Life Together: Haifa Cultural Center Builds Community Among Arabs and Jews
PART TWO: CHIPPING AWAY AT STEREOTYPES THROUGH SHARED INTERESTS
by Christin Davis, USC graduate journalism student
“I was raised in a pluralistic house,” said Assaf Ron, a Jewish man from Haifa, Israel. “An Arab was not cursed, he was a person.”
In a country where separation — even physical walls — between Arabs and Jews is common, Mr. Ron’s perspective stands out. News headlines included the murder of a Jewish settler family in the West Bank as Ron, 51, sat in his Haifa office, flooded by a strong sea breeze. Mr. Ron discussed his work as the executive director of Beit Hagefen Arab Jewish Center, a nonprofit cultural center in Haifa. Though he has no written job description, Mr. Ron said his overall role is to promote a need for mutual respect between people, specifically Jews and Arabs.
“My definition of coexistence is normalization, to respect the other’s narrative,” Mr. Ron said. “This is the biggest and hardest step on the way to coexistence.”
Beit Hagefen, according to Mr. Ron, is a “window to a multicultural community” where Jews and Arabs interact together. Despite living in the same city, he said, the two groups do not interact, so the center encourages and facilitates connections through activities in the local area.
The center has an art gallery, a library, and an Arab theater. It recently began a women’s walking club, a program bringing Arab and Jewish families together in each others’ homes, and a photography class that allows for young people to connect through their work. Founded in 1963, it is a non-profit organization supported by the Haifa municipality; the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport; and private donations.
“It is important to me to have people respect and accept the other, no matter his religion, nationality, or education,” Mr. Ron said. “There is only one way to live a good life on this globe — share resources and respect differences among people. I truly believe it is in my power to convince people of these ideas.”
Before coming to Beit Hagefen, Mr. Ron, who has a master’s degree in public administration from Haifa University, was the executive director of the department of education for the regional council in Gilboa, a rural area bordering the West Bank. Functioning much like a superintendent does in the United States, Mr. Ron oversaw seven Arab and six Jewish schools, often bringing together the teachers for collaboration. In his current position, Mr. Ron overseas the departments of Beit Hagefen, initiates new projects, raises funds, networks, and coaches the staff.
Mr. Ron works closely with Ulfat Haider, the program manager at Beit Hagefen and an Arab woman. Together, they promote “neighborliness.” According to Mr. Ron, this means, “We don’t have to agree about everything. If Palestinian is the way you define yourself, it doesn’t mean you want to do anything to me.”
He acknowledged the ever-present Israeli-Palestinian conflict but said that at Beit Hagefen “we reduce the level of fear and hatred and increase the understanding of the other’s narrative. We try to reduce stereotypes.”
It’s an ongoing effort, as Mr. Ron learned when his son came home, excited to have made a new friend. Mr. Ron asked his son if he wanted to invite the boy to their house. “’Are you crazy? He’s Arab,’ my son said,” Mr. Ron recalled. “Can you imagine? My house is one of coexistence, but he still gets this from the outside. Why couldn’t we invite him over?”
Mr. Ron does make clear that he supports a Jewish state, “but not a Jewish state that is against civil rights for all people,” he said. “Ask Arabs, they want to live here because it is a democracy — even if it is not completely equal now,” Mr. Ron said. “We are an ethnic democracy. Jews have some benefits above the rest. In the eyes of the world, this is racism…sorry. My answer might be different if there was democracy in the Middle East. But right now, with the hypocrisy of terrorism, I’m too frightened.”
Mr. Ron said he doesn’t consider himself that different from other Jews but has “more structured views and general tolerance.” His friends, however, question his work toward coexistence.
“People call me naïve,” he said. “I insist on being naïve… It’s just believing in people. I learned that if you respect people as human beings and hear their story, most will respect you as well.”
This report is part of a collaboration between On Being and the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism in an attempt to add to the public’s understanding of the diversity of stories of daily life in Israel and the West Bank.
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