Internet Bridge between Jews and Arabs

February 16, 2009 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Washington Times on February 16, 2009

In Galilee, northern Israel, there are 1.1 million citizens, evenly divided between Jews and Arabs. There, Rabbi Marc Rosenstein has created a bilingual Internet newspaper with Hebrew and Arabic sections that he describes as “a safe space characterized by openness, fairness and balance — where all opinions can be expressed, civilly.” This bridge of a newspaper is named Dugrinet. (“Dugri” means “straight talk” in both Hebrew and Arabic.)

The steering committee of what could be a model for other sections of the world — where spacious, continuous dialogue can be far more durably effective than violence — is composed of Jewish and Arab educators, journalists and community activists. Rabbi Rosenstein tells me “they have been meeting since the beginning of 2007 to build a network of volunteer correspondents, and seek funding.” And at local colleges in the area, departments of education are involving students in the project.

“Nothing like this exists,” Rabbi Rosenstein explains his motivation. “We believe it can be a catalyst for bringing together people from throughout this region with a distinct geographical identity — but each community and sector has been living in its own bubble. Our aim in the Dugrinet is to meaningfully address this disconnectedness and mutual ignorance.”

Before moving his family to a small community, Shorashim, in Galilee, in 1990, Marc Rosenstein grew up in Highland Park, Ill., majored in biochemistry at Harvard, was ordained a Reform rabbi at Hebrew Union College and earned a Ph.D. in Jewish history at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

For nearly 20 years in Galilee, through his Galilee Foundation for Value Education and its interactive, intercultural projects, such as a leadership development program for Arab youth, the rabbi has been working to build “a shared cultural and civic identity.” Beginning in 2003, there was the Galilee Circus, with 10 Arab and 10 Jewish participants performing in Arab villages and Jewish venues.

In the circus, Rabbi Rosenstein found, “We don’t talk about Jews and Arabs. If I fall and you catch me, that’s enough. They have to trust each other completely as they overcome fear. As is clear to anyone watching our circus, it creates a common denominator of identity, loyalty, pride and commitment that transcends the definitions of ‘Jewish and Arab.’ ”

Performers from my daughter Jessica’s Circus Harmony in St. Louis joined the Galilee Circus for a tour in Israel. Jessica then brought the Galilee Circus to hers in St. Louis, further — as Rabbi Rosenstein puts it — “erasing the hyphen” between the Jewish and Arab labels.

For the rabbi and my daughter, “it’s important,” Rabbi Rosenstein emphasizes, “that the circus not only provide a powerful experience for the performers, but that it also provide a model and example for the community at large.”

In that challenging and fulfilling vein, last August, while the Internet newspaper, Dugrinet, was being organized, the rabbi reported on such of his other projects in the works as: “a film series highlighting various dilemmas in Israeli society; a series of programs on Sephardic liturgical music; a lecture series on Islam by local Imams; and continuing consulting and programming in pluralistic Jewish identity to public schools in the region.”

And, also bringing together these communities, Rabbi Rosenstein’s wife, Tami — originally from Waukegan, Ill., is a speech clinician specializing in early intervention with handicapped Arab and Jewish infants.

I would think, having had some involvement in network TV production, that there is an abundance of visual evidence for series by PBS, the BBC, and both private and public TV operations abroad, including Al Jazeera, on the continually evolving adventures by the rabbi’s Galilee Foundation for Value Education in what has become a life’s work in interactive, mutual learning.

“There is a price,” he says, “for the status quo of segregation, mutual ignorance and fear, economic gaps, a lack of social solidarity, a lack of shared civic loyalty.”

Accordingly, in Israel, he adds, “the perpetuation of the fragmentation of Israeli society does not contribute to the strength of the Jewish state, but rather seriously weakens it.”

Now, with the Internet newspaper, Dugrinet, Rabbi Rosenstein is beginning to show, as my daughter, “the Circus Lady” in St. Louis, says of her multicultural troupe:

“We can help defy gravity and fear, soar with confidence, and leap over social barriers.”

Elsewhere, it’ll take a lot of time, but to see it happening in Galilee, go to eng​.makom​-bagalil​.org​.il, and click on the “dugrinet” button. Contributions are welcome.

The rabbi adds: “Before we can resolve the historical and ideological conflicts that divide us, we have to have an awareness of the humanity of the other.”

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