The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Hand in Hand

Israel today is a state of contradictions. Its people hail from nations across the globe: (Ethiopia, Russia, and Canada to name a few) and yet, 20% of its citizens live in virtual segregation. These are Israel’s Arab citizens: crucially, not citizens of Palestine, but a distinct group: with a complex, politically charged identity of their own. Arab Israelis (to use the most common definition) often live in separate villages closely adjoining Jewish areas, throughout the state of Israel. Tensions between the two communities are rife: as are accusations of institutionalized inequality. Most adult Israelis cannot speak or understand Arabic, and Arab children only begin to learn Hebrew at secondary school, meaning communication is limited and often one-sided.

It is rare for members of one community to mix with the other: and, as seen throughout history, this deepens the lack of understanding between the two. Adults, secure in their own identities, can indoctrinate their children with ingrained prejudice, whether it is active (enrolling them in a segregated school), or passive avoidance (driving to the next town to buy a pint of milk rather than using the shop in the next neighbourhood). With education in Israel almost entirely segregated, drastic action needed to be taken to break the cycle of estrangement.

In 1997, Lee Gordon and Amin Khalaf, two teachers, founded the Hand in Hand Centre for Jewish-Arab Education was founded to build peace between Jews and Arabs in Israel by developing bilingual, multi-cultural schools. Secondary schools were built in Jerusalem and in the Galilee, and a third school was opened in the Wadi Ara, a predominately Arab area. Classes were initially small, with only 45 students: but this has increased to over 750, with each school over-subscribed. Each school has two Heads, one Arab, one Jewish; and each classroom is co-taught by Jewish and Arab teachers. Classes have an equal number of Arab and Jewish children, who are taught in both Hebrew and Arabic.

More importantly, Hand-in-hand schools, located in Arab areas, mean that communities are beginning to interact; from smaller activities like Jewish parents using the local grocer when they drop their kids off at school, to more meaningful ventures like jointly-run after-school groups and vocal Parent’s Associations. A shared interest in their children’s future and a desire to build community support for the schools - through investment of funds, public recognition, and government accreditation, has welded Arab and Jewish parents into active, committed community units, working together in unprecedented ways. And their voices are being heard: The Dovrat Commission, convened in 1995 to revamp public education in Israel, noted in its report the importance of establishing regional bilingual schools in Israel as a test case for the wide-scale proliferation of such schools in the future.

As any parent knows- schools are not only centres of education, but socialisation. Interacting with different groups fundamentally changes your perspective on life. The children at Hand-in-Hand schools can not only read shop signs, product information and newspapers in both national languages (something their parents can not), removing barriers to communication, but they also have a unique opportunity to find out what other groups experience. For example, the school has produced a diary of all the religious festivals, public holidays, and historical events of the calendar year, and the meanings behind them. This means families can begin to understand why Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day), a day of celebration in Jewish culture, is called al-Nakba (The Catastrophe) amongst Arab populations (many of whom had lost relatives to deportation or conflict, or lost land and property), and is often accompanied by civil unrest.

Teachers lead guided discussion of these events to help children understand each other. Children are encouraged to talk about their feelings towards suicide bombings, riots and arrests, and to think about how they would resolve conflicts. As one little boy of 7 put it, after walking to school past a bus explosion a few roads away from his school ‘If the Jews and Arabs can’t sit down together and talk about the land fairly, then nobody should have it.’ The playground logic of this is poignant, but it signifies a growing hope for dialogue amongst the younger generation, who will eventually inherit the problems of their parents: but with a fresh battery of skills and understanding to overcome them.


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