Jewish and Arab teens sat face to face in an inner and outer circle and listened intently as two facilitators, one Jewish the other Arab, threw out a few questions for the youngsters to discuss among themselves.
Curiosity to know what 'the other' thought about winning the lottery or some other such fantasy tentatively began to show through and the teens, from different parts of the country participating in a two-day FACE TO FACE encounter at Givat Haviva, quietly got off the starting blocks to dialogue.
Observing the Jewish and Arab teens in their ice-breaking session American Ambassador to Israel Mr. James B. Cunningham and U.S. Counselor for Public Affairs Mr. Andrew Koss, closely followed the action as FACE TO FACE co-director Shachar Yanai quietly explained about the encounter program.
Mr. Cunningham, who served as the American Consul General in Hong Kong prior to taking over the Israel ambassadorial reins from predecessor Ambassador Richard Jones (who visited Givat Haviva a number of times during his 3 year tenure), was deeply impressed by what he saw and heard during his classroom visit and sideline encounter with the high-school students from Jerusalem and Nazareth.
Before joining the youngsters in the classroom, Ambassador Cunningham met with Givat Haviva staff members directly involved in the organizations Jewish-Arab projects encouraging dialogue between different elements of Israeli society with particular focus on Jewish-Arab relations and shared citizenship.
"Our aim is to put a face to the other," Givat Haviva spokesperson David Amitai told Ambassador Cunningham and other embassy personnel accompanying him.
Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Koss heard from Shachar Yanai and his colleague Farhat Agbariya that following the Gaza hostilities and recent right-wing rhetoric prior to the elections in Israel, the fear, hatred and level of racism they now found in the schools had reached frightening proportions.
The ambassador told Givat Haviva staff that no place had had a struggle like the American one with religion and race. "Also electing the present President is not going to necessarily improve the situation either," he added.
FACE TO FACE co-director Shachar Yanai explained that the project was "trying to grow and survive at the same time."
"We want to touch the delicate problems and not run away, to touch upon and really deal with the real issues. We will not give up but take the next step forward as best we can," said Yanai.
"During the month of January we stopped almost everything. It was not just a question of the schools having doubts about their students meeting but also the Jewish and Arab facilitators were hesitant under those circumstances to bring the students together," he explained.
"Fortunately when we undertook the first encounter after the violence in Gaza, the 50 or so students from Tel Aviv and the Arab town of Sakhnin in the Galilee were far more open to meeting each other than we had thought and though at certain times the discussions became heated, they maintained a respectful behavior toward each other for the duration of the two days."
Asked by the ambassador what evaluation of the program showed Yanai said that overall there is a shift in understanding that each side has for the others narrative – not acceptance, but beginning to understand a different perspective.
"There is a craving by educators for such programs but funds are stint," he concluded sadly.
Ambassador Cunningham was most interested to hear that an American Federal Assistance Award afforded the Jewish-Arab Center for Peace at Givat Haviva to greatly increase educational activity and promote civic activities in the Arab communities throughout Israel during the past year.
Ms. Anhar Masarwa, director of the Givat Haviva projects backed by the U.S .Middle East Partnership Initiatives (MEPI ) explained the importance of improving the performance skills of both governmental and non-governmental institutions through empowering community and municipal workers with capacity building and advancement of leadership and dialogue skills.
Ms. Masarwa was joined in Givat Haviva by Nazareth Municipality employees, May Daher and Basem Barbour together with the Municipality lawyer and legal adviser Zuhair Nara who came to express appreciation for MEPI support and to also impress upon the Ambassador the importance of future projects geared to assist the Arab sector.