If the Middle East were conceived as a neighborhood rather than an international area, what difference would it make? Would its diverse groups be more tolerant of their differences and more willing to collaborate across cultural boundaries?

    There is a story that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter once said that it might be easier for people in the Middle East to reduce conflict and promote peace if they came together, not at the international level, but rather at the neighborhood level, where propinquity might require them to bridge differences and find common ground because there were little alternative.

    Imagine! Instead of Palestinian and Israeli officials making public pronouncements and playing global politics between suicide bombings and settlement disputes, neighborhood residents would be attending community meetings, assessing local needs, and making plans for implementation of programs that build “playgrounds for all children.”

    Imagine also a fresh approach to education for international affairs which, instead of its common construction as a form of worldwide diplomacy, would take the form of involving people in institutions and decisions at the local level. In this image, educators in schools of international affairs would be joined by their colleagues in social work, public health, urban planning, and other fields that focus on community participation. With the growing interest in multiculturalism, this new combination of “international affairs” and “community affairs” would have potential for educational renewal.

    In recent years I have collaborated with colleagues in an effort to promote multicultural participation in a diverse neighborhood in Israel. Our work is in its early stages, and it would be a mistake to draw unwarranted generalizations, but it is possible to make some preliminary observations nonetheless.

    Perspectives on Participation

    Multicultural community participation is a process of involving diverse social and cultural groups in a common issue or project at the community level. It recognizes differences in groups, builds bridges across cultural boundaries, and increases collaboration for a common purpose.

    This approach differs from “monocultural participation” in communities whose people are similar in their characteristics and promote a dominant culture, and from “pluralist participation” in communities whose diverse interest-groups try to influence outcomes in a pluralist arena. In contrast, “multicultural participation” combines commitment to “difference” and “unity” in the same community effort. It builds upon familiar steps in the participation process—e.g., assessing needs, setting goals, implementing programs—but practices them in multicultural ways.

    Multicultural participation can find expression in “community” conceived as a group of people or as a social system, but has particular promise at the neighborhood level. “Neighborhood,” an area of small size whose residents live near one another and whose participation patterns are affected by their propinquity, has great civic potential. The best neighborhoods are public and participatory in space and spirit.

    Multicultural participation is especially important in societies like the United States and Israel, which are becoming more socially and culturally diverse. Many communities in the United States and Israel, for example, are not “monocultural” with people having the same social and cultural characteristics, but “multicultural” with significant group differences among them. The future of both countries will depend in part on the ability of people to recognize their differences and increase their collaboration.

    Israel has special circumstances which affect its potential for multicultural participation. First is its history of international conflict, which affects local affairs. In the planning period before the first workshop, international peacemaking deteriorated into escalating violence and more than 600 people were killed, most starkly represented by the suicide bombing of immigrant teenagers in a Tel Aviv neighborhood. In the week before the workshop itself there were 80 shootings, 84 grenade bombings, 28 mortar attacks, 11 casualties, and four fatalities.

    Second is the recent immigration of new residents into its small area. The arrival of more than one million new immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union have exacerbated tensions between Israelis of European and North African descent, and challenged notions of national unity to the core. Cultural stereotypes and mutual mistrust, especially in disadvantaged communities, are common.

    The Hadar neighborhood of Haifa was our location. Because of worsening economic conditions, high unemployment, and inadequate services, middle-class residents have left the area and have been replaced by lower-income Arab Israelis, Israeli Jews, and new immigrants from the former Soviet Union. These groups are largely isolated from one another without effective vehicles for cross-cultural communications or community involvement.

    Yedid, a nongovernmental organization which promotes social justice in Israeli communities through a national network of citizens rights centers, operates in the Hadar neighborhood. Its local director is a Russian immigrant, and other staff have included Israeli Jews, an Ethiopian immigrant, and a Druz and Muslim Arab who work with Arab Israelis.

    In 2000 they conducted interviews and focus groups with local residents, and identified several issues of common concern, including the worsening quality of the environment and the lack of afterschool programs for children and youth. From this, they formulated a strategy to combine education and training with leadership development and community organizing.

    Yedid‘s national director approached me to help plan and conduct a series of multicultural participation workshops intended to involve residents in finding common ground in the Hadar neighborhood. I had earlier experience in this type of work in North and South America, Africa, and Europe, and we had collaborated in community organizer training in Israel for more than a decade—and agreed to continue in the neighborhood.

    Getting Started

    Our first workshop, held in May 2001, was intended to establish relationships and introduce ideas of multicultural participation to neighborhood groups.

    Yedid staff recruited participants from the Arab Israeli, Israeli Jewish, and Russian immigrant groups, including representatives of community centers, educational programs, social service agencies, teacher associations, and other nongovernmental organizations. Each group was facilitated by a person who shared their social and cultural characteristics and who participated in a trainer training on the content and process of the project.

    In preparation, we conducted a series of community visits with prospective participants to discuss the purpose of the workshop, their expectations, and any concerns they might have. For example, we visited a Russian day care center, an Arab youth club, a bilingual Arab-Jewish kindergarten, which promotes Jewish-Arab coexistence and a neighborhood project for Ethiopian women preparing to enter the job market.

    The workshop itself included experiential exercises to help participants meet others in their own homogenous groups, exchange their experiences and expectations, and build a sense of community. They were seated at their own small round tables to promote group interaction in whichever language they were most comfortable. A large rectangular table was used for whole-group sessions in which group representatives spoke to the whole group while the facilitators sat to the side. Tables and chairs were movable and permitted participants to arrange themselves in a circle or other arrangements which were suitable for discussion. This spatial arrangement symbolized the social geometry of the initial encounter.

    Because people learn and plan in various ways, our process included a variety of activities, including plenary presentations, specific skills workshops, and a mix of homogeneous and heterogeneous group activities. By prior agreement, our primary languages were Hebrew and English, and small group discussions were held in Hebrew, Arabic, and Russian.

    We introduced participation as a process in which people join together, set goals, and take steps to implement them at the community level. Each session included initial input by the facilitators, brief discussion by participants, planning by individual groups at their own tables, and periodic progress reports by a spokesperson standing at each table.

    We combined successive small- and whole-group techniques, which respected group differences and which culminated in representatives sitting shoulder-to-shoulder to present to the whole group, after which all participants had discussed their similarities and differences.

    “Do we have a common purpose and, if so, what?” the participants were asked, without knowing what they might or might not say. “Given our common purposes, are their any common program possibilities and, if so, what?” they were asked in a tentative style, so as neither to force any responses nor to convey the impression that there was any expectation that they necessarily should have anything in common. Until this point there had been no attempt to facilitate intergroup dialogue or mutual discussion of multicultural program planning.

    Group representatives joined a “fishbowl” discussion group with an inner and outer ring of chairs as a tool for intensive listening and intergroup communications. The participants faced each other, discussed common program possibilities, and demonstrated how participatory techniques can develop content knowledge and demonstrate process skills simultaneously. We employed techniques which are not normally taught in international affairs programs, although the group differences—for example, Israeli Jews and Russian immigrants talked more, Arab Israelis and Ethiopian immigrants less—were international in nature.

    On the day of the first workshop described here, two Israeli soldiers were killed in an explosion in Gaza, and two Palestinian teenagers were critically wounded by Israeli gunfire.

    Following the workshop, an Arab and Jewish participant formed a new organization to serve “the Israeli child” without attending to issues of cultural difference, and an Arab Israeli and Russian participant convened a meeting to discuss new program possibilities. Although they expressed commitment to multicultural principles, some continued to advocate for their own youth and eventually they decided that it was more important for each group to formulate its own plans before moving ahead with a common project.

    Forming a Community Coalition

    The purpose of the second workshop, held in December 2001, was to encourage cultural groups to strengthen their planning skills and develop their ideas into actual projects.

    Participants began by sitting in their distinct cultural groups, and then formed mixed heterogeneous groups, each of which had a group facilitator who had been prepared for the role. Whereas the social geometry of the first workshop had emphasized discussion in distinct cultural groups, this one emphasized heterogeneous groups and diverse cultural perspectives.

    Group members participated in a series of experiential exercises and planning steps. They began by “assessing community conditions,” then reaffirmed a goal which had been articulated in the earlier workshop: “We want to create a better future for all children in the community.”

    Participants brainstormed specific program ideas in small groups, and then came together for a whole-group round-robin discussion, which produced a lengthy list of ideas which they discussed with fervor. Subsequent sessions included information on preparing action plans and building support for program implementation.

    Following this workshop, Arab Israeli, Israeli Jewish, and Russian group representatives formed a Haifa Community Coalition and agreed to meet monthly. They structured themselves like a campaign, starting with a kick-off meeting at which they discussed their common commitment to “a better future for all children in the community.”

    They also formed a steering committee in order to represent group interests and create common projects, which would transcend the interests of any single group. When a steering committee member sought support for an Arab Womens‘ Center, and another member wanted a focus on people with disabilities, they were reminded that their purpose was to encourage efforts that would benefit all cultural groups.

    New community projects emerged during this period. Russian immigrants undertook new efforts to improve the physical appearance of the area and increase activities for children in the neighborhood. Arab Israelis created a center for children whose mothers lacked access to services, and established a pluralistic, bilingual kindergarten. A community center that formerly had prohibited Arab children added new programs for this population.

    Setting Neighborhood Priorities

    The purpose of the third workshop, held in April, 2003, aimed to set priorities for a common neighborhood project.

    In preparation, Yedid staff conducted strategic analyses of each community coalition group and each steering committee member, and paid personal visits to individuals who were expected to take leadership roles. Each group was asked to identify at least one project on which they wanted to work with the other groups, and to send these ideas in writing in advance of the workshop. Pre-workshop meetings were held with group leaders to encourage their participation in fashioning a multicultural project.

    At the workshop, participants entered the room, sat together around a large table, and introduced themselves. They were reminded that in their first workshop, they had sat in their own homogeneous groups, and that now they were sitting together in one heterogeneous group. One participant added, “Yes, and we are doing this despite what is happening in the society in which we are living.”

    Group representatives were asked their project ideas, all of which were listed on newsprint. When it was evident that there were similarities in thinking, and ideas built upon ideas, they were animated by the prospects and eager to move forward.

    Participants discussed criteria for a common project as a basis for further discussion. A few criteria were offered as examples—e.g., youth and environment issues, two or more cultural groups. A list of criteria was brainstormed—e.g., start with a small success, build upon human resources, benefit the whole community. These criteria were concrete and illustrated a readiness to move forward.

    Participants divided into small heterogeneous groups in order to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the various ideas, and again were reminded of how this mixing contrasted with the original homogeneous groups in which this work had begun. Groups were engaged and enthusiastic about this discussion.

    Each person placed an asterisk next to the project which he or she preferred and was interested in working on. The resulting top priorities were to rehabilitate a park and develop it into a place for youth activities, and to organize an educational project for youth at-risk. They seemed almost surprised that they were able to come to agreement in such a methodical manner. The meeting concluded with discussion of next steps, and the participants lingered to share stories about the work they had done.

    Next day the steering committee members met to begin turning the enthusiasm for collaboration into an actual plan and project. They began with a review of their progress, and then had heated discussion of implementation. When one member advocated the park project for her own area, another responded: “We are not talking the same language. You don‘t understand the needs of my community! How can I help you create a park in an area I don‘t care about when we don‘t even have parks in our area?”

    At this point, the facilitator halted the discussion and asked members to analyze their process from a multicultural perspective. After a moment of silence, participants responded: “I feel isolated.” “I feel guilty.” “I am retreating” and “Then, it must be my fault, since I must be making you retreat.”

    When one participant continued to push for a project that served her own constituency, the facilitator challenged her commitment to multiculturalism. This refocused the group and caused the self-interested participant to propose a compromise project to clean a park, turn it into a place for activities for all children, and include an educational project for at-risk youth. This resulted in constructive negotiation and the idea of a one-week summer camp, with which some participants had previous experience, as a way to bring it all together.

    Steering committee members concluded with plans to meet again, negotiate their approach, and report back to their constituencies. In closing, one participant noted that this was the first time in which she felt that they had honest discussion about their differences and were able to continue their collaboration.

    After almost three years, a diverse community coalition was formed, priority issues were identified, specific ones were selected, and implementation plans were moving forward. It is not known whether the participants will maintain their motivation and resolve the difficulties which are likely to arise, but at this writing they continue to meet and move forward on the project.

    On the same day as the third workshop, 14 Israelis were killed in a suicide bombing at Mike‘s Place restaurant in Tel Aviv, less than one hour from Haifa. On the next day, 13 Palestinians were killed in an Israeli raid in Gaza City‘s Sajaya neighborhood, including three brothers who were known suicide bombers. Meanwhile, in the Hadar neighborhood, residents continued to make plans for the future.

    Toward a Neighborhood Approach

    The work in the Hadar neighborhood continues and, despite its preliminary status, some observations are possible.

    Multicultural community participation is instrumental to diverse democracy. If democracy is about the participation of the people, and the people are becoming more diverse, then democracy will be inseparable from its diversity, and its future will depend on the ability of people to collaborate with those who are different from themselves.

    The neighborhood is a vehicle for multicultural participation with groups that differ in their national origins and cultural characteristics. In contrast to the common conception of multiculturalism as a form of interpersonal practice in which individuals increase their interaction, or of coexistence efforts in which small groups meet together for face-to-face encounters, or of international relations in which national representatives come to the table for diplomatic negotiations, the neighborhood has great potential for multicultural participation.

    Indeed, these workshops represent an approach to multicultural participation as a neighborhood process in which culturally diverse group representatives shared common concerns at the community level. They came together in groups, formulated plans of their own choosing, increased interactions with other groups that were different from themselves, and discussed the possibilities for common plans with potential to build bridges across their cultural boundaries.

    These workshops were organized around children‘s afterschool programs in the Hadar neighborhood of Haifa. The participants were culturally diverse and had serious social differences among them, but together they shared common concern for their children and for their neighborhood. Both “children” and “neighborhood” were the issues which enabled diverse constituents to come together and take collective action which went beyond that which no one individual could have accomplished acting alone. Issues like these are fundamental to community participation, and their identification is especially important in multicultural situations whose diversity requires special efforts to find the ties that bind people together.

    These workshops were based on a process whose social geometry recognized cultural differences and built bridges across cultural boundaries, despite the international conflict of which they are part. They started with staff assessment of the community, continued with pre-workshop visits to each cultural group, enabled group members to address issues of their own choosing, and carefully invited all participants to consider the possibilities for coming together in common cause.

    Workshop participants came to the workshops with serious social and cultural differences which were apparent throughout the process. Israeli Jews, Arab Israelis, and Russian immigrants were invited to the workshop because of their distinct characteristics. The workshop facilitators cautioned against the dangers of overgeneralization, the process was based on an assumption of group differences, and it was no surprise when each group had its own style of communication, pattern of participation, or level of conflict.

    Despite the differences, however, bridging persons played special roles in intercultural interactions. These persons spoke at least two languages, were experienced in working with people who were different from themselves, and handled situations which required negotiation across differences. They also formed a community coalition and steering committee to address common concerns over time

    Workshops like these are exceptional, especially in culturally conflictual circumstances and turbulent times. Their exceptional nature gives glimpses of what might be possible if the world were structured according to neighborhood boundaries or multicultural sensibilities. They are not normal occurrences, however, and their participants eventually return to everyday life where, in the absence of special circumstances, there are obstacles to efforts of this type.

    Former President Carter‘s concept of a neighborhood approach in the Middle East is intriguing, but it also makes many arguable assumptions. The world is not a neighborhood; it is the world. The neighborhood is a unit of solution, but it also has limitations in the face of forces that originate outside its borders. The notion of “neighborhood as world,” as a form of international affairs among neighborhood groups that have different national origins and bring serious social differences to a locale, raises questions about what “multicultural participation” might contribute to collaboration in the world‘s hotspots. It also challenges educators and strategists to consider the appropriate roles of the neighborhood in international affairs.

    Given the worsening violence and international conflict in the Middle East, there is little reason to expect our workshop participants to be successful in their local efforts to formulate multicultural plans in the neighborhood. They might be successful, but it is probably more reasonable to expect that they might not, and yet again they just might.

    Errata: The print version of this issue was incorrectly designated as Vol. 10, No. 4.

    Barry Checkoway is professor of social work and urban planning at the University of Michigan, and in 1990 was Arnulf Pins Professor of Community Development at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The author acknowledges support of Lester Monts, Michael Kennedy, and Linda Slutzky, and local leadership of Sari Revkin, Jenny Oser, and Marina Zamski.