Until he joined SHATIL's Leadership for Shared Society course, which launched its first cohort in February, Uri Altman's most significant contact with Palestinians had been as an officer in the Kfir Brigade serving in the territories.
"I grew up in a religious home and in the religious school system," explains Altman. "This is the first time I'm meeting with Arabs and with people who have a wide range of views, which I didn't encounter at school. I want to go into public life, and I don't think you should do that without real experience meeting people."
Altman joins 12 Arab and 14 other Jewish participants who were selected from more than 60 applicants. Ranging in age from 23 to 53, some have worked in organizations related to Jewish-Arab relations, while others are receiving their first serious exposure to the topic. The goal of the program is to create a network of Arab and Jewish leaders who will formulate and implement models and projects promoting a society in which all members have an equal voice and an equal sense of belonging. It is run in partnership with the Hand in Hand organization.
The participants are meeting monthly to explore each individual's views on shared society, to strengthen his or her role as a leader, and to learn about tools and strategies for bringing about change in Israel's current climate. At the end of the course, the participants will develop new initiatives promoting shared society.
The group meets in a different city each time - Nazareth, West Jerusalem, the Galilee village of Ba'ane, and Fureidis - giving each participant the chance to feel at home and to feel like outsiders.
As they approach the end of their first semester, the participants are completing an exercise in policy analysis and project design. Working in small groups, they chose a project idea, for example a bilingual school or a ceremony that recognizes both Israel's Independence Day and the Palestinian loss associated with that day, and will analyze all the potential opportunities and pitfalls associated with it.
The bonds among the participants are already starting to form. Through an e-mail list and Facebook page, they are exchanging ideas, information, and experiences. One of the participants, a woman from the Jewish community of Givat Elah in the Jezreel Valley, wants to develop an initiative in her community to reach out to neighboring Arab towns in order to break down the barriers between them and develop a closer, more productive relationship.
Project Director Muhammad Khalil is impressed by the participants' belief in their ability to have an impact. "They have that flame, and they are critical of the status quo," he says. "They say 'We want to make a shared society. It doesn't matter to us what has come before."
Altman agrees: "You can change reality. It's not fate. We, as human beings, have a big role to play."
The Leadership for Shared Society course is a project of the Kahanoff Fund at the New Israel Fund of Canada.