Both groups have joined forces in the city to create a model of co-existence, especially after misunderstandings and underlying tensions set off riots in the city on Yom Kippur 2008. Since then, the Akko Mayor Shimon Lankri has engaged leaders in all religious and civil sectors to build bridges among residents. Ever year since then, including in 2014, when the solemn day of Yom Kippur fell on the festive Muslim day of Id Adha, Akko has been calm.
At the first “Friday Women” event, Dr. Khazen, who has worked as a psychologist in both Arab and Jewish communities, began her talk by asking the audience who thought she was creative. Most of the women raised their hands.
“I’m surprised,” said Dr. Khazen, who spoke in both Hebrew and Arabic. “Usually, only a few men in the audience raise their hands when I ask that question.” She went on to explain that “creativity is born inside each of us but it needs time to develop.” She said that each woman can find a unique way to be creative.
Naama Burstein, a religious Jewish woman and mother of three, said she had been active in Akko’s mixed Arab-Jewish groups since she moved to the city two years ago. She said she appreciates the way Akko residents try to initiate activities, even if “there’s no money but there’s a willingness.”
Burstein admitted that she’s not the typical religious woman. “It’s sad that more religious women don’t try to engage with their Arab neighbors,” Burstein said. She cites her open-mindedness with the fact that she didn’t graduate high school and start a family right away, but first lived in Russia and Germany, where she gained first-hand knowledge of getting along with a variety of different people.
“She’s always been special,” added her mother, Shoshana Giat, with a smile, as she and her daughter sat talking with two Arab women before the start of the event.
Dr. Faraj Falah said that Akko Women’s Vision has sponsored a variety of programs in the city, including women’s language courses in both Arabic and Hebrew, lectures on diabetes and health issues for older women, women-only art exhibits, writing contests for children, and building a community playground in downtown Akko. She hopes that the group encourages women to take leadership roles and help bring about peace.
The two groups plan to have five more cultural events through June, said Yam Urbach, one of the event organizers. The theater space, also known as JAM, is used in the evening for improvisation musical and theater performances to bring Arab and Jewish residents together.
Dr. Janan Faraj-Falah said that she is optimistic women will continue to attend the cultural events but Friday is challenging because “Jewish women are cooking for Shabbat and Muslim women are praying.”
Nafisa Shtawey, a member of the Akko Vision Group, said that she moved into a Jewish neighborhood of Akko in 1988, and at first the neighbors “closed the door in my face.” But with time, she showed them that she respected them and earned their respect. We live hand in hand and I showed them there’s no difference between us.
“After a while,” said Shtawey, while covering her tracheotomy tube, “I was teaching them how to make pitas.”
Burstein’s mother, Giat, who was born en route as her parents traveled from Yemen to Israel, said that because she lives in Ramat Gan, a large, predominantly Jewish city in the center of the country, she has less interaction with different groups. She was impressed by the unique relations between Arab and Jewish women and the special atmosphere of Akko.
“I found all this interesting and inspiring,” she said.
Diana Bletter is the author of several books, including a novel, A Remarkable Kindness (HarperCollins) and The Invisible Thread: A Portrait of Jewish American Women, which was nominated for a National Jewish Book Award. Since 1991, she has lived with her family in Shavei Zion, a small beach village in the Western Galilee, writing for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Tabletmag, Times of Israel, and a wide variety of publications.