Underprivileged Israeli Youth: Changing Perceptions of the Conflict
It has generally been perceived in Israel that people from underprivileged social backgrounds are often more opposed to peace than the well established. Indeed, looking at Beit Ham (Hebrew for "warm house"), an organization for youth in underprivileged neighborhoods of West Jerusalem, one notices that most of its youth have been rather disinclined towards peace. This article is the result of a series of discussions with psychologist Henry Cohen Solal, cofounder and president of Beit Ham.
Beit Ham comprises seven different clubs located in the poor neighborhoods of Jerusalem, where 400 young people gather. The youth come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, but all are facing problems of drugs, violence, social integration or broken homes. Some of these clubs specialize in particular activities and the youth can choose between arts, music, theater, and sports; others conduct more general activities. Also included in the program are meetings with psychologists, specialized educators and support groups, which help the young people cope with the problems they face in daily life.
These activities are not run by the staff alone: whenever possible the youth accept full responsibility for them, as befits a democratic environment in which young people learn responsibility and leadership skills. Indeed, self-management is emphasized to the extent that the youth sometimes take part in budget and building plans. The wide range of extracurricular activities, combined with peer support and professional assistance, is a formula that has proven so successful that the demand to open new centers is constantly on the rise. In September 1999, a new center debuted in Tel Aviv, where the demand is increasing; the same goes for the southern development towns.

Attitudes to Arabs

The youth of Beit Ham (90% Jewish) can, in a sense, be viewed as a microcosm of that sector of underprivileged youth in Israel. All the Jewish youth are of Sephardi (Oriental) origin. These young people have faced problems with their families and with their integration into society. Most have a negative perception of Arabs, in general, and of Palestinians, in particular, and are highly skeptical about peace. This, which is considered a common attitude, has several possible explanations:
* The underprivileged Sephardi youth tend to distance themselves from Arabs in a more radical way than most Ashkenazim (Jews of Western origin). Many express this distinction through rejection, by a need to distinguish themselves from the Arabs. Unlike the Ashkenazim, Sephardim and Arabs both come from Semitic backgrounds. Underprivileged Sephardi youth subdue the Arab within themselves in order to prove that they are not their country's enemy. Hence the importance for them of drawing a clear barrier between Arabs and themselves. The only domains in which they relax and do not erect such a border are food, dance and music.
* For some of the underprivileged youth, violence is often a mode of expression or a way of attracting society's attention, and it is to a certain extent a way of life. Therefore, peace (the opposite of violence), is a threat of social death. It is not violence that frightens these youth, but to be rejected and discarded by society. Violence reminds society about the very existence of peripheral youth. Some of the underprivileged youth regard it as less grave to die, or to be hurt, than to die socially. Therefore, violence is often a solution and peace is seen as a danger. Furthermore, peace does not provide the young people with the possibility of transferring their pain, hatred and suffering elsewhere. Violence does.
* Underprivileged youth need a scapegoat and Palestinians are the perfect victim. Since these youngsters are constantly rebelling against their society and are reprimanded for their misbehavior, they need to throw back at someone those very screams so often directed towards them. These difficulties are further exacerbated for the youth by the challenges that go along with their particular stage in life. Childhood can be an easier period of life to deal with one's anger as, at this age, there are several objects on which to transfer hatred (such as dolls, toys, etc.). For adults, items like cars and mailboxes or even human beings might become the objects of violence. A target is needed for returning the humiliation that they perpetually absorb. Palestinians are the perfect subjects onto whom to transfer their feeling of rejection. To the Palestinians they can say: "I am home and you are not," though, in fact, they themselves do not feel accepted and suffer in their own lives from not feeling at home anywhere.
* In the eyes of these youth, peace tends to be viewed as the aspiration of the elite. They associate peace with the left wing and with Ashkenazi goals. Most suffered, or witnessed their family and others suffering discrimination at the hands of the Ashkenazi elite. They believe that, since the early years of the State of Israel, immigrants of Sephardi origin have been relegated to the status of an underclass by the governing Ashkenazi elite. Many of the Sephardi youth see a correlation between their poor neighborhoods of today and the downtrodden immigration camps of the 1950s. They attribute their present poor socioeconomic situation and the lack of access to power, to the suffering of their parents and grandparents and the failure, in the past, of Ashkenazi Zionist society to absorb them as equals. Because of this historical prejudice, their association of the Ashkenazim with peace automatically negates the subject of peace for them.

Rabin's Death - A Turning Point

Though one should be wary of generalizations, it can be said that the death of Yitzhak Rabin was a turning point in some underprivileged youths' perception of peace. Youth in the Beit Ham club located in the center of Jerusalem and catering to a varied population, live in a violent world where they are at one and the same time victims and perpetrators of violence. Prime minister Rabin's death transformed his image to that of a victim. The very fact that Rabin, who had been adopted by his peers as a role model, faced the most extreme form of violence, led to their acceptance of him by many underprivileged youngsters. With his death, Rabin, the man of peace, became one of them: a person facing violence.
For these youth, Rabin's death not only changed his image, but simultaneously transformed the conception of peace as a symbol. Before Rabin's murder, peace was unacceptable to many, and violence was one of the only modes of expression. The story of Rabin is that of a soldier who chose the peace camp and died because of his choice. As a soldier, he survived great dangers, and it was only after laying down his arms and beginning the battle for peace, that he was killed. One might think this would push these youth even farther away from peace. On the contrary, Rabin's death transformed the territory of peace into a territory of battle. Peace was no longer perceived as giving up the fight. Instead of being a synonym for social death, representing the end of the revolt against the Establishment - peace becomes a perilous and heroic endeavor. For underprivileged youth, often playing with life and death through drugs and violent games, suddenly peace was no longer associated with weakness and it began to look more attractive.

Facing New Preoccupations

Recent changes in the traditional path of teenagers in Israeli society (and in the world) are also a contributing factor to the new relationship youth have with peace, and to their perception of Palestinians. Teenagers try to build their own relationship with society. They strive to break the parental shield that protects them, searching for bridges to forge their own way forward. But today, many of the traditional values such as sexual identity, work and ideology have crumbled; these developments have complicated the situation of the youth, compelling them to redefine their place within a changing social reality. Peace, Zionism, and the fight against external enemies are no longer a major preoccupation of the youth today. Youth in general, and underprivileged youth in particular, are facing different preoccupations in the new post-modern world.
One of the traditional bridges helping the youth build their own connection with the world is their relationship with the opposite sex. However, the new status of women and the danger of AIDS have complicated the matter. Neither can the youth assert its identity through work, because the fear of unemployment among the poorly educated is growing.
Belonging to a national group is another traditional bridge in transformation, but patriotism is becoming an archaic concept and the era of ideology is over. The new era focuses on individualism, capitalism and consumerism. As the youth of today follow this new trend, it diverts interest from the Palestinian problem, the peace process and traditional reliance on a strong identity in a powerful country.
In addition, the propagation of a global culture tends to narrow differences between groups. Common ground arises between Palestinians and Israelis, transforming the "enemy" into a person with similar interests and tastes. Beit Ham's recent encounter in Brussels between Israeli and Palestinian youth and adults is a good example of the influence of global culture in the perception of the Other. In the first days of the encounter, traditional methods of debates and discussions attempted to bring the youth together, but it wasn't until the idea of building a virtual state on the Internet was suggested that they really began to come together and work as partners. It was new technology and the concept gleaned from the Internet that they could build a new life, which gave them the enthusiasm to interact.
The changes in underprivileged youths' perception of Arabs is also the result of more mobility and physical interaction than in the past. For example, when Beit Ham opened a club in downtown Jerusalem, several educators noticed that when the youth visited areas frequented by both Arabs and Jews, this had an impact on some who had not previously had the opportunity to leave their neighborhood. Today's modern youth have discovered that they share many common interests with Arabs, such as music, clothes, movies, etc. Realizing that such similarities exist often leads to a process of humanization of the enemy, and to the breaking down of stereotypes that these youth have had in their perception of Arabs.
Downtown Beit Ham is a good example of the way in which diversity and cultural exposure can help to change perceptions between underprivileged youth and Palestinians. Indeed, this is the club in which youth have the most moderate views, and in which diversity in terms of gender, ethnic and social origin is more pronounced. In the last few years, in order to change the perception of its youth towards their so-called "enemy," Beit Ham has organized a number of encounters with Palestinians.

Promoting Trust

The latest encounter, called "The Village of Tolerance," was held in July 1999 at Giv'at Haviva, the Kibbutz Artzi seminar center, under the auspices of the French Ministry of Education and Sport. French, Palestinian and Israeli underprivileged youth, as well as new immigrants, met for a week in an attempt to bring them together through music, drama, and art. These modes of communication revealed themselves as the most successful in promoting trust between formerly skeptical young Israelis and Palestinians. Today, as a result of these encounters, a joint music band has been created to tour Europe as a demonstration of the success of cross-cultural exposure and of the fostering of common interests.
The experience of the Beit Ham centers shows that underprivileged youth, although initially more reluctant to favor peace than mainstream youth, are moderating their views. In the rapidly changing political climate in the Middle East, the global culture trend also makes the youth of today more individualistic. However, this is not, as some observers might think, an obstacle to peace-building. Rather than changing yesterday's active citizens into apathetic subjects, it is moderating the views of formerly more reluctant sections of Israeli society, and it is capable of bringing together - around shared interests - groups that yesterday had nothing in common.