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
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.
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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