Few Bedouins study the Talmud, one might suppose, but Pirke Avot – the Ethics of the Fathers – aptly describes the heated controversy surrounding a recent concert in Rahat, Israel’s second largest Arab city: “Any dispute that is for Heaven’s sake will eventually last.” That’s how I feel this morning as I juggle questions from reporters and angry letters from social activists. The truth is, everyone involved did something right, for a change.
It’s been an unbroken drama ever since we asked a popular music ensemble to perform the music of Um Kulthum, legendary Egyptian singer, in the new cultural hall of Rahat. Admittedly, promoting a shared culture between Jews and Arabs is the mission of the Thaqafat Center (“cultures”, in Arabic), a project of the Hagar Association. But we didn’t expect to shake things up like this. Our basic idea was quite simple: bring Jews to a Bedouin town for culture and the arts; and provide the city of Rahat with quality content to start its new state-of-the-art performance hall. Not so complicated, right? Wrong. As the date approached, ticket sales lagged. The auditorium has 500 of them, I tell myself. I just hope the audience is bigger than the band. What were we doing wrong? It was supposed to be the first concert of its kind in Bedouin society, comprising the poorest and most underserved communities in Israel. We cannot fail them. We cannot fail each other. And then, with our marketing efforts kicking into high gear, the Islamic Movement issued a statement condemning the event and demanding its cancellation. Women singing to mixed audiences, they said, are an affront to Muslim tradition. I started looking for a rock to hide under.
The next morning, a few hours before curtain time, the mayor of Rahat responded. Fayez Abu Sahiban, himself a member of the Islamic Movement, took over the pages of the Arab press to support the event. Rahat, he said, is a pluralistic city and people have the right to enjoy a fine culture. It was a bold statement. And it ignited ticket sales. When the Siraj music ensemble finale took the stage, there were 400 people in the audience, Arabs and Jews, enthusiastically singing and clapping popular hits like Between Omri. I felt like I had broken a glass ceiling. Specifically, the people of Rahat had done it for themselves.
But it didn’t stop there. Local organizers had made a half-hearted attempt at separate seating for men and women – likely wary of the Islamic Movement’s warning the previous day. Improvised signs directed the men to one part of the room, the women and couples to another. As if to say, “please sit separately, perhaps, if you wish, unless you really want to sit together”. Photos from the event showed that most people sat where they felt most comfortable.
However, not everyone was comfortable. A group of outraged Bedouin feminist leaders sent a letter to me this morning and to the town of Rahat, pointing out that gender separation is against the law. Journalists picked up the story. Local officials debated how to respond. And as I spent the next few hours on the phone with organizers and city officials, all I could think of was Pirke Avot. This, after all, is real social debate, social critique, social change. It’s been a wild ride so far. What happens next? I won’t venture to guess. Let’s just continue the discussion.
Sam Shube is the CEO of Hagar – Jewish Arab Education for Equality, which operates the only bilingual Arab Jewish school in southern Israel, Scout Troop Adam – Israel’s first integrated scout troop, and the Thaqafat Center for Shared Culture in the Negev.