In the News

Der Spiegel
November 15, 2006
The Children's Revolution
By SASCHA ZASTIRAL 

A school project in Jerusalem aims to quietly revolutionize the country. Jewish and Arab children sit in the same classrooms and are taught by teachers from both communities. The most important lesson they learn is empathy for one another.
 
Every morning parents bring their children to school through a guarded gate at the Yad BeYad ("Hand-in-Hand") School in Jerusalem. A dozen children, including two girls, play football on the playground. A boy with a brown ponytail calls out in Hebrew: "Here, kick it to me!" He gets the ball, dribbles it past a boy from the other team, shoots a goal and yells in Arabic: "Goal!"

A few children are already sitting at hexagonal tables in a classroom in the school's basement. A woman wearing a turquoise headscarf waves goodbye to her son. The class clowns sit in the back.

Hand-in-Hand School principals are Dalia Peretz and Alla Chatib. Chatib believes the bilingual school can teach Jewish and Arab children to better understand each other. "There is more than one truth," he says.
 
The school in Jerusalem's Katamon neighborhood is a highly unusual place. That's because it serves both Arab and Jewish students, and lessons are conducted in Hebrew and Arabic. Anywhere else in the world, such a project wouldn't warrant much more than a passing mention. But in a region marred by hatred, war and violence, it borders on the revolutionary.

The 375 pupils come from East and West Jerusalem, and some are even from the West Bank. The youngest attend the attached kindergarten and the eldest are in the eighth grade. The first grade's lesson plan includes reading, writing and the holy days of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But the underlying, spiritual lesson plan at the "Hand-in-Hand" school focuses on one subject, and that is for its students to learn how to empathize with one another.
 
First-grade teacher Jaffa Shira Grossberg, 37, greets her pupils in Hebrew. Balsan Asallah, 22, an Arab from northern Israel, is the second teacher in the class. She translates everything Grossberg says. As soon as the children acquire a reasonable understanding of both languages, the two teachers will take turns teaching the class. Asallah, a young Palestinian, seems nervous. This is her first teaching job and her first class.
 
The telephone is ringing off the hook in Ala Chatib's small office. He and Dalia Perez, who sits next to him, are the school's co-principals.

Perez?

"Yes, my brother is the defense minister, Amir Perez," she says. The room is silent for a moment. She heads a Jewish-Arab school and her brother was in charge of the military campaign against the Hezbollah. How do these two sets of circumstances fit together?

"The situation with Lebanon was something the government had to do at the time," she says. "But I don't think it's the right way to bring peace to the region." Her brother, she says, also happens to be a major supporter of the school, and he too believes in dialogue.

"The children at this school have a different way of thinking about the conflict," says Chatib. "There is more than only one truth. That's what they learn here, with each other and from each other." Each class is taught by two teachers, one Jewish and one Arab. "If two teachers from different cultures can get along," Perez says, "they can serve as role models for the children."

The telephone rings. The two principals have to get back to their jobs greeting children, shaking hands and allaying parents' fears.
 
Mohammed Ayyad is the father of one of the boys. He looks like an Arab version of Tom Selleck, and his speech is peppered with expressions like "buddy," "damn" and "fuck." A small US flag dangles from the rearview mirror in his car. "I lived in the USA for 10 years. I returned in 1992. This is Palestine, and this is my home, buddy!"
 
Ayyad lives in a house in Abu Dis with his two brothers and their families. The eight-meter (26-foot) concrete border wall Israel has erected between itself and the Palestinians towers only 50 meters from his house. "It's so ugly," says Ayyad. "And it breaks my heart. When has a wall ever solved problems?" His son Abud, 11, attends the sixth grade. "He is fluent in Hebrew. When he speaks, no one can even tell that he's an Arab." But then, speaking uncharacteristically softly, he adds: "He has no future here."

The street is filled with potholes and lined with garbage. Men and adolescent boys sit on benches in front of shops as veiled women cross the street. The veils have multiplied since Hamas became the governing party in the Palestinian Authority. The tattered remains of their campaign posters still hang on building walls.
 
The people in his village are constantly warning Ayyad that the school will turn his son into a little Jew. Ayyad wants Abud to become a lawyer so that he can defend the rights of his fellow Palestinians. "One day, when he is grown up and there is peace, he can work as a legal expert for companies on both sides and make a lot of money." A psychological barrier no longer exists between Abud and his Jewish friends, says Ayyad. "That is the school's doing," he adds.
 
Although the children attend the same school, their homes are worlds apart, politically speaking. Bettina and Israel Steiner live with their two children in a better section of Jerusalem's Ir Ganim neighborhood. Ori, 10, is about to enter the fifth grade, and Gaja, 5, is in kindergarten. Bettina Steiner, 44, sits in her small garden, which is surrounded by a tall stone wall. She came to Jerusalem in 1989. A medical student in the western German cities of Bonn and Aachen at the time, she had come to Israel for a one-year internship. But then she received a grant and, as she says, she "never left." Today Steiner works as a neurologist at Jerusalem's Shaare Zedek Hospital.
 
"At first we wondered how it would work, teaching the children in Hebrew and Arabic," she says. "But we liked the idea behind it, the concept of cultural exchange." One reason she finds the school's concept so attractive is that she has so little contact with Arabs in daily life, although that too has changed since her children started attending the Yad BeYad School. "They also do a lot with parents. For example, we went on an outing to the beach and on a hiking trip." Her son Ori even visited a school friend in the West Bank once.

"It was a bit complicated," Steiner recalls. Because driving in the West Bank would have been too dangerous for an Israeli, she met the parents of Ori's friend at a checkpoint.
 
"The only real problem they have encountered so far is how to go about celebrating the day of independence," says Steiner. It's a day of celebration for Israelis, but Palestinians call it "Nakba," or the Day of the Catastrophe, because it serves as a reminder of the loss of their own land. "In the end, we agreed to two separate ceremonies that end with a shared event."

Her husband Israel, 54, walks into the garden. He is two heads shorter than his wife and wears a white T-shirt and shorts. His rumpled gray hair is wet and he carries a towel thrown over his shoulder.
 
He talks about the Orthodox Jews who launched protests against the school when it became known that Yad BeYad plans to build a new school building to accommodate more than 800 children. The construction site is on the edge of the Katamon neighborhood, home to poor Jewish immigrants who came here from Arab countries in 1948. Katamon borders Beit Safafa, an Arab district. The stadium used by Jerusalem's football clubs, Beitar and Hapoel, is within view of the site.
 
Ehud Olmert, the former mayor of Jerusalem and current prime minister, donated the property to the school. The large, two-story school building is slated for completion in early 2008, but so far only the foundations are in place.
 
Most of the neighborhood's residents welcome the new school, although a handful have tried to incite opposition to the project. They have found willing allies in the city's ultra-Orthodox Jews.

"It is written in the bible that there shall be no mixed schools," says Yitzhak Batzri. He speaks on behalf of his father, Rabbi David Batzri, the head of a highly respected religious school, or Yeshiva. David Batzri is known for his fanatical views. Last year he announced that Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans, was God's punishment for the Americans' support of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. The Batzris have criticized the school and Israeli Arabs so viciously that they were served with a criminal complaint for making racist statements.

Is it truly stated in the bible that Jews and gentiles may not attend the same schools? "No," says Batzri, "but Jewish children could convert to Islam in the school and we could end up having mixed marriages." And what if the school would only teach its pupils about each other's respective cultures and would only accept boys? "That too would be a problem," he says. "Islam and Judaism are incompatible."
 
"The school is controversial because it is doing something that no one else in Israel is doing," says Amin Chalaf. He and American Lee Gordon are the originators of the concept of a dual-language school. "When we started eight years ago, people often told us: How can you do this? It will never work," he says. "Israel's more than 1 million Arabs live completely separate lives from the Jews. We wanted to find a way to bring them together. At first they thought we were crazy."
 
Aside from the model project in Jerusalem, there are two other "Hand-in-Hand" schools in Israel -- one in Misgav in the country's north and a second one that was opened two years ago in Kfar Kara, an Arab village near the border with the West Bank.
 
Chalaf laughs. "There are now more than 800 children at the three schools," he says. "We had to turn away 60 children in Jerusalem this year because we didn't have enough space."

The school day is already underway. The first grade's first lesson is over. Jaffa Shira Grossberg and her co-teacher Balsan Asallah are sorting through colorful drawings covered with Hebrew and Arab letters. Grossberg is pleased with the day so far. The small revolution continues.
 
 

Share this

Join our mailing list

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required

Please select all the ways you would like to hear from Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel:

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please visit our website.

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.