In the News

Detroit Jewish News
June 11, 2007
Jerusalem School Teaches Arab/Jewish kids About the War
By SHOSHANA KORDOVA 

History teacher Amnon Sadovsky circles the name of his fourth-grade student Nizar and draws four lines on the whiteboard to connect the circle to the population groups with which the fourth grader identifies: Arabs, Muslims, students and athletes.

As the Jewish teacher writes in Hebrew with a blue marker, his tall, broad frame towering over the children in his care, another fourth-grade teacher -- Neama Abodalu, an Arab woman -- grabs a red marker to make a list in Arabic and Hebrew of the various categories the students mention.
 
Fourth grade may seem early to embark on a discussion of three of the most loaded concepts in the Middle East - ethnicity, religion and nationality -- but it is par for the course at the Hand in Hand elementary school in West Jerusalem, where Jews and Arabs study together in the languages of both peoples. And these concepts are once again finding their way back into the public discourse as Israel marks the 40th anniversary of the June 1967 Six-Day War.
 
In many ways, the 1967 conflict is the most controversial of Israel's wars, because its ramifications continue to play a major role in contemporary politics. The reunification of Jerusalem, for example, is simultaneously hailed as a great victory celebrated on Jerusalem Day -- which fell on May 16 this year, in accordance with the Hebrew calendar -- and decried as a serious obstacle to a peace deal with the Palestinians, since Israel and the Palestinian Authority both claim Jerusalem as their capital. The war also resulted in Israel's military control of the West Bank and Jewish settlement of the area, praised by some as a return to the land of the ancient Israelites and condemned by others as a key impediment to peace. Underlying the issues surrounding Jerusalem and the West Bank is the unresolved question of where Israel's borders lie.
 
When Education Minister Yuli Tamir of the Labor Party proposed in December that Israeli textbooks portray the 1949 cease-fire line -- commonly known as the Green Line -- on maps of Israel, her announcement elicited a firestorm of controversy from politicians on the right, who accused her of imposing a leftist ideology on the classroom. The Israeli right typically views reference to the Green Line as an attempt to render Jewish residence beyond the line illegitimate.
 
But there's no argument with Tamir in Sadovsky's fourth-grade classroom, where the line marking the shape of the West Bank is prominently etched in green marker on the map of Israel hanging in the front of the room.
 
Sadovsky, who teaches history and civics to grades 3-8, says he tells his students that the Green Line distinguishes between "territory that Israel has sovereignty over and territory that Israel controls." Abodalu, a general studies teacher, puts it in starker terms, saying the fourth graders are taught "that the territories are essentially not really part of the State of Israel."
 
The Jerusalem school receives about 45 percent of its funding from non-Israeli sources, including Ann Arbor's Jewish federation and the American, British and Dutch governments. It is one of three schools run by the Hand in Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel; the other two are in the Galilee and the Wadi Ara region, and a fourth is due to open in Be'er Sheva next year. The student body and staff are about half Jewish and half Arab, and the same goes for the principals: one of the two co-principals of the Jerusalem school is an Arab man and the other a Jewish woman.
 
After their class on population groups in Israel one day in May, several of the fourth-graders discuss what they learned about the Green Line, revealing some confusion over the fact that terms such as "the West Bank" and "Judea and Samaria" refer to the same place.
 
Naama Didovsky, 9, says she learned "that there are occupied territories of Israel" - a loaded term indicating that even the most basic terminology cannot remain neutral. Asked who lives in the West Bank, 10-year-old Yotam Feitelson, another Jewish student, notes that the majority are Arabs but that "there are also a few Jews, who are called settlers."
 
Some older students are less aware, however. Siwar Ied, 12, who lives in Jerusalem's Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa, says in flawless Hebrew that the people living in the West Bank are Arabs. When asked if any Jews live there, she shrugs and says, "I don't think so."
 
But while there may be gaps in the knowledge of students at the Hand in Hand school, those in many other schools across the country often don't even see the Green Line on a map or discuss its implications in class, say two experts on the way history and geography are taught in Israel.
 
Israeli textbooks tend to focus on the expansive borders of the biblical Land of Israel rather than presenting the issues related to the shaping of the borders of the modern state, the experts say.
 
"After '67 they slowly got rid of the Green Line [in textbooks]," says Dr. Ruth Firer, who researches history and civics textbooks at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Nehemia Levtzion Center for Islamic Studies. "You wouldn't know that there was a dense population of Palestinians, especially in the West Bank."
 
On Jerusalem Day, Israeli schools relate to the capital on "a naïve Zionist ideological level," says Firer. She recommends teaching the students about the problems currently facing Jerusalem, like its poverty and fleeing middle class. But, she says, "It's a lot easier to wave a flag and sing 'Jerusalem of Gold.'"
 
The director of the Education Ministry's department of Israel knowledge, Eli Shaish, reflects the attitude Firer describes. When it comes to Jerusalem, he says, "there is no Green Line."

"In the Education Ministry," he adds, "we generally don't bring in politics."
 
But arguing that matters involving the map of Israel can be apolitical is disingenuous, says Yoram Bar-Gal, a Haifa University professor of cultural geography.

"There is no neutral geography - there's no such thing, at least not in the State of Israel," he says. "Everything is political with us."
 
At Hand in Hand, there is no flag-waving on Jerusalem Day; in some of the younger grades, the teachers don't even mention the holiday. But this year at least, some classes are addressing the complexities of modern-day Jerusalem.
 
"Is Jerusalem Day a day of unification, liberation or occupation?" Sadovsky says he asks his students. Discussion that revolves around the capital city is not limited to Jerusalem Day, though. As part of a curriculum that focuses on Jerusalem, the fourth graders visit Beit Safafa and the Jewish neighborhood of Rehavia and discuss the differences they see.
 
Forty years after Israel recaptured the Old City of Jerusalem from Jordan, several of Sadovsky's fourth graders say they think the capital is simultaneously united and divided.
"It's a little bit of this and a little bit of that," says fourth-grader Dafna Sharon, 9. "It's divided, but actually a ton of religions and nations live in it, so because of that it's also unified."
 
For Ala Khatib, one of the co-principals of the Hand in Hand school, it's not important whether the students agree with each other over Jerusalem or anything else - what matters is that they are able to study controversial subject matters together.
 
"The fact that we sit in the same class and believe differently is possible - we don't teach that you have to agree," says Khatib. "We believe that education shouldn't hide things, but rather needs to let the children contend with everything."
 

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