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Recent Opinion Pieces

Some Hopeful News for a New Year

Anticipating a new year has made me yearn for some good news, something uplifting, encouraging, optimistic. Then I realized I had something like that, close to me: Hand in Hand, a network of five bilingual, bicultural schools for Israeli Jews and Palestinians. Despite Israel’s appalling and repressive government, Hand in Hand (Yad b’Yad in Arabic, the same in Hebrew) continues to thrive. Its 1200 students in five schools, and the 3000 adults committed to the schools, are producing alliances and friendships that cross ethnic/religious lines and stand up for peace and justice. It hopes to create five more schools in the next decade.

Disclosure: this project was begun by my brother, Lee Gordon, along with Amin Khalaf. Lee is an American social worker who lived in Israel for 20 years where he was active in the Israeli Left. Amin is a former Arabic-language newscaster who worked for the Israeli Broadcasting Authority, but felt frustrated by his inability to express his political convictions. In the early 1990s Lee and Amin established discussion groups among Jewish and Palestinian teenagers, and learned how open young people were to this kind of gathering. At times apprehensive that their plan to set up a bicultural school was too ambitious and too threatening, they began in 1998 with a public meeting to gauge popular response. They chose to hold it in a small Arab town, in a room next to the mayor’s office, as a means of testing whether Jewish parents would be willing to venture into an Arab community at night. 150 people showed up. Lee and Amin had hired two actresses, one speaking Hebrew, the other Arabic, to stage a presentation about the possibilities of transcending fear; the audience responded to the skit with intense discussion, and at 11 PM the conversation was still going and not a single person had left.

From this Lee and Amin learned something that has been key to their success: that when you combine people’s desire for peace with ambition for their children’s education, parents are willing to take risks. The genius of the project was that it offers a superb education, well beyond official state requirements —small classes, quality art and music instruction, state-of-the-art technology education, leadership training, and a creative approach to learning. Every classroom is led jointly by a Hebrew- and a Arabic-speaking teacher, creating a high teacher-student ratio and making children fluent in both languages. As one Palestinian parent said, “When Amina was born, I started worrying about where she would study. I started looking for a good school. I was very concerned because I didn’t like the educational level in our village.” Many Palestinian parents were attracted to a school system that would not inculcate submissiveness in their daughters. “I am for Arab-Jewish harmony. I also want my daughters to demand their rights and hold their heads high,” said Hatem Mater, a Palestinian father. Ironically, some Jewish parents first enrolled their children because they thought the bicultural structure would actually teach students more about Judaism: As Sigalit Ur said, “I knew that in the regular secular schools they learn very little about Judaism because of the prevailing idea among the public that in order to be a Jew, all that is necessary is to live in Israel, speak Hebrew and celebrate all the Jewish festivals. I thought that in a Jewish-Arab school where one's Jewishness cannot be taken for granted, that subject would be treated in a different way. My thought was that when the Jewish children were asked to define themselves to the Muslim and Christian children, the Jewish issue would be presented more clearly.”

In fact, Hand in Hand schools do teach religion in greater depth and breadth than in Israeli state schools. The curriculum covers three religions—the Palestinian students include both Muslims and Christians--and encourages comparative thinking, with children discussing the nature of monotheism, the stories and ethics shared by all three, the difference between scripture and oral tradition, the historical changes in religious belief and practice. The civics curricula, along with a pedagogical method that encourages free discussion, encourage critical thinking about subjects such as stereotypes, the mass media, and the principles of democracy.

Thanks to the grueling labor of fund-raising (the Hand-in-Hand schools are only partly supported by the government), the schools now constitute a network: The first school, in Sakhnin in the Galilee, opened in 1998 with one first grade class. That school added a new grade each year, and meanwhile four more schools opened--in Jaffa, Jerusalem, Haifa and Kfar Kara in the Wadi Ara valley. The last school’s location is significant because it requires Jewish parents to send their children to school in an Arab town. Several schools now enroll children from kindergarten through 12th grade.

So far so good, but matters have not always been easy. The parents in Palestinian dominated regions have been particularly heroic in maintaining unity and refusing to be divided. In Sakhnin, for example, tensions arise each year on Land Day, a commemoration of six Israeli Arabs killed in 1976 during protests against government land appropriation. Three of them were from Sakhnin. Then in October 2000, 13 Israeli-Arab demonstrators were killed in a clash with police. Despite the rebukes of neighbors, Hand-in-Hand parents transported their children to school through police barricades. Some wondered if the school would survive. But it did, and played a major role in bringing the Jews and Arabs of the region back together, adding to its reputation and influence as a peace-builder. The Wadi Ara Kfar Kara school faces particular tensions because it is located in a region where sizable Arab towns fear incursions from smaller Jewish towns and farms. When violence erupted there in 2000, Hand in Hand successfully called on the Palestinian mayor of Kfar Kara and the head of the regional council representing the valley's Jewish communities to collaborate in support of the schools.

Most threatening was the Nov. 29 2014, arson attack on the Jerusalem school. Two first-grade classrooms and a playground were set on fire and the vandals spray-painted messages on walls that read, for example, “There is no coexistence with cancer”; “Death to the Arabs. ” Seventeen members of the anti-Arab group Lehava were arrested. Hagar Mizrachi, a student, said: “This is our home, it’s like they burned our home.” But she added: “Every act of racism unites us. They burned our building but they cannot burn our values.” An Arab classmate, who asked not to be named, added: “When you encounter an obstacle, it just makes you stronger. This strengthens us and makes us come together.” But parents are worried and wonder how to reassure their children that they are safe when they themselves have doubts about this. Ten-year-old Neta understood that the danger level had gone up. “I’m afraid to go by bus because people see the symbol of the school on my shirt and can do things to us,” she told me. Arab parents and children feel especially vulnerable.

In an oddly schizophrenic mentality, even those Israeli politicians whose policies and rhetoric create these racist culture—by regularly labeling Palestinians as “scum” and terrorists—condemned the Jerusalem arson. Israeli justice minister Tzipi Livni called the school “a ‘nature reserve’ of coexistence.”

The responses to these threats have taught Hand-in-Hand leaders that the parents are as important to the schools as the students, and that they are capable of solidarity and democratic leadership. If they can remain strong through this hate-filled time, their children could become leaders capable of moving toward a peaceful and democratic future for their region.

You can see and learn more about Hand in Hand at www.handinhandk12.org