Hand in Hand,
"We have to change our relationship with the Arabs", says Shuli Dichter. "It’s not to be the relationship of rider and horse but has to be one of mutuality!" The 60-year-old is Executive Director of the Hand in Hand Foundation, a non-profit organization that runs six integrated, state funded and approved schools throughout Israel. We’re sitting in the porch of Shuli’s house in the Ma’anit Kibbutz in Northern Israel. Established back in 1942, the Kibbutz saw extensive military action in the First Arab-Israeli War of 1948; bullet marks can still be found around the Kibbutz. It is a place which Shuli’s parents helped build and he grew up in. While we graze over a breakfast of olives picked from the surrounding groves, he lays out his vision: "We have to create a new society. One in which equality between Jews and Arabs is essential, sharing power and resources. This can become a basis for a shared existence." Briefly pausing to let his heartfelt expression fully sink in, he then continues: "When Jewish and Arab children don’t meet each other in their day to day lives and they’re being raised within a war zone, how do you make sure they don’t grow up to hate every person from the other side? – You have to bring them together and let them learn and play side by side. This is what we do everyday in Hand in Hand. Where Jews and Arabs can live and learn together there is hope for a shared society."
The Hand in Hand educational concept was given birth in 1997 by Amin Khalaf, an Arab teacher and lecturer, and Lee Gordon, a Jewish-American social activist, after they met while working in their respective fields promoting Arab-Jewish dialogue in Israel. The schools they pioneered host an equal number of Jewish and Arab students respectively, two teachers simultaneously in both Arabic and Hebrew hold the lessons. Judaism, Islam and also Christianity are taught with equal weight to all students, and each faith’s respective religious holidays are also observed. Emphasis is given not only to one’s own culture and language but also to those of the "other". The children study two accounts of history: the creation of the "Jewish homeland" as well as the narrative of the Palestinian struggle. The success of this academic formula is still reassuringly apparent as students regularly outscore their peers in Israel’s matriculation exams and also attain a higher rate of college attendance. It is nothing short of a revolutionary approach within the tight confines of the Israeli Educational System. Almost every other school that teaches the one million children of Israel is segregated along racial and religious lines – not by law but by the tradition that can trace its roots back to times before the establishment of the State of Israel of 1948, when Palestine was under the British Mandate. Arabs go to Arab schools and Jews to Jewish, they always have. This isolation, the lack of contact and communication between the two communities that both inhabit the "Holy Land" is established from an early age. Hand in Hand's mission is to overcome this.
Located just a short drive from the Ma’anit Kibbutz and tucked away off highway 65 in the Wadi Ara locality amongst the foothills of Samaria is the Arab town of Kafr Qara. It’s situated within a stretch of land known as the "Triangle", an area of Israel that is predominantly Arab. Here is the Bridge over The Wadi School, one of six Hand in Hand schools in Israel. Opened in 2004, the school offers education to 263 Arab and Jewish students from Kindergarten until the age of twelve. It stands out by the fact that Jewish parents have to journey into an Arab town for their children to attend school – which they have never done before. 38-year-old Zohar Shachar, a scriptwriter and mother of three children at Bridge over The Wadi, explains: "From an Jewish-Israeli perspective you have to understand that an Arab village is considered a very dangerous place. For most Jewish Israelis it’s unknown to enter such a town. When my husbands parents first learnt I was going to send my children here they thought I was putting them at great risk and – as they saw it – sending them beyond enemy lines! But the first minute we stepped inside this school we knew, it was the right place for our children." Fellow parent Tharwat Masalha joins us. The 45-year-old is an educational psychologist, was born in Kafr Qara and still lives here with his wife Samar. Both of their children attended the Hand in Hand School, the younger one still does. He picks up the thread of discussion from Zohar: “At first I didn’t agree with the school. I didn’t want my children to be educated with Jewish children as I was afraid they’d loose their own identity. However, over time I started to realize that I was wrong. That my children will learn the Jewish culture as well as their own.” Tharwat confides that he never actually met a Jew to speak to until he was 16, while Zohar admits to of never speaking to an Arab ‘eye to eye’ until she was 25. “We look ahead and we see how complicated it is to solve everything here in Israel", says Tharwat, "but what we have here with the school is a dialogue that allows us to meet each other and understand each other.” He’s specifically referring to the Dialogue Groups that Hand in Hand runs as a community activity for adults outside school hours. The groups provide an opportunity for an open and frank exchange of views for the two communities, highlighting the physically shared but distinctly different interpretations of their communal history. These encounters can be very emotionally raw as Zohar recounts: ”Tears have been regularly shed at these meetings.” And Tharwat adds: “In the dialogue groups we have Jews that have simply never heard the Palestinian story. This started me thinking that this is what we should be doing. Telling our stories, experiences and our history to one another.”
Around us Bridge over the Wadi School is gearing up for its end of year graduation ceremony, where the students will be showing a performance dedicated to nations around the world. Bruce Springsteen’s "Born in The USA" is booming out of a speaker system as the children practice their routines. When break time arrives, the Students Council have autonomously decided to continue this world theme with a "chocolate activity": croissants representing France – with chocolate filling of course, waffles standing for Belgium and ice cream for Italy are being served at three separate counters to all the school. The sounds pumping out from the speaker system is appropriately changed to Soul Control’s "Choco, Choco, Chocolate", while teachers Shuli Klein and Amina Tamne take the floor, transforming the playground into a make shift dance studio for the rock rhythms of the "Chocolate" song. First graders in the meantime just run around excitedly, joyfully shouting "Chocolate!" for all their worth.
Only eight kilometres from the religious sites of the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock, intersected between the Jewish neighbourhood of Pat and the Arab community of Beit Zafafa stands The Max Rayne Hand in Hand Jerusalem School. It’s the NGOs flagship school offering education from Kindergarten through to graduation at 18 for approximately 530 children. It's 8 am, and as the students filter into the schools grounds they're greeted by the mellow sounds of Jazz emanating from the entrance area. Guy Shoshani, the schools security guard by day – but musician by night – is playing this rich and soulful music as he undertakes his self-imposed daily routine of feeding stray cats at the school gate. Guy and the cats all sit and watch as the students file inside, greeting everyone as they pass with a good morning and now and again an accompanying meow.
Following the Hand in Hand philosophy, the school has Co-Principals: Nadia Kinani and Arik Saporta. Nadia, an Arab originally from Nazareth, administrates the Lower School; Arik, a Jew born in Jerusalem, is the Upper School Principal. This morning they’re holding a meeting for our benefit. Tackling the complex question of the schools role in fostering co-existence Nadia outlines her thoughts: ”People think we will solve the conflict alone. But it is such a big question; it’s beyond us to change it all. But we do believe that through Hand in Hand we can make a small difference, which can change people’s lives. Our students will take that difference with them when they leave.” Arik nods in agreement with Nadia’s sentiments as she continues: ”Our kids leave here with a set of skills, and many of our students go on to set up organizations and projects which also foster co-existence. Some people say that we’re living in a bubble here, but it is the outside that isn’t real. You can’t have two groups of people occupying the same land and living lives where they ignore each other.”
The Jerusalem School, like Bridge over the Wadi, is also in the throws of the end of term. In the first graders classroom Hand in Hand teachers Rinat Levi and Arin Ismael are coaxing out of their students the last rehearsal for their class performance, which they will later present in front of parents and invited dignitaries. In a more academic tone, co-teachers Alia Hussein and Efrat Toval can be found in a neighbouring classroom putting students through their paces, conducting the bi-lingual classes for the 3rd grade dealing with identity. In the Sports Hall students prepare an exhibition. In this relaxed atmosphere, which is a hallmark of Hand in Hand, first graders are happily racing each other down the school halls as other children play football and hide and seek in the school grounds. Older children can still be found cramming in some last minute revision for their final exams.
Director of the Educational Department for Hand in Hand is Dr Inas Deeb. She’s an Arab Israeli who chooses to still live in the West Bank, making the daily commute to the school each day through the myriads of Israeli Defence Force checkpoints. Dr Deeb has researched for her PHD on "Seeing Isn’t Believing: The Effect of Intergroup Exposure on Children’s Essentialist Beliefs About Ethnic Categories." Her research concluded that it’s not just enough to put two groups of children together to learn and play in order to break down differences. It has to be in the structured environment of "a shared bi-lingual education with equality of status amongst pupils, shared goals and institutional support to give the most effective form of education for reducing intergroup biases." In essence this is the best approach to reduce racism and is the ground of which Hand in Hand operates. Hand in Hands vision is to extend its base of 6 schools with 1320 Jewish and Arab students, which presently involve about 6000 community members of parents and staff, to further 10-15 schools with supported and enhanced community activities which will involve altogether some 20,000 Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens. As Shuli Dichter describes it: “We will then have a movement.”
21-year-old Shira Minglegrin is revisiting her Jerusalem School today. Graduated in 2012, she has just finished her 2-year compulsory National Service in the Israeli Defence Force: ”It was hard for my Arab friends while I was in the IDF as the uniform represents something else for them.” Arab Israeli’s are not called upon for National Service. “But when the last war was going on in Gaza, my Arab friends were calling me to check if I was all right, while I was calling them back to see if they were fine in Jerusalem – as there had been some outbreaks of violence there.” Shira is now going on to study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. When asked what she’s gained from Hand in Hand she answers clearly: ”It gave me the ability to consider other peoples point of view. I think it’s a really special place here. It’s a light even during the darkest times.”
© Craig Stennett