The fortressed city of Acre lies on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in northern Israel. An important Middle Eastern city in ancient times, it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With its fortified walls, citadel, mosques, synagogues, khans, baths and Crusader structures, Acre has always been a meeting place for East and West, new and old. Today, it’s a mixed Jewish-Arab city, but people from the two communities interact all too rarely. Mistrust, and sometimes outright hostility, keep the two communities apart.
We wanted to see if the Internet could help break down some of these barriers. So last September, a group of 40 students from the separate Arab and Jewish schools in the city, together with 200 Arab, Jewish, Druze and Bedouin students from other communities in Israel, took part in “Hangout Bridges: Bridges to Peace.” A partnership with ORT, Israel’s largest educational network of schools and colleges, and the Peres Center for Peace, the program uses Hangouts to help create understanding—and friendship—between these communities.
Grouped together by their teachers into multi-cultural Google+ circles, the students got to know each other online and started working on joint projects. Each circle met on average 10 times on Hangouts, then in a series of face-to-face meetings.
Last week, we hosted the finale event of the program at Campus Tel Aviv, a tech hub for developers and entrepreneurs at our Tel Aviv office. The students and their teachers enjoyed a creative session with System Ali, a multicultural rap group, and an inspirational talk with the leaders of MEET, an educational initiative that brings together young Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The students then presented the projects they’ve been working on for the last eight months, including a walking tour of Acre using Google Maps that seeks to uncover the rich Jewish-Arab history of this ancient city; educational Hebrew-Arabic websites that address racism and prejudice in sports, provide information on relevant legislation and offer quizzes on the topic; and an original song performed in Hebrew, Arabic and English, emphasizing coexistence and mutual respect.
This is the second year we’ve run “Hangout Bridges” in Israel. For our next course, starting this coming fall, we’re doubling the number of participants. We hope we can expand to other countries and help—in a small way—build bridges of mutual understanding around the world. As participant Wasim Jass put it: “I learned that we can cast off the hatred and plant love in its place.”
Posted by Doron Avni, Senior Policy Manager, Middle East, Africa, Turkey & Israel