Mission: heal the wounds of Jerusalem

Strictly Orthodox men pray in protest against the gay pride parade (PHOTO: FLASH 90)

Strictly Orthodox men pray in protest against the gay pride parade (PHOTO: FLASH 90)

For journalists, “intercultural dialogue” is a dubious concept that conjures up images of opposing sides engaging in friendly waffle designed to paper over the real story.

Hagai Agmon-Snir, director of the Jerusalem Inter-Cultural Centre (JICC), has a phrase for it — “hummus talk”.

The JICC, working across some of the world’s most notorious ethnic and religious fault-lines, is better equipped than the average civil society body to know what a meaningful coexistence initiative looks like. “Many cities around the world celebrate diversity — we are not there yet. It is more about coping with the conflict,” says Mr Agmon-Snir, who was in London last week to speak at Cambridge Limmud, among other events.

The JICC’s method is to find practical solutions for specific problems. “It is important that people just sit and talk together, but this is not our priority. We solve issues,” says Mr Agmon-Snir.

One critical problem in Jerusalem has been the lack of engagement between the Arab population and the council authorities, with the result that municipal services are often poorly delivered in the east, leaving locals resentful.

In response, the JICC created a network of 1,000 Arab women who were trained how to report on issues such as rubbish collection. “They are activists on a small scale,” says Mr Agmon-Snir. “We also taught the municipality how to deal with them. And the authorities now see them as an asset.”

In the past, voices on both sides have attacked this type of engagement as legitimising the claims of the other. But Mr Agmon-Snir says that the JICC “almost” escapes criticism “because what we do is on the practical level. Palestinians don’t want ‘normalisation’, but rubbish should be collected. We work on necessities.”

Integration was never on the agenda: “Muslims want their children to marry Muslims, and it’s the same for Jews… culture is a ‘thick’ phenomenon.”

One of the JICC’s biggest successes was in calming down the riots among the strictly-Orthodox after the gay community announced it would hold a parade in Jerusalem in 2006.

The JICC organised a face-to-face meeting between the Satmar rabbi at the heart of the anti-gay protests and the gay leaders.

“The Satmars thought that when they came to the meeting, the gay men would have sex in front of them. It took a while to sit get them to sit together. When they finally did, both sides worked very hard to be empathetic.” As a result of the talks, the situation has been quiet since 2006.

Whether or not there is an eventual two-state solution, finding a way to bridge the gaps between Jews, Arabs and Christians in the city is crucial for its future, says Mr Agmon-Snir.

“If we don’t take care of East Jerusalem now, it will end up like Gaza — poverty, bad education, bad health. In that scenario, there will be no peace.”

Last updated: 5:45am, November 15 2013