used in schools across the United States, so the concept is widely accepted. In looking to Israel, the idea was not to discover the solution to conflict. The belief was that Israel had been forced to confront the issue of coexistence since before the State was established and that some of the lessons learned there might be applicable America.

In recent years, especially, a wide variety of programs have been created to promote coexistence in Israel and encourage professional work in the field. The methodologies employed in several projects have already been adapted to address conflicts in places such as Northern Ireland and the former Yugoslavia. Though some Americans in the field are familiar with techniques used in Israel, the programs are not widely known and some of the more innovative methodologies have not been tested here yet. Moreover, most of the coexistence projects in the United States are aimed at schools. This is true in Israel as well; however, many Israeli programs are designed for adults and could be adapted for use with older Americans.

NAME lists the following objectives of conflict resolution programs in the United States:

• Increase students' self-esteem.

• Promote the appreciation of diversity.

• Improve students' communication and analytical skills.

• Prevent the escalation of disciplinary problems.

• Improve the communication among students, faculty and administrators.

• Increase the willingness and ability to solve conflicts among staff, students and parents.

• Develop cooperative relationships between the school and parents in resolving students' school problems.

The Israeli programs have similar goals, but three different philosophies have emerged for achieving them. One school of thought can be described as the "encounter approach." It holds that the key to understanding is bringing Arabs and Jews together for relatively short, intense encounters and forcing them to confront their prejudices and the issues at the root of the conflict.

A second school favors an "experiential approach," and believes it is not sufficient to talk about coexistence, you have to practice it. Proponents argue that it is naive to believe that deep-rooted conflicts can be resolved by discussing them over a few days, or worse, by beginning with dialogue, prior inter-ethnic hatreds tend to be reinforced. This school's approach is to bring Jews and Arabs together over a long period of time and to concentrate on joint activities of mutual interest. The philosophy is that understanding is built by seeing the other group as human beings with similar feelings and interests and that, over time, the contentious issues will arise and participants will know how to resolve them, or, at least, accept their differences.

The third philosophy approaches the problem more indirectly. This school emphasizes the importance of teaching the principles of democracy as a means of fostering tolerance. The programs described here are not mere civics lessons about the workings of government, but courses explaining the concepts and their implementation. "Teaching for democracy," Nivi Shinar of the Adam Institute (see pg. 80) says, "is education for recognition of the equal right of all people to freedom."

Americans can learn lessons from all three approaches. Much of what Israel has to offer is training for teachers who are interested in learning proven techniques and strategies for promoting coexistence. In fact, several organizations have already provided this assistance to other countries.


Almost 300 organizations in Israel doing work related to coexistence are described in The Abraham Fund Directory published in 1992. The book divides programs into 22 broad areas and, more generally, under the rubric of Intergroup Relations, Protection of Rights and Services. The Directory served as the starting point for screening organizations that appeared to be doing work that was particularly innovative and might offer lessons to Americans interested in coexistence.

The Directory's 273 programs were pared to about 90. In addition, 21 newer projects, developed since the directory's publication, were considered for inclusion in this report. This roster was reviewed by The Abraham Fund's co-founder, Dr. Eugene Weiner, whose familiarity with the projects allowed him to further refine the list. Letters requesting information were subsequently sent to the directors of 48 programs and the author made site visits to 12 of these in January 1996. On the basis of the personal observations and documentation provided by the project directors, the following report was compiled, describing 20 programs that have unique or innovative aspects from which Americans can learn.

Some programs are described in far greater detail because organizers provided more information and/or have devoted greater energy to documenting their methodologies, so the length of a description should not be construed as an indication of a program's novelty, utility or endorsement by the author. Also, clear lessons are not always discernible from each project; nevertheless, the model or approach may warrant emulation. Finally, some organizations have already developed proposals for adapting their approaches to other countries; most have not. In the latter cases, the Israeli organizers are interested in working with American partners to explore ways to share their experiences and methodologies. The list is not exhaustive, and we encourage greater research, but the programs included here are representative of the novel approaches Israelis have developed for promoting coexistence.

The study is divided into five sections.

Section I describes the Israeli government's involvement in promoting coexistence in the schools based on its view that this should be a component of the nation's public policy. The fact that a special unit in the Ministry of Education was set up for this purpose is an indication of the seriousness with which the subject is taken and may offer a model for state and local governments, as well as school boards.

Section II describes five "encounter" programs.

Section III is devoted to 12 programs utilizing the "experiential approach."

Section IV presents two projects for teaching democracy.

Several projects do not fit neatly into these categories, because they involve components of both the encounter and experiential approaches, but they are described in the section that best represents their general philosophy.

Section V summarizes the lessons learned from the different Israeli approaches to promoting coexistence.