When I looked at the program for the WIZOuk "Unity in Diversity" tour of Israel, I had little idea of how the jigsaw pieces would fit together.
What I did know was that, as someone who has spoken many times to both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences about Israel and WIZO, my aim has always been to set WIZOuk's social welfare projects into the ever-changing backcloth of this amazing country.
The first day's visit to the south brought into focus the multi-faceted life of Be'er Sheva and the surrounding Bedouin communities.
Wonderful WIZO work is being done at the ADI Center, rescuing teenage girls from wasted lives on the streets and providing them with a secure haven from which their horizons are changed for the better.
We learned something about the pioneering Bedouin women who are now escaping the confines of domestic life and are moving into the workforce, as we saw at the catering co-operative where 8,000 meals a day are provided to schools in area the Bedouin town of Hura, all under the management of a mature and undoubtedly most capable Bedouin lady.
Our second encounter with the Bedouin world found us seated in a traditional colourful tent being offered strong coffee or very sweet tea whilst learning from our engaging bubbly Bedouin lady hostess of the traditional embroidery co-operative, which enables women to work from home and bring an income to their families.
“Women Wage Peace” gave us much food for thought as a Jewish mother and daughter told how their fledgling movement is attracting both Jewish and Arab Israeli women to their cause and reaching out to thousands via social media.
Some experiences stand out; one such moment, at the end of a long day, was to hear both Arab and Jewish ladies who make up the delightful Rana choir in Jaffa. On hearing we were from WIZO, one traditionally dressed Arab lady was clearly proud to say how much she appreciated the way her grandchildren mixed with Jewish children at the local WIZO day care center. Another choir member, this one Jewish, explained the invaluable work which her son did with socially deprived children at the WIZO school in Hadassim. Their comments were all the more impactful for being unexpected.
The second day took us up north to the olive oil producing, Jewish/Arab collaboration of "Sindyanna" based in the Arab town of Cana. The locally grown olives come from organic groves. Twigs and thin shoots from the trees are used for basket weaving, an occupation which again brings an income for homeworkers, who previously had no jobs. Trying our own skills at making a woven mat was fun.
Again, we felt WIZO pride when one of the Jewish directors of the enterprise mentioned that his mother, who made Aliyah from Morocco in the early 1950’s, had found refuge at a WIZO school. The Arab lady guide was also keen to relate that her teenage daughter had attended an excellent WIZO self-assertion course in Nazareth, where she lives.
At the Gruss Community Centre we heard about the successful range of activities for the young people of Afula from the surrounding low socio-economic neighbourhood.
The centre’s art teacher set up a class for Arab and Jewish women, now known as the "Olive Tree Project." The women artists’ canvasses are now being exhibited around the world, promoting the diversity of life in Israel.
Under the eye of this same teacher, we put pastels to paper and created our own trees too.
That evening, Janine Gelley, World WIZO Organization and Tourism Department Chairperson and her husband Danny warmly welcomed us to supper in their home in Kfar Saba.
On day three there were two visits to fine examples of WIZO projects. In Jaffa, Beit Peru’s multi-purpose day care center takes babies from the age of three months to pre-school aged children for up to 12 hours a day because of their complicated family backgrounds. Older siblings and others attend the centre in the afternoons as they cannot return home until bedtime.
At the Ironi Cariera School in Tel Aviv, vocational training in cookery and hairdressing is provided alongside normal subjects to 80 pupils who have problematic lives and who do not prosper in the normal education system. The dedication and pride of the teaching staff was evident whilst the ultimate success of the pupils shows the value of such schools. Here we enjoyed preparing our own pizza lunch under the careful eye of a member of staff.
Meeting David Quarry, British Ambassador to Israel, over tea back at the hotel, was enlightening. It was illuminating to learn of the breadth of British involvement in high tech, defence, education and the arts. However, discussion relating to the peace process brought a strong note of pessimism to the mix.
The guest speaker that evening was Richard Pater from BICOM’s Jerusalem office, who was only marginally more optimistic.
The fourth and last day of the tour broadened our perspectives at the Diaspora Museum where the traditional displays are now interspersed with tear-jerking short films and a reappraisal of the role women play, not just at home but at the forefront of synagogue ritual alongside men.
Finally, the Shimon Peres Center in Bat Yam strives to push forward the recently deceased, former President’s hopes for the future peaceful lives of the Jewish and Arab people of the region. The center endeavours to translate hopes into actions and we could only concur with their dreams and encourage their efforts.
Thanks are due to all those involved with the program. It was a tour that made a difference and, I believe, met the aspiration of its ambitious title, ”Unity in Diversity.”
Jill H. Shaw, Past Chairperson WIZOuk