Migdal HaEmek, Israel
Imagine a ruggedly natural trail for bicyclists that not only attracts riders of all ages, but also heightens prospects for bringing Jews and Arabs, notably younger generations, closer together in a quest to stem prejudice.
Imagine no more.
Such a trail exists. It’s segmented now, but ultimately will traverse 34 miles of woods, fields and population centers in Israel’s Central Galilee.
The trail links Michigan Jewry’s Partnership2Gether (P2G) communities of Migdal HaEmek, Nazareth Illit and the Jezreel Valley with the Arab towns of Yafia and Nazareth — a sprawling region of 185,000 people.
The trail’s name, Naim BeYahad, not only is a Hebrew acronym for the local authorities through which it passes, but also means “Moving Along Together” or “Pleasant Together.”
The trail isn’t yet part of Israel’s national discussion about Jewish-Arab relations.
But it could be.
Jewish and Arab adults and teens are working in concert to give form to this trail of opportunity. Trail rides also have been multicultural — a time to nurture a larger sense of community. Trail organizers offer inexpensive mountain bikes for rent, negating the cost factor.
“When you go to ride on the trail, you forget all the problems facing Arabs and Jews in Israel,” says Israeli Arab Hesham Bsharat, Yafia’s sports director.
“Yes, we have problems between each other — political problems. But when we ride together, Jews and Arabs, we forget everything. We talk only about the bicycle. Everybody tells the latest story about their bicycle and the trail and its benefits. We talk together and, more important, we have friendships.”
Michael Mensky, a Jewish resident of the Jezreel Valley and a bigtime trail rider and coexistence proponent, says, “In the past, there wasn’t much of a connection between the Jewish and Arab areas. The trail has changed that.”
The push is on by Jewish and Arab community leaders to involve more teens in cycling and, equally significant, have more of them meet on the path, as some of their parents now do.
As my daughter, Dr. Elyse Thakur, and I had lunch with Hesham Bsharat and Arda Ribo, P2G’s Nazareth Illit-based program coordinator, last fall at Humus Eliyahu, a Midgal HaEmek restaurant, I began to understand exactly how unique this trail for cyclists as well as hikers and walkers truly is — and can be.
Israel provides many chances for Jews and Arabs to coexist, but this grassroots example powered by two-wheelers is something special.
Two years in planning, the trail, part dirt, part single track and part paved, is about 90 percent open. It boasts boundless potential. Parts are open in all five communities; urban linkages are under development. Use of the public trail is free.
The trail is a collaborative effort of not just the three Jewish and two Arab communities involved via P2G, but also of two smaller Jewish villages as well as the Jewish National Fund (JNF), the Jewish Federations of Metropolitan Detroit and Greater Ann Arbor, the Cross Israel Bike Trail and, more recently, Marching Together for Peace, a foundation.
Cycling through nature is at the core of what the JNF is all about. The JNF not only has donated much of the trail land, but also has furnished invaluable labor. The host communities have provided volunteer support and the promise of some development and maintenance funds, a reminder of the mutual good arising when Jews and Arabs find good will to put a wish into practice. Youth volunteers from the host communities and P2G’s youth leadership program help maintain the trail.
Richard Broder, the Detroit-based lay leader of the P2G/Federation Steering Committee, has cycled, hiked and walked developed parts of the trail and has ridden in a jeep over its undeveloped swaths. He considers the pathway well planned and engineered with appeal for riders of all abilities — challenging terrain for mountain bikers and flat stretches for recreational riders.
The pebbles of cooperation along the trail excite Broder.
“It’s such a natural thing when you find people, regardless of their background, who have an affinity for an activity rallying together without the mantle of politics or conflict above them,’’ Broder told me back in Detroit.
“It’s just, ’Get out there and ride’.”
Underscoring that point is the physical work that local Jews and Arabs have invested in the trail, no easy task made harder by cultural barriers.
“It’s a very apolitical cause,” Broder said. “The benefits of such direct work are obvious: building the trail and making it good en route to also building relationships and, I can’t emphasize this enough, trust.”
He added, “Any time you can have a common goal to build trust between parties, it’s going to move things forward. In the case of Israel, the issues are deep and old, but anything that can be done to move things forward certainly helps.”
Our Federations believe the trail is not just a source of recreation, but also is a spur for neighbors of different ethnicities to comingle. Federation dollars have gone toward the project in the belief the host communities will share in the responsibility for upkeep over the long haul.
What’s the potential dividend on Federation trail investment? That a trail built and maintained by Jewish and Arab communities along the route will promote coexistence among the residents of those communities. If marketed strategically, the trail also could help make the Central Galilee and its natural surroundings and heritage sites a tourist destination.
Michigan Jewry has been part of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s P2G Peoplehood program since 1994. JAFI isn’t yet part of the brain trust behind the trail, but that could change.
The Naim BeYahad trail no doubt will succeed on its merit. Still, much of its grounding lies in the work ethic of Arda Ribo and Hesham Bsharat, a Jew and an Arab, both Israeli, who together breathed life into Michael Mensky’s conceptual dream.
That Yafia and Nazareth are so into the trail is encouraging given Arab kids have so many other demands before climbing on a bike. Those kids may not be as in tune as Jewish kids in the region are to the trail, but local Arab leaders seem committed to the extent possible, Broder says.
Via the power of sports, Bsharat is striving to strengthen connections not just among Arab and Jewish teens, but also among their parents. Using a soccer school for Arab and Jewish teens as an example, he said: “We need to involve parents more — not just have them get together as their kids play two or three times a week and then go back home.
“Maybe we need a finish meeting at the end of each soccer school session. Maybe parents need to sit together and conclude the day. Maybe we can make new friendships.”
Clearly, the Naim BeYahad trail is a coming together of Israelis, some Arab and some Jewish, who find a common calling in the contours of the Central Galilee forest. “That is the purpose,’’ Ribo said. “There were a few coexistence programs years ago; but not so much now.”
Noted Bsharat: “I think the partnership must put some weight on this matter.”
He’s right, of course.
But as Ribo put it, “I think what we have here is an amazing beginning point that has never happened within the Central Galilee partnership before.”
Imagine the Naim BeYahad trail and its Jewish Michigan-backed quest to join recreation with coexistence serving as a model for the rest of Israel, a Jewish state of 8.3 million people, a fifth of whom are Arab.
YouTube link to an Israeli TV interview with a Jewish teen and an Arab teen involved in the trail project: https://youtu.be/E5rqLcD33OA