A school where students break the cycle of animosity
Palestinian and Israeli children are born into a protracted and bitter conflict as the "normal" backdrop to their childhoods. This can have serious long-term psychological and emotional repercussions.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of childhood in Israel and the Palestinian occupied territories is that animosity is almost a birthright, a jealously guarded heritage that is handed down from one generation to the next, perpetuating hatred, distrust and fear.
One way of breaking this intergenerational cycle of hostility is through joint education, where Israeli and Palestinian children study together as peers. This is just what the Hand in Hand network of bilingual schools seeks to do.
Set up in 1997 by Israeli-American social worker Lee Gordon and Arab-Israeli teacher Amin Khalaf, the Hand in Hand network is now four schools. The largest, with some 500 pupils, is in Jerusalem.
A few days before I went to the state-of-the-art Jerusalem campus, the Colombian pop star Shakira, who is partly of Lebanese heritage, had visited the school, much to the delight of the children.
Since I lack her celebrity, the buzz of excitement surrounding me had nothing to do with my presence. Instead, as you would expect on the last day of term, the youngsters were counting down the long hours to their summertime freedom. But the kids in question were speaking a mix of Hebrew and Arabic.
Given that Arabs and Israelis tend to believe they come from different planets, one thing that immediately strikes you is how similar all the pupils appear, and how hard it is, without language or dress as a guide, to tell them apart.
And the children themselves, especially the younger ones, often can't tell one another apart or don't care to.
"The children at the school don't look at each other as Jews and Arabs, they use their own criteria," explains Ira Kerem, an American-Israeli social worker who works for the charity running the schools and was my guide for the day. "What they're interested in are things like is this person good friend material, is this kid cool, how good is he at football?"
And this was confirmed to me by some of the pupils we came across in the corridors.
"There's no difference here between the Jewish kids and the Palestinian kids. Unlike outside the school, here we feel equal," said Mu'eed, a Palestinian teenager studying at the school.
But the reality of the divided city remains just outside the school gates. When I asked the youngsters whether they socialised with their Jewish friends, they answered in the affirmative, but noted that Jewish and Palestinian neighbours were not always as tolerant and understanding.
The conflict is never far away, especially at times of heightened tension.
"During the Gaza war, we had some very heated arguments with our Jewish classmates, but we didn't let it get in the way of our friendships," Mu'eed said.
Hand in Hand promotes honest and respectful dialogue among pupils and parents alike. It also gives equal time and attention to both Israeli and Palestinian narratives and tries to strike a balance between them, perhaps in the hope of helping create a new, more inclusive history.
This contrasts strongly with the experiences of Arab-Israelis who grew up with the official Israeli state curriculum.
"Palestine's history was a missing link in our history lessons," observed Hatem Mater, whose son studies at the Jerusalem school, in a special book profiling the parents of Hand in Hand's pupils. "I want my children to know the Palestinian story and the Israeli story. I want them to know the truth."
This is commendable, but how much difference can Hand in Hand and other school's like it really make in such an apparently intractable situation? Mr Kerem explains that the schools role is not to resolve the conflict but, in a context where Palestinians and Israelis who live or work together are seen as collaborators or traitors, to show that coexistence is possible.
Very similat motivation drove the Jewish and Arab-Israeli families of Neve Shalom/Wahat el-Salam (Peace Oasis) to live together over the past four decades.
"We have no illusions that this school will bring about peace between Israelis and Palestinians," one Jewish father admitted to me. "But you have to do something and every little bit counts - change comes in drips. And you have to start with yourself."
And this gradual change can be seen in the shifting attitudes of the parents themselves. "My association with Arab parents at the school has had a great effect on me," writes Sigalit Ur, a Jewish mother at the school. She defines herself as Orthodox, showing that despite stereotypes it is not just secular, leftist Jews who are for peace and coexistence. "Once I used to take for granted that singing patriotic songs on national holidays was the right thing to do. Now I am more aware of the problematic nature of those songs," she said.
And a Palestinian mother told me "this school offers a glimmer of hope for the future. For the sake of our children, we need to provide them with every bit of hope we can."
Sadly, with Hand in Hand and other bilingual schools struggling to survive, even this glimmer risks being snuffed out. And if broader action to resolve the conflict is not taken, and if tolerance and coexistence are not taught across the board, then the enlightened voices of these youngsters may be drowned out by the overwhelming currents of hatred around them.
Khaled Diab is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem
Updated: July 29, 2011 04:00 AM