By Jens Aspelmeier
In the summer of 2013, twenty-eight German and Israeli students began to see their own and foreign social environments from a different perspective during the course of two school exchange projects. Who is in? Who is out? Why is this so and why does it have to be like this? After two encounters of two weeks each, it became apparent that "love" is fundamental to resistance against discrimination.
"...I think that during the three and a half weeks that we spent together, I became aware of how many different people live in this world and that each one of us are simply human beings. As clichéd as this might sound, I think it describes best what I was able to take from the project." (Marie, 16 years old)
Such basic insights may sound trite, as the student herself observes. But they indicate the potentially reflective influence of intercultural exchange. Students rarely ponder past and current social challenges in daily (history) classes. Forms of general discrimination also have virtually no effect on their everyday life. In the artificial classroom environment, they generally take their cultural and historical givens for granted. They do not ask themselves, for instance, how a certain image of Israel has entered their minds or why Holocaust remembrance in Germany differs from that of other nations. It is simply much easier for them to consider such questions in an experiential exchange with peers and eyewitnesses from other cultural contexts. How they experience and grasp the issue of discrimination and its historical dimension and make it their common history, a shared history, can be outlined in the following transnational project, "Ahava-Love beyond ideology."
Project launch on neutral territory – we are all strangers here
For most participants, the project starts with a 14-day encounter in Israel. They eagerly look forward to the first meeting, balancing expectation against reality. The factual, thematic preparatory phase fades into the background. A neutral location helps this sensitive phase for both groups in two ways. Firstly, the notion of German youths as foreigners and the Israeli youths as the in group (or vice versa) doesn’t work here. That kind of imbalance would hamper an unbiased encounter. Secondly, each group (and the project supervision) experiences being foreign and "other" in an elementary, everyday sense. Everyone has to orient themselves within the new environment in the same way. A subtle introduction to the issue, such as asking a simple question, offers numerous formal and informal opportunities to converse. It also affects group bonding, which is advantageous for the joint project. For our project, the desert was the ideal point of departure for research. No-frills accommodation, unaccustomed climate and unfamiliar food enabled memorable shared experiences only possible at that location.
In this way, for 28 youths and their project guides, this became a good foundation on which to build towards the central question facing them: What empowers people to resist socially accepted discrimination against certain groups? For this question, oriented towards resources and action, the aspect of "Love" formed a central point of contact. It is clear that love of humankind – especially directed toward a foreign counterpart – is a force that allows people to become aware of exclusion and discrimination, especially in times of social and political crisis. It strengthens one's ability to resist the urge to discriminate and reveals alternatives. Young women and men of both countries, in search of their own identity, can introduce their own personal experiences beyond all ideological issues.
What empowers us to resist socially accepted discrimination against certain groups?
Participants probed this question as it applied to the Nazi period by conversing with eyewitnesses and conducting research at memorial sites (Yad Vashem, Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum). And as regards current discrimination, they discovered which sectors of society were being marginalized in both countries and became aware of those who are combating this discrimination: Those most likely to speak out for peace and reconciliation in Germany were students of color and asylum seekers, and in Israel it was parents who had lost their children to the Israeli-Palestine conflict. The unusual story of Yehudit Arnon, a Holocaust survivor and founder of the Kibbutz Dance Company, was another striking example of the power of love.
The (historical) personalities, with their possibilities, their activities, restrictions and interrupted lives provided orientation and opportunities to reflect on life choices. The youths came to the realization that people and to "love thine enemy" then as now is not about keeping a commandment, but rather about understanding emotional bonds that people need to maintain the ability to resist. Participants either identified with, or rejected, past forms and strategies for coping with everyday life and managing conflict. Through the change of perspective, they created important prerequisites for the emergence of a deliberate and justifiable identity.
Creating an experiential space for young people
The young participants are getting excited about the premiere of their performance. They have been rehearsing their piece for two days and keep changing the choreography on their own and taking over. They don't like the original title of their dance project, "AHAVA – Love beyond ideology,” anymore and without further ado they change it: "Eyes open – mit anderem blick" is the new name. They strive to achieve a balance between project goals and their own interests. Time and again they demand to have the "last word" – "After all, we're the ones who have to be on the stage." And they take initiative when it comes to research. They ask the eyewitnesses unexpected questions. These are critical questions, but they sometimes go beyond the subject at hand. Still, the youth always show genuine interest in each person's destiny. For the large team of teachers, choreographers and documentary filmmakers it is a challenge to limit their role to that of project participant and source of inspiration. It was the dominant concern expressed during the nightly team meetings: How to create the proper experimental space in which the young people could move freely.
A team is a team is a team*
In addition to meeting the day-to-day challenges of engaging a lively group of young people in project work, a key to the success of the school exchange project was in the formation of an international team of educators, artists and organizers. Without an understanding of the learning process and continual compromising on its content and methodological design, the experience outlined above could not have succeeded. For the team to entrust particular professionals – and occasionally others – with a satisfactory task was both an enriching experience and continual challenge. Familiarity and trust were quickly established through each colleague having a turn at being a guest and a host.
Authenticity of the discrimination experience – biographical accesses
Encounters with people and their different situations and lifestyles cause a change in perspective among the youthful participants, bringing them closer to their counterparts. Being able to empathize with the other requires emotional support. A classroom situation often falls short, with its purely cognitive approach to the topic of discrimination through literature, statistics and life stories. What really opens up the opportunity for further steps in objective/cognitive work is an encounter with a living, authentic subject (especially in the eyes of the young person). It is important to mitigate the risk of over-identification with the witnesses and always to counteract generalization of their experience.
Don't talk: dance!
"What exactly are we doing here?" The skepticism expressed during the first dance classes vanished as the groups became familiar with each other and started developing dance sequences. They find out how to experience each other by expressing themselves in movement without words. Eventually, they understood that even research results were "danceable." Language barriers in a project with German and Israeli participants were a central concern from the start. Promising "cultural dialogue" requires a form of expression beyond the lingual. On one hand, cultures don’t speak. It’s people who speak from different cultural contexts. On the other hand, most people lack the linguistic proficiency to engage in differentiated discussion using a common third language. And a public performance should not only contain speech. All partners involved in the project agreed that a (modern) dance performance satisfied their quest for an unspoken form of exchange and reflection. Professionals with the required skill and experience helped with the choreography. With their help, the young participants presented their results on stage as a dance theater performance. The first provisional performance took place in Israel, the second, extended version in Germany. The youths were thrilled with the idea of our filmmakers combining the performance with the day-to-day project work to create a visual collage that could be shown time and again in neighboring schools. Their aim is to convince more classmates and other pupils to take a different perspective, to be convinced through the power of love. It gives them a chance to proudly present their creation as a reminder of shared experiences and gives them a reason to stay in contact as a German-Israeli group.
* Note: The following persons are jointly responsible for the development, implementation and success of the project beyond its main focus: Dr. Jens Aspelmeier; Dr. Astrid Greve, Oberstudienrätin (German/ Evangelical Religion) at Ev. Gymnasium Siegen-Weidenau, research focus: commemoration; Torsten Heupel, Studienrat (Geography/ Sport) at Ev. Gymnasium Siegen-Weidenau; Michelle Mitz and Enad Tachnai from Ramot Hefer High School, Maabarot. Choreography: Sharon Assa, Israel and Ulrike Flämig, Berlin. Film: Felipe Frozza, Berlin.
Astrid Greve: Zachor – Erinnern lernen. Aktuelle Entdeckungen in der jüdischen Kultur des Erinnerns. Berlin 2013.
Günter J. Friesenhahn (Hrsg.): Praxishandbuch Internationale Jugendarbeit. Lern- und Handlungsfelder, rechtliche Grundlagen, Geschichte, Praxisbeispiele und Checklisten, 3. Aufl., Schwalbach/Ts. 2007.
Vadim Oswalt/ Jens Aspelmeier/ Suzelle Boguth: Ich dachte, jetzt brennt gleich die Luft. Transnationale historische Projektarbeit zwischen interkultureller Begegnung und Web 2.0. Wochenschau-Verlag, Schwalbach i.T. 2014 (=Forum Historisches Lernen).