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In Divided Jerusalem, a School Bridges Boundaries Between Young Israeli Arabs and Jews

Originally the brainchild of an American Jew and an Arab Israeli, now a model for a small but growing educational trend

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Jewish and Arab schoolfriends share the playground during recess at the Hand in Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education, Oct. 9, 2007, in Jerusalem. (David Silverman/Getty Images)
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The walls at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand school in Jerusalem, located along the Green Line in the city’s southwest, are draped with hand-painted murals, squiggly sketches, and paper cutouts around words like “dignity”—but, like everything else at the school, it’s written twice: once in Hebrew, kavod, and once in Arabic, karam. Each class is run by two teachers, one Jewish and one Arab, and the 600 students are split evenly between Israeli Jews and Arabs.

In a diverse yet deeply segregated Jerusalem, where mundane public places can quickly become social battlefields, the students at this school are an experiment in coexistence. They are the leading edge of a small but growing trend toward bilingual, multicultural education in Israel.

Ten-year-old Atalia Davidoff, a Jewish student, says that while she regularly gets flak from her neighborhood friends for going to school with and hanging out with Arabs, she likes that it’s something out of the ordinary. “It’s really fun to learn with Arabs,” she explained. “It makes me feel special.”

That view can be hard to come by these days, when 64 percent of Jewish Israelis and 39 percent of Arab Israelis say they don’t expect a permanent peace to ever be achieved between Israel and Palestine, according to a recent Gallup poll. But egalitarianism is the code of law at Hand in Hand. Kids have days off for Jewish, Muslim, and Christian holidays and learn about them comparatively. On Israeli Independence Day—which celebrates the creation of Israel in 1948, and which Palestinians refer to as Nakba, or catastrophe, Day—students discuss their intertwined, and respectively fraught, national narratives, in both languages. They are not required to agree, only to listen.

This model of cooperation and co-existence in the Israeli capital is the brainchild of an American Jew named Lee Gordon, a peace activist who wanted to create a pluralistic school in the 1990s, during the euphoric optimism of the early Oslo peace process. With Amin Khalaf, an Israeli Arab activist, Gordon opened the Max Rayne campus in 1998. Today, while Oslo has failed to produce peace, there are five Hand in Hand campuses—in Haifa, Wadi Ara, and the Galilee as well as Jerusalem and, most recently, in Jaffa—educating more than a thousand students a year.

Unlike most Israeli schools, which are typically grouped along demographic lines—ultra-Orthodox, secular Jewish, or Arab—the integrated, bilingual Hand in Hand model is designed to facilitate natural and constant interaction between Arab and Jewish children. Gordon and Khalaf wanted Arab and Jewish kids—and their parents—to have a free space in which to explore emotionally charged issues of conflict and identity. Also, and perhaps more important, they wanted children from each sector to just be kids together, rather than grow into the teenagers or adults they saw encountering each other awkwardly at one-off dialogue sessions or community-building events. “Kids are a captive audience,” Gordon jokes.

Over the next decade, administrators aim to build 10 to 15 more Hand in Hand schools throughout the country, and others are copying the model throughout Israel, despite challenges from the Israeli education ministry, which recently attempted to cut back the schools’ yearly tuition charges—5,000 shekels, about $1,400—which are crucial to providing double the usual staff. Education Minister Shai Piron accused specialized schools such as Hand in Hand of being a “back road to creating private schools with state funds.”

This year, the Haifa campus was denied accreditation and is operating as a private school, without government funds, and accreditation for future years is in no way guaranteed for the other campuses, which supplement state funding with tuition and backing from individual donors, private philanthropies like the Jerusalem Foundation—a nonprofit founded by the city’s former mayor Teddy Kollek, and devoted to fostering pluralism in the city—and the U.S. government, which last year gave Hand in Hand a million dollar grant to seed three new campuses.

***

Gordon, now 57, grew up in Portland, Ore., the son of political activists who joined protests against racial segregation and the Vietnam War. The family wasn’t religious, but Gordon, like many in his generation, felt an affinity with Israel and visited as a high-school student in the 1970s, working as a volunteer on kibbutzim. As an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, he got involved with the emerging peace movement, hosting a delegation from Peace Now. In 1983, he made aliyah with his wife, Wendy, and enrolled in Hebrew University for a Master’s degree in social work. Almost immediately, he began to run Jewish-Arab dialogue groups among his classmates.

Nearly a decade later, as the Oslo peace framework was beginning to emerge, Gordon—who was doing a post-graduate fellowship focused on creating new education initiatives in Israel—was running a community dialogue at a high school in Ramallah and struck up a conversation with a couple of English-speaking Palestinian teenagers. They said they wanted to join in Gordon’s monthly meetings, which covered every issue from the conflict to the complexes of Israeli and Palestinian identity, to everyday banalities, from the emergence of checkpoints to societal attitudes toward a growing wave of violence that would eventually become the Second Intifada. Hundreds of Jewish and Palestinian teenagers joined the monthly meetings.

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In Divided Jerusalem, a School Bridges Boundaries Between Young Israeli Arabs and Jews

Originally the brainchild of an American Jew and an Arab Israeli, now a model for a small but growing educational trend