Learning Lessons of Peace:
Arab & Israeli Children Hand in Hand
[In March 2007, a group of superintendents from all parts of the United States traveled to Israel under the aegis of the American Israel Friendship League to observe, learn and share educational perspectives. Publisher, Dr. Pola Rosen was part of the group. One of the most moving sights was a group of Arab and Israeli children singing in Arabic and Hebrew, committed to learning about each other’s language and culture with the ultimate goal of living together in peace for future generations. The group running the program was a nonprofit called Hand in Hand and the venture was a joint collaboration between the Arab and Israeli parents. In August 2007, one of Education Update’s reporters, Joy Resmovits, visited and interviewed Hand in Hand on location in Israel.]
Video footage of a sunny Jerusalem day in summer 2004 proves that not all diplomats have to be adults. Children bearing dripping paintbrushes crowd around a white cloth, painting messages of peace in Hebrew and Arabic that express their feelings of the stigmatized Jewish-Israeli conflict.
“We decided to make something to tell the Jews and Arabs that we already live in peace,” Noa Weiss-Simon said. “And we say yes to the peace and a thousand times no to the war.” Noa Weiss-Simon is just a third-grader. The video is promotional material for Hand in Hand, the group that established the bilingual school in Jerusalem that Noa attends.
In a land of constantly fluctuating borders, Hand in Hand breaks down physical and societal barriers by building bonds between clashing cultures. The communities that the schools in Shorashim, Jerusalem, Wadi Ara, and the newest addition in Beer Sheva form extend beyond the classrooms, integrating the lives of individuals with wholly different backgrounds yet identical values.
The demographic reality in the small Middle-Eastern country is disproportionate segregation, with 80 percent of society being Jewish and a mere 20 percent Arab. In 1997, friends Lee Gordon and Amin Khalaf launched Hand in Hand to foster peace through a multicultural bi-lingual education that frees youngsters from prejudiced preconceived notions of the “other” before they can form.
“Fear of the other is part of the problem,” Maura Milles, American representative of Hand in Hand said. “The solution will create a shared civil society by using a network of bilingual multicultural schools,” she added.
The project compelled society to rethink education, and Hand in Hand received accreditation and partial funding from Israel’s Ministry of Education, multiple awards, and proved its competence with high-scoring students.
Contrary to the national statistics, classes are half Arab and half Jewish. The school teaches about different faiths and religious festivals. “The challenge is to change the situation between Jews and Arabs so that there can be equal meetings,” co-founder Amin Khalaf said. “I want to change it the long and hard way,” he added.
“We’re equal in the school,” Rema Jabara, a mother of a student enrolled in the Jerusalem school said in the video. “That’s why I feel equal to the parents in the school … my son feels equal to the kid sitting next to him.”
The first school in 1997 comprised of 50 kindergarteners and first graders who learned in integrated bilingual classrooms: in classes that each had one Arab and one Jewish intensively-trained teacher, within schools that each had one Arab and one Jewish co-principal. After ten years, about 850 students successfully followed suit, taking advantage of the rich cultural and academic offerings.
The ten years since Hand in Hand’s conception were fraught with increasing Arab-Israeli tensions, complicating the organization’s job. But nevertheless, it persevered. “People are scared,” Khalaf said. “The bad situation influences negatively and makes our work more difficult. But we succeeded even through the second intifada, when all other co-existance organizations collapsed. We were strong enough to pass through these obstacles.”
Khalaf comes from the small Arab village Muqaybli. When nearby Jewish settlement Magen Sha’ul was built, Khalaf found himself asking questions. “Why are their houses beautiful, their streets paved, and they have everything, and in our village there is nothing?” he recounts in Hand in Hand—Jewish and Arab Families in Israel, a book of stories of Hand in Hand families. This line of questioning led him to struggle against his school that exalted the uncomfortable virtues of Zionism, to become a teacher, to become an activist in Arab-Israeli relations, and eventually to found a group of schools that teaches children to question status quo, embrace honesty, and strengthen their cultural identities by learning about others.
“Our children learn how to see the reality in a very complicated way and how to…be critical to the reality and to ask hard questions,” Dalia Peretz co-principal of the school in Jerusalem said in the video.
“We are talking about things,” Khalaf said about the candor of the school’s methods. “We’re not putting it under the carpet. We speak about everything—48 war, Independence Day, the holocaust, Land Day, and also the West Bank and Gaza Strip. We don’t have the solution—we don’t teach about the land as two states.”
Unpredictable events in Israel prove challenging to the Hand in Hand curriculum. When a suicide bomb explodes, students sit in a circle with their teacher and vent about their feelings. They’re all scared. They all want it to stop.
“The Arabs and Jews didn’t agree how to share their land,” a young student said in Hebrew in the video. “They have to sit down together sometime and discuss it … [if I were invited] I would say that if they can’t agree it doesn’t belong to anyone. But if they agree it could be for everybody.”
Following this student’s ideals, children learn Hebrew and Arabic, and about different faiths and customs. The bi-lingual curriculum is a concrete expression of philosophical ideals that run deeper than just words. “In Israel, the policy is monolingual. In Jewish schools, only a minority learns Arabic,” Khalaf said. “Language is not just a way to communicate. It’s a very important part of the identity of each one of us. It reflects how we can shape and share our power inside society.”
Khalaf said he hopes that shared languages will lead to equality, coexistence, and mutual respect. “One should believe in this: to meet the other will strengthen my identity in a way that I can accept to live with the other,” he said.
The point of integrated learning is not to dilute cultural differences; it is not assimilation. “Each child can be proud of their own cultural heritage without needing to forgo any of its pieces…Instead of being a melting pot, we’re creating a tapestry,” Matti Ficus, a parent of the Shorashim school said.
The students love learning about each other. “The children in the neighborhood always ask me how I can stand learning with the Arab children who are our enemies and want to kill us,” Shir Hakim, student in the Shorashim school, said in the book. “I tell them that I really enjoy visiting my friends in Beit Safafa and Beit Hanina [Arab villages] or in the Armenian quarter…I know that it is difficult to convince them but I enjoy the discussion because it makes me feel special.”
After its conception, Hand in Hand was criticized for its unique educational approach. “People said there is no way to bridge the two [Arab and Zionist] narratives,” Khalaf said. “We proved this is possible. It’s important for us as human beings and for students to have democratic minds.”
The optimism of Hand in Hand’s founders, directors, principals, and steering committee enable it to withstand the tensest social conditions. “What moves us in the world to do drastic things is the win/lose game. We are not speaking about the win/lose game,” Khalaf said. “We are playing the win/win game: Jews and Arabs can live together. I hope this generation will be more smart than us and give better solutions.”#