Cheltenham High School's Israel Club is hosting Israeli Arab students as part of a 10-day exchange program.
“Don’t you think ending the apartheid would be a good step to achieving peace between Israel and Palestine; just ending apartheid and letting people out of the West Bank and Gaza?”
The question directed at Yaron Sideman, consul general of Israel to the mid-Atlantic region, by Lina Satel, a 15-year-old Israeli Arab high schooler, woke up her peers and all the adults gathered at the consulate in Center City on April 13.
She is one of 15 students from Eroni Yud-Bet High School, an Israeli Arab high school located in Tel-Aviv/Yaffo, visiting Philadelphia this week as part of a 10-day exchange program with the Israel Club at Cheltenham High School.
Cheltenham math teacher Daniel Blitstein initiated the plan after being connected with the Israeli school through his mother-in-law, Yona Dansky, a retired educator.
Having arrived at the City of Brotherly Love on Saturday, the students were enjoying a falafel lunch at the consulate as part of their tour around the city; earlier in the day, the group walked around City Hall and they planned to visit the Liberty Bell in the afternoon.
After a brief introduction by Sideman and Elad Strohmayer, Israel's deputy consul general to the mid-Atlantic region, the two fielded questions from the students, from whether they hold dual Israeli and American citizenship to how Israel handles being the religious focal point for three different religions. That’s when Satel's apartheid question landed.
Sideman didn’t dodge the question. He rejected attaching the term “apartheid” in relation to Israel and offered the view that pursuing a two-state solution would help move the path to peace forward.
"We should always be hopeful, the relationship between two different identities is always going to be hard," added Strohmayer, referencing recent racial issues being raised in the United States. "But one thing that will hold us together is hope that we can live together and we can make a change, and it sounds like a cliché, it sounds like a slogan, but we have to try and keep that optimism within us."
The exchange was polite but underscored the difficulties of bringing together students from different backgrounds.
Blitstein, an American who also holds Israeli citizenship, admitted that while he was organizing the visit, he did a double take when he learned that the students would be Israeli Arabs.
“It didn’t stop me, but it just made me think if I’m doing that, as someone who’s Israeli and might be more comfortable with that culture and language if I’m already aware of that distinction and title and what that would mean, that must mean that there are many people who have no idea what Israel is, but only see Israel through news or media and have a warped sense of what it actually might be,” Blitstein said. “It’s that much more of an impetus to get involved and make this happen.”
After speaking with Sideman and Strohmayer, a few of the students shared their thoughts on the visit so far.
Shahd Ahmad, a 17-year-old senior from Eroni Yud-Bet, said she loved her host family and was excited at the prospect of doing some shopping at the King of Prussia mall. As for dialogue with her Cheltenham counterparts about the Middle East, she said, “It’s hard to really explain to Americans how hard the situation actually is because they don’t really know about it, they don’t even see it on the news because the news is limited — you can’t see everything that’s going on, only what Israel allows.”
Likewise Rebecca Neckritz, a 16-year-old sophomore from Cheltenham, said meeting her Israeli counterparts so far had been both enjoyable and eye opening.
She explained that while there was some initial culture clash, for instance when she and her Cheltenham classmates hosted the Israeli students at their school's "spring fling" dance, the two groups were bonding over shared interests such as taking selfies and, for the girls, wearing makeup.
"But I've learned so much about Arab culture, like their dietary laws, what they plan to do after college, what they do with marriage," said Neckritz, whose family belongs to Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park. "It's funny, we're the same age but they're already considering things that we're not even thinking about — they know so much about politics that directly affect them. Overall it's been so rewarding to meet these people who are so similiar to us and also so different."