I took off the mask


“I used to be angry at everyone — Jews, Muslims, and Arabs. After I joined the theater, my feelings changed. I took off the mask.”  Elyan Saman, a Christian, from Pequiyn in the Upper Galilee (now 21 years old).

The outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000 had a profound effect on Dr. Edna Calo Livne from Kibbutz Sasa in northern Israel. No longer was she able to stand on the sidelines as the drama played itself out on national television. Instead, Calo Livne took action, launching the Beresheet LaShalom Foundation, dedicated to promoting dialog across diverse groups.

Initially, the organization’s activities were focused on helping victims of terror. The summer camps of the Group of Life project aims to put a smile on the faces of children affected by terror and, more recently, by war. In August, the Group took 20 teenagers from the Galilee, Sderot, and Lebanon (children whose parents served in the South Lebanon army and who moved here after Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon) on an eight-day trip to Italy.

The children from Sderot, under daily rocket fire from terrorists in the Gaza strip, have been deeply affected by the ongoing barrage on their city. “They feel like they have been deserted. It’s hard for them to trust,” relates Calo Livne. “In the beginning, the children were like ice. It took time until they ‘melted’.”

They experienced a vastly different reality as they explored the countryside, going sightseeing in Rome, Pompeii, Amalfi, and more. The visit focused on enhancing understanding and knowledge of the area and each other including swimming, playing games, and partaking in music, dance, theater, and art activities. During their stay, the children were also able to interact with the locals, learning the art of parading with medieval flags and riding on horses pulling a variety of carriages.

A key part of the Foundation’s activities take place in two vastly different arenas: on the stage and on the soccer field. The Arcobaleno-Rainbow Theater comprises young Arabs, Jews, Druze, and Circassians from different communities in Galilee. The inspiration for the theater group came from Calo Livne’s doctoral thesis on the plays of Pirandello as a lever for social change. “The youth from these seemingly opposed cultures can unite around the positive interactions of theater and can put the horrors they have faced into a perspective that fosters understanding and mutual respect,” she comments.

“Putting the children on stage together gives them the opportunity to get to know one another as people, creating a safe forum where they can interact and break down the barriers between them,” notes Calo Livne. According to Abir Hleihel, an eighteen year old Muslim from the village of Jish, “Our performance Beresheet is a hymn for peace. I can’t accept terrorism. I’m glad that I can show, through our performance, that coexistence between Jews and Arabs is possible. We show this with our living presence!”

Beresheet  begins with all the children wearing masks. As the play continues, all but two of the children remove their masks. “It’s a metaphor for what we are trying to achieve,” explains Calo Livne. “Through the theater, as with our other activities, we want to get beyond preconceptions and prejudice and get to know the person beneath the mask.”

“Their performances are a dance of hope for freedom. They were created by the group at its meetings over the course of a year. During this difficult period in world history, there is a will to create a positive message, capable of inspiring hope and fulfilling the dreams of those who knew war, but now aspire to peace,” she says.

The goal of peaceful coexistence is also being promoted on the sports field. Calo Livne’s husband Yehuda, coaches a soccer team comprised of youth from the Galilee. The team recently participated in an international soccer tournament in Udine, Italy for the second time. The event, entitled “Let’s Get to Know Each Other,” brings children from different cultural backgrounds together through sport. Teams from ten countries took part in this international event.

From the action on the soccer field to the heat of the kitchen — the Foundation also promotes “Bread for Peace” Day. Here, Israeli and Palestinian women bake bread together. “The aim to is to create, to collaborate, and to teach their children that good can always prevail,” explains Calo Livne. Four women (a Jew, Muslim, Christian, and Palestinian) will be traveling to Italy during the Succoth festival to take part in the Bread Festival in northern Italy with Arcobaleno youngsters who will perform Beresheet in a piazza in front of 100,000 people from Europe.

The Foundation’s message of peace reaches a wide audience via the All for Peace radio station, which has been simultaneously broadcasting from Jerusalem and Ramallah since January 2006. The show features people from all walks of life and includes interviews and music. The broadcasts, in Hebrew and Arabic, are scheduled to resume again shortly. (See the www.beresheetlashalom.org  Foundation’s website for details.)

“Beresheet LaShalom is all about educating and encouraging a positive spirit, helping children as well as adults to confront the difficulties they face,” says Calo Livne. “It’s about showing them what they have in common, not what makes them different.” The focus on creating common understanding is perhaps best summed up by a member of the theater group, sixteen year old Tamar Ben Lulu, from Safed: “With all our differences, in this theatre I feel that we are all equal. It’s not important in which God we believe, or where we live because we are all human beings. The strong connection between us is convincing me more and more of the fact that it’s possible that a Jew, a Christian and a Moslem can walk hand in hand, that religious and secular can speak without offending each other, and that all creatures can live peacefully together.”

To date, Beresheet LaShalom has made an impact on millions of Europeans through their theatrical productions, articles, books, and interviews on radio and television.  Well known throughout Italy as the recipient of prestigious peace prizes, Beresheet shows the human faces and hearts of Israelis of all cultures and religions. The performances and messages leave audiences crying and then smiling, and have helped to change the image of Israel in Italy.

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