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
In 1991, tragedy struck: Gordon’s wife, a clinical psychologist, was killed by one of her patients, an Israeli in his 20s who had been kicked out of the army for violent behavior and severe mental health issues. Suddenly a single father of a 2-year-old boy, Gordon took solace in his organizing and devoted himself to creating something lasting for the young people he’d met through his groups.
With Khalaf—a fellow Hebrew University alum—Gordon laid out a plan to establish the first Hand in Hand school, in Jerusalem. “We met right away and it was like bursting open the door,” says Gordon. And while for Gordon the idea was more ideological, his co-founder Khalaf’s motives were more immediate: He was looking for a school for his son where he could learn the Israeli curriculum and also feel welcome as an Arab Israeli.
It took 15 years of trial and error of polishing a largely untested framework to get it to where it is now. Originally, Arab Israelis enrolled their children in the bilingual schools to give them a chance to study sciences within the superior Israeli system and to acquire the linguistic and cultural tools necessary for integration into Israel. Israeli parents, who had generally more ideological motivations, often eventually transferred their kids to more competitive, humanities-focused schools once they approached high school.
Today, the Jerusalem campus—the only one to run all the way from kindergarten through 12th grade—is known for academic excellence. Students there score higher on standardized high-school exit exams similar to AP tests and have a higher presence on university campuses, when compared to their Israeli peers attending monolingual schools, according to Dr. Zvi Bekerman of Hebrew University, who has researched Jewish-Palestinian bilingual schools since 1999.
They’re also more mature and more critically thinking, argues Arik Sporta, the principal of the middle and high schools at the Jerusalem school. In contrast to the adrenaline-saturated atmosphere of skimpy outfits and excessive public displays of affection, as seen in many Israeli high schools, Sporta says, the kids here—including two of his own—are “calm.”
When Operation Pillar of Defense erupted a year ago, students and parents made a film condemning the violence in both Gaza and southern Israel, under the direction of a documentary filmmaker and school parent. In one scene, Aya, a teenager, stares into the camera and says in accentless Hebrew that she didn’t want to see her people die, or for others to judge her because she identifies with her people. She then shifts into Arabic, “I don’t want to see killing or rockets, I don’t understand why a 3-year-old child, instead of watching Pokemon on TV, needs to see people dead.” She exhaled anxiously.
But teachers agree that the real test comes only after graduation, when Jewish and Arab students will come in contact with a more mainstream, more polarized, Israel. Yasmin Jabber, a Muslim from the Palestinian village of Taybeh, and Meodi Ben Hurn, a Jewish Israeli from Jerusalem, are well versed in handling ignorance and prejudice. Though most Hand in Hand students go on to serve in the army after high school, Meodi has refused to sign her draft letter, saying she doesn’t “believe in, or agree with, a lot of the things going on there.”
Now tenth-graders, they have been best friends since kindergarten and plan to keep it that way. “When we speak Arabic with each other or people find out that I’m an Arab, they’re really scared, or they say that I’m an exception, but, no, we’re not an exception,” says Yasmin, proudly.
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