How Circus Brought a Hope for Peace to the Middle East

Two millennia after Jesus is said to have performed his miracles in the Galilee, a modern miracle has occurred in the region now known as Northern Israel. Cynthia Levinson’s book Watch Out For Flying Kids! (Peachtree Publishers, 2015) chronicles how two youth circuses, one in Israel and one in America, joined forces to accomplish what many believed was impossible — Arabs and Jews rising out of the ashes of conflict to work together for the common good.

The Galilee Circus was founded by Rabbi Marc Rosenstein, who sought a vehicle for resolving conflict between Palestinians and Jews in the aftermath of the second intifada.

“From the start, when nine Jewish and sixteen Arab kids signed up,” Levinson writes, “the mission of the Galilee Circus was to bring together young people who would otherwise never meet or get to know one another.”

Over 6,000 miles away in St. Louis, Jessica Hentoff — Nat’s daughter and Nick’s sister — had founded a circus performance troupe called the St. Louis Arches, composed of kids from diverse ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. The St. Louis Arches later became part of Circus Harmony, a nonprofit Jessica founded in 2001 to use circus arts to inspire social change. Out of 700 kids who took classes at Circus Harmony in 2012, only 10 were good enough to become Arches.

In 2007 the St. Louis Arches traveled to Israel, where they partnered with members of the Galilee Circus to form the Galilee Arches. The group performed in Arab and Jewish villages throughout the Galilee, an adventure captured in the 2010 documentary Circus Kids.

The St. Louis Arches visited Galilee again in 2012 and 2014, while the Arab and Jewish members of the Galilee Arches traveled to St. Louis to perform in 2008 and 2012. They will be returning to St. Louis this August.

“When you see them together, you are struck by their abilities — their abilities to juggle, balance and fly through the air,” Jessica wrote in a letter to the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, requesting that he approve visas for the kids’ first visit in 2007. “(B)ut more importantly, you are struck by their abilities to trust, to work together and to give to others.”

Levinson juxtaposes the experiences of the kids from Israel with those from America, observing that while the kids in the St. Louis Arches come from mostly black or mostly white neighborhoods, the Galilee kids come from mostly Arab or mostly Jewish villages. Her book profiles the individual kids in the Galilee Arches and follows them over a 10-year period through the rocket attacks of the second war in Lebanon, tribal violence in Arab villages, gang violence in St. Louis and the Ferguson protests of 2014.

“Circus is about expressing how we’re capable of extraordinary things,” Marc Miller, the managing director of the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, told Levinson. “That is circus at its core — to illustrate that things that do not look possible … are very possible.”

Which is how a bunch of kids who love circus came to love one another and, in the process, do a better job of bringing a hope for peace to the Middle East than a generation of politicians and negotiators.

“Circus will not bring peace to the Middle East,” the website of the Galilee Circus concedes. “But it can help to make dialogue possible by reducing fears, lowering barriers and building trust. It can provide a model of a shared loyalty that transcends ethnic identities. It can teach the art of taking risks for the common good. It can demonstrate, to a wide audience, that what appears to be impossible is indeed possible.”

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow. Nick Hentoff is a criminal defense attorney in New York who has worked as a judicial clerk for a U.S. district court judge.