Israel’s female soldiers are permitted to keep their hair long, pulled back in pony tails, making their sex easily identifiable. For Team Mor, a unit which is stationed on the border, this can mean they receive extra attention from Egyptian military personnel garrisoned on the other side of the border.
“When we’re not concealed, and the Egyptian personnel can see that we are girls, they’ll sometimes try to get our attention with messages – like one time when they lined up rocks in the sand to form a heart” a sergeant in Team Mor told Reuters.
But it’s hard work on the border. In the camouflaged crawl spaces that serve as border positions, soldiers can spend several days nearly stationary in the desert heat, watching through military issued binoculars, calling in reports of suspect movements. According to Colonel Richard Kemp of the British Armed Forces “In my experience, while men tend to be physically stronger, women often tend to be more systematic, thorough and have a greater attention to detail, which is obviously better for intelligence collection and analysis.”
“She goes to his grave, holding their newborn child,” said Asaf Ron, executive director for Haifa’s Beit HaGeffen Arab Jewish Cultural Center. “She asks how their son should be raised. ‘If I raise him Arab, he won’t have a good life here, if I raise him Jewish, he won’t have a good life because his mother is Arab.’”
Ron is paraphrasing the final monologue of the main character in A Trumpet in the Wadi, a dramatic love story by Israeli author, Sami Michael. The story takes place in Wadi Nisnas, the Arab quarter in the city of Haifa.
Today, the walls, buildings and streets of the neighborhood are an outdoors museum of street art that reflect on the complicated narratives in Israel that Michael first touched on in his literature. The decision to use Wadi Nisnas as a canvas for art came through the inception of Haifa’s annual “Festival of Festivals.” Each year artists contribute more works to the neighborhood in line with the theme of the festival. In addition to the art in the neighborhood, the Beit HaGeffen gallery has new contributions based on this year’s theme of “Log in, Log out,” in a nod to the digital age.
The “Festival of Festivals” began in 1993 when the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, the Christian holiday of Christmas and Jewish festival of Hanukka all took place simultaneously. Ramadan was in August of this year but Ron joked, “we are optimistic that in 19 more years, Ramadan will be back in December.“
On Friday’s and Saturday’s in the month of December, the art of the neighborhood is promoted through walking tours put on by Ron and the Arab Jewish Cultural Center. The focus of the cultural center is to bridge gaps in the community among Arabs and Jews. “It’s easier to bring people together around art and culture and not debates,” Ron said.
It’s surprising how the impressive works of ceramic mosaics, sculptures and paintings can so easily be missed. The “Festivals of Festivals” provides an opportunity to highlight these important works of art.
The tour begins at the center’s location on HaGefen Street. Lining the building are three, two-dimensional metal sculptures. On the crown of three metal domes that stand side by side are a cross, Star of David, and an Islamic crescent moon. The artwork is a metaphor for the goal of religious co-existence in Haifa.”If you look for the differences you will see them immediately,” said Ron. “If you look for the similarities, you can see them too.”
Heading into the winding streets of Wadi Nisnas, children run in and out of apartment buildings and Christmas decorations make this neighborhood like any other. The prominence of the artwork is subtle at first. A turn of a corner and suddenly, what seems like an ordinary wrought iron fence is actually a sculpture, combining different metal-works and colors and an English sign reading “Peace & Love.”
Themes of peace inspire most of the works throughout the outdoor gallery, although humor is also on display. In reference to the popular local drink “Café Afuch,” or “upside down coffee,” protruding from the roof of a building is an upside down tray complete with coffee pot, grinder and cups to share.
One of the most famous artists of Wadi Nisans is Chaya Toma. The themes of her artwork often reflect on the conflict between Jews and Arabs. Toma’s personal history also greatly factors into her work. Toma, a Jewish woman, entered her second marriage to Dr. Emil Toma, an Arab-Israeli. Bringing with her a Jewish son from her first marriage, had to reconcile what it meant to be part of a mixed family, especially with the birth of Toma’s second son. In one of the final pieces leading out of Wadi Nisnas, Toma created a window with a picture of her two young sons, side by side and smiling.
Toma’s works feature prominently in the neighborhood and were mostly installed during the second intifada. Her signature medium is ceramic wall sculptures with the main subject usually being an olive tree. The olive tree is a symbol with many meanings in the Mediterranean. The olive branch is a symbol of peace, but the tree also represents livelihood and business. It is a source of contestation in the ongoing conflict as orchards are cut down for arguments of defense.
Other stand out pieces of art is the “Dove of Peace,” one of the first sculptures at the inception of the Festival in 1993. Contributed by a Druze artist from the Golan Heights, the outline of a ceramic dove on the wall of a building leads out to five stones, reducing in size. Each stone is said to represent countries in the Middle East with the smallest at the end representing Israel. The stones are hollowed on top, filling with water when it rains. For the artist, this is meant to symbolize that the rain from the sky doesn’t discriminate and it will give water to all.
Often overlooked, Haifa is a curious municipal experiment that combines a rich history, diversity among religions and a modern international community. First settled in the mid 19th century by German immigrants, Haifa changed hands first under the reign of the Ottoman Empire and then the British Mandate of Palestine. It’s large bay and deep port have made it an invaluable resource in trade and the historically religious Mount Carmel rises above the city and adds to its mystique.
Anet Haskia is not the typical mom of a soldier serving in the Israel Defense Forces. A Muslim Arab, who grew up in a mixed Arab-Jewish city in the north, Haskia is breathing a little easier this week.
For Haskia, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision not to enter the Gaza Strip last week was “brave and right.”
The mother of three children, with a 20-year-old IDF combat soldier, Haskia told Tazpit News Agency, that “many Israeli soldiers’ lives were saved thanks to that decision.”
“Going into Gaza would have yielded success for the Hamas terrorists. Israel did what it had to do for the time being to stop the rocket attacks and played it smart.”
Haskia who was born and raised in Akko, a mixed Arab-Jewish city in the Western Galilee in northern Israel, is openly vocal about her support for the Jewish State of Israel.
“I am proud to live in Israel,” she says. “I am even prouder that both my sons have served as soldiers for this country.”
“If I was living in Gaza, I would have no rights as a woman under Hamas,” explained Haskia. “And you can’t expect anything different—Hamas is a terror organization, they treat people like animals with no regard to human life. They will never hold democratic elections like they do in Israel.”
“I’m open about these truths,” adds Haskia. “The Arab MKs in the Israeli Knesset don’t represent me. The extremist left-wing in Israel also doesn’t represent me and others in my community who share my beliefs. Those corrupt politicians just contribute to hate, incitement and lies.”
“When an IDF soldier is killed in combat, not one Arab MK will stand up and offer his condolences to the bereaved family,” she exclaims. “These Arab MKs enjoy democratic rights but don’t appreciate them.”
Anet explains that her attitude towards the Jewish state as a member of the Arab minority country stems from the fact that she was raised in a home that “respected both Hebrew and Arabic-speakers.”
“When I grew up in Akko, we had good relations between Jewish and Arab families.”
“I realized early on that I wanted my children to advance in Israeli society. They studied in a private Jewish school on a kibbutz and were exposed to a different mentality. It was not an easy road, but I taught my children to always be proud of their identity and not to cry and whine like our politicians.”
During Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense, Haskia did not just sit worried over what may happen to her son—the proud mom did her share to help Israel as well. “Over 12 years, Hamas has been firing rockets at Israeli civilians and all you see are photos of Gaza in the media. Some of those photos are fakes,” Haskia pointed out.
“I noticed many times in Arab media that ‘Gaza’ photos of bleeding civilians were actually photos from other Arab conflicts in the Middle East— Syria and Iraq for example. They were being used to incite hatred against Israel, so I started to post these fake photos and their origins on my Facebook wall.”
Haskia, however, has political ambitions as well. “I want to be part of Israeli politics some day and make a change by representing my people politically. There are many people who are too scared to speak up, who love Israel like I do and have done well here. They want a future where their children will not fall to hatred and incitement, but overcome that. I want to be their voice,” she concludes.
“Unfortunately French Muslims are seen as being anti-Semitic,” Hassan Shaljoumi, who heads a mosque in the Paris suburb of Drancy, told Maariv daily.
“While it is true that there are imams who spread anti-Semitism in the name of Allah, they are a minority.”
Shaljoumi is a member of a 12-strong delegation of French imams, who arrived in Israel for talks with Israeli officials to show that Muslims are not anti-Semitic.
The delegation will meet with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during the visit.
The imams will also hold talks with Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious leaders as well as intellectuals and youth.
“We plan to present a different facet, that of Muslims who want to live in peace with Jews and wish to advance that peace,” said Shaljoumi.
The visit is expected to spark controversy in the Muslim world as most Muslims insist on ending Israel’s occupation of Arab lands captured in the 1967 Middle East war before having normal relations with the Jewish country.
The visit, funded by the French foreign ministry, follows accusations to the Muslim community of harboring hatred against Jews.
Four Jews and three Muslim soldiers were killed by a self-proclaimed Qaeda gunman in March in the southern city of Toulouse.
Both Muslims and Jews have complained that hostile acts and attitudes have spread in the wake of the Toulouse killings.
Muslim community leaders have registered a 15 percent rise in anti-Muslim acts in the first half of this year compared to the same period in 2011.
Jewish observers say anti-Semitic attacks and acts of intimidation have risen 37 percent over the same period.
Shaljoumi, who visited Israel three times before, argues that the visit aims to show the true image of French Muslims.
“Our image in the world has been sullied and we must remedy it in the name of tolerance,” the imams said in a statement.
“We are the true face of French Muslims.”
French authorities have expelled several Muslim imams from the country following the Toulouse killings.
Last month, the French interior ministry expelled Tunisian imam Muhammad Hammami on accusations of spreading anti-Semitic views.
In March, France banned four Muslim scholars, including Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi from entering the country.
Among those barred were also Saudi scholars Ayed Bin Abdallah al-Qarni and Abdallah Basfar, Egyptian preacher Safwat al-Hijazi and the former mufti of Jerusalem Akrama Sabri.
France is home to a Muslim minority of six million, Europe’s largest.
Now she is bridging a vast cultural gap, evoking her own Iranian roots and singing in Farsi.
Her latest album, “All My Joys,” a compilation of classic Persian ballads, has topped the Israeli charts and made her a cultural ambassador between two sworn enemies.
Rita was born in Tehran in 1962 and moved to Israel with her family at the age of eight. She settled in a Tel Aviv suburb and rose to stardom in 1998 singing in Hebrew.
She was invited to sing the Israeli national anthem at the country’s jubilee celebrations in 2010, and performed at a lunch hosted by President Peres for then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in the same year.
“I felt something very special to (have been) a foreigner when you were a child and suddenly you were chosen from all of those amazing singers and artists of Israel to sing the anthem,” Rita told CNN in an interview. “It was a big moment.”
Last year, Rita decided to revisit the soundtrack of her childhood with the album “All My Joys.”
“I was in the middle of making another Israeli Hebrew record, suddenly I felt like something is not matching, something in my stomach that started to burn,” she said. “I felt that I want to make a record that is the music of childhood, my family.”
Of her early childhood in Tehran, Rita said: “I remember the colors, the taste, the smell, the people, and especially, I think, I remember my mother singing all through my childhood, from the lullabies, singing for me those lullabies while she was cleaning the rice.
“The music was a very big part of my life.”
Students from the pluralistic Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa and students from the Arab village of Ein Mahal in the Lower Galilee will perform together in an original musical production inspired by the Friends Forever Program, Yedioth Ahronoth reported this week.
The Arab-Jewish musical “Step By Step Sauwa Sauwa,” which is based on he Broadway show A Chorus Line, is performed in Hebrew, English and Arabic and takes place in an “ideal Israel,” where Jews and Arabs live together in peace.
Dany Fesler, chief executive of the Leo Baeck Center, told the Jewish Chronicle that the students had originally gone on a trip to the US through the Friends Forever Program scheme, which pairs up teens from conflict zones.
“They went to New Hampshire, lived in the same house, cooked together, went hiking, volunteering and gave talks about their experiences. They came back totally different. They wanted to keep their friendships going, and do a project together,” he said.
Now, he says, “they are creating something onstage to describe the conflict, to show the differences and how we are bridging them. It’s changing their lives. They influence their families, their peers and everyone is asking about it. It’s wonderful to see.”
Fesler told the Jewish Chronicle that the students’ own concerns and prejudices could be heard in the dialogue: “We hear their own fears coming out in what they have written, fears about terrorism, bombings, fears about the IDF, and being a minority.”
Lee Azulay, 18, a student at Leo Baeck, said “the most important thing about the project is the message it sends – if we can coexist on the same stage, we can coexist in the same country.”
Muhammad Abulil, 17, who attends the high school in Ein Mahal, said the musical “tells the entire world
that people can coexist without fighting.”
The musical was even brought to stages in London and Switzerland and, according to Fesler, was “received very warmly.”