American Ambassador to Israel Visits Givat Haviva


 American Ambassador to Israel Visits Givat Haviva


Photos and text: Lydia Aisenberg

February 2009 



American Ambassador James B. Cunningham (second from right) viewing decades old Arabic language newspapers awaiting digitalization in the Givat Haviva Sarah and Yaacov Eshel Peace Library.

Pictured with Ambassador Cunningham (from left to right) Peace Library director Samira Mahamid, Haggai Halevi, Givat Haviva Director General and Ahmad Badir, Director of the Givat Haviva Jewish-Arab Center for Peace.


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.


Ambassador Cunningham with (left to right) May Daher, Zuhair Nara and Basem Barbour of the Nazareth Municipality


"Even though the Municipality of Nazareth is the largest and basically has the biggest budget in the Arab sector, there is virtually no money for these training programs that are absolutely essential in order to close the deficit between the Jewish and Arab sectors," said Mr. Nara.  "The training benefits not only the participants and their close work colleagues but ultimately of course the community at large," he emphasized.

Dr. Ghazal Abu-Raya, director of the northern branch of Givat Haviva spoke about the work carried out to connect Arab municipalities with the citizens in their communities and vice versa.

"We asked how can we take responsibility for ourselves even when there is discrimination against the Arab population in Israel and through the projects have formulated parents and student committees with an emphasis on shared citizenship in the State of Israel and we maintain a connection between program graduates and those entering the next course," explained Dr. Abu-Raya, a resident of Sakhnin where the northern branch is situated.

Ambassador Cunningham asked if there was a "coordinating clearing house mechanism" through which NGOs dealing with Jewish-Arab relations could learn of each others activities.  Ahmad Badir, director of the Jewish-Arab Center for Peace explained that such a forum exists and representatives of many NGOs meet every 2 months and mentioned that during the second Lebanon  war an emergency meeting of such NGOs had been called and held on campus at Givat Haviva.

Ms. Masarwa spoke passionately about the successful MEPI projects dealing with empowerment of women in the Arab sector and of how past participants had gone on to higher education, others had opened successful businesses.

Ambassador Cunningham noted that during difficult times one of the first thing cuts are made in are those programs dealing with training.


On the sidelines of dialogue: Mr. Andrew Koss, U.S. Counselor for Public Affairs, Shachar Yanai and Ambassador Cunningham


"I am very glad that we have been able to support such programs but it is not widely known that we lend support to what is a cultural revolution and hopefully we will be able to continue this support but have to wait and see what budgets will be available under the new administration," he commented.

"Your work is highly commendable," he told Givat Haviva staff members.  "Building society from bottom up is so important.

"I encourage you to continue as it is imperative during these most difficult times not only to push forward but also strengthen efforts and educational projects working toward tolerance, democracy and peace," said Ambassador Cunningham in conclusion.


Left to right: Ahmad Badir, director of the Jewish-Arab Center for Peace, Givat Haviva; Ambassador Cunningham; Givat Haviva director general Haggai Halevi; the U.S. Counsel for Public Affairs, Andrew Koss and David Amitai, Givat Haviva spokesperson and director of Yad Ya'ari.