This past November, in the heat of a day's work in the community garden adjacent to the new WAC (Ma'an) office in Haifa, a curious neighbor asked us what the connection is between a worker's organization and a community garden.
At the time, there were working in the garden volunteers accompanied by a professional gardener. They sawed electric poles, carried earth and compost with zest, and planted vegetables and herbs. In addition, on the roof of the adjoining bomb shelter, a group of young women gathered around women basket weavers from the basket weaving project of Sindyanna of the Galilee in Kfar Manda, who donated that day's activity to the garden project. Next to them gathered the children of neighbors and volunteers, Jews and Arabs, who were busy preparing dough and pitah bread on a Sa'g, under the guidance of a volunteer from the Youth organization of WAC. Others decorated a portion of the roof of the bomb shelter with a ring of printed artwork. Also some truck drivers were on site—some to see what was going on and show their support, and some to receive legal aid. All of this was the reason that even before this neighbor received an answer to his question, he was drawn into the project with enthusiasm and joined in to work. The event offered WAC and the many volunteers who came ample opportunity to make new connections.
The success of the garden was not a given. In general, creating a garden is not a simple matter. Doing so requires a number of conditions, among them the help of a professional gardening staff and a supportive community. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, who joined in the venture from the very beginning, donated its rich experience as well as the budget for the gardener. Nevertheless, many suspected the garden would fail. The municipality as well as the neighborhood residents predicted that there would be acts of vandalism. The residents suspected that the municipality would not honor its pledge to provide water for the garden. But it seems that all of these dark predictions were proven wrong. The first children to come to work were exactly those who were expected to vandalize the garden. WAC made sure to provide for them plenty of work and enjoyable activity. During the first two days of work, the neighborhood residents watched from afar, but they still ensured that no vandals would interfere. Volunteers came and stayed. After a month and a half the municipality provided water and an irrigation system, the neighbors joined in, and the garden became a reality.
There is no doubt that this encounter between people who would otherwise not have met provides at least part of the answer to the question of why this project was such a success. The Hadar neighborhood of Haifa is a beautiful neighborhood that has gone downhill in the last decades. In the past, it was a well-cared-for neighborhood in which lived people from the middle to upper classes. Today it is a typical poor neighborhood, with the neglect and filth that characterize poor neighborhoods, along with the well-known Haifa mix of of veteran Arab families, Russians who speak no Hebrew, and Jews of no means. But Hadar has one unique feature—a young student and artist population who receive financial encouragement to live in this neighborhood and work for social change and co-existence between Arabs and Jews.
The encounter that developed in the garden between these populations–free of the regular barriers that exist between employer and worker, tourist and local, student and contractor, Jew and Arab and Russian—created a multi-cultural and egalitarian dynamic, which allowed for the breakdown of prejudices and stereotyping, as well as language barriers. A young modern woman who was present said that she learned a lot from a basket weaver from Kfar Manda, despite their cultural divides evident particularly in their dress. And the weaver enjoyed this young modern woman's company and desire to learn. A neighborhood resident who went out to work with the volunteers did not feel taken advantage of or oppressed, but rather felt satisfaction from the team work and from the new look of the neighborhood. Anyone who wanted received at the project's completion a tree or two to plant in his or her own garden. On Saturday, after the saplings were planted and the garden took shape, the neighbors went out to enjoy. One of the neighbors, Salaam Masri, said: “We are beginning to become proud of our neighborhood. It is a pleasure to go outside and see greenery. And it's nice to have something to do outdoors.”
The concept of a community garden that belongs to the entire neighborhood and is not the private property of any one individual, and is also not controlled by the municipality, is new and strange to the neighborhood's residents. The fact that people volunteer their time to work in the garden with no expectations of being paid, time after time, creates new perceptions. In the past, the residents were accustomed to thinking that behind every act of volunteering or giving there was a hidden agenda of oppression. They think that there is no reason to volunteer since in any event it is impossible to affect any real change. Past experience taught them that all that they ever did outside of their own private homes was stolen or destroyed, and that in any event no one ever valued their efforts.
Such an approach resulted in helplessness, despair, and anger. It left the neighborhood and its residents passive and likely to blame outside forces for their difficult situation. Why should they make an effort to affect a tangible change in their lives if they can instead wave the slogans of Jewish national pride and throw the blame onto the Arabs by saying that they are boorish and uncultured? Or the opposite—to accuse the Jewish establishment of oppressing Arabs and purposefully neglecting the neighborhood? Or to blame the drinking habits of the Russians? Etc. Etc.
That is the biggest problem facing every social or political organization that is trying to affect change—especially the worker's organization WAC. WAC sees the establishment of a worker's organization as an integral part of creating a popular movement for change that will grow out of cooperative and trusting relationships between Arab and Jewish workers. WAC does not deal in protest alone, but rather creates, often from nothing, alternatives. WAC nurtures a culture of doing, giving, trust in the ability of workers to make change, together with artisans, volunteers, women and youth. The organization hopes to create in the garden encounters between Jewish and Arab youth and to bequeath them the feeling that there is a need and an ability to make change and create alternatives. The first commandment of the society WAC is nurturing into being is: “Yes we can change the situation and take a step—even if only a small one—forward.” And therefore establishing a community garden compliments—and even completes–the building of a social and political force to counter the powers that be in terms of economy, culture, and state.
December 2010 / Michal Schwartz