In the News

Toronto Star
November 11, 2008
Love, Tolerance Go Hand in Hand at Israeli Schools
By OAKLAND ROSS

It is not uncommon for people to ask Areen Nashef how it is she spends most of her days, and more than a few of her evenings, in the company of Jews.

The question is posed by neighbours, family friends, or other curious souls.

"They ask me how it is to live with the Jewish kids," says the bespectacled schoolgirl, who turns 13 next month. "They say, `Don't they hurt you?' I say no."

She flashes a smile – the expression of someone who knows something others have yet to learn. "We love each other."

Unlikely as it might seem, there is a corner of this tormented country where Arabs and Jews manage not only to get along, but also to show every appearance of being the best of friends.

In fact, to love each other.

Given the winds of rancour that swirl through this embittered region of the world, such goodwill seems all but inconceivable.

But it exists.

In fact, there are four such places. One of them, the largest, is located here in the southeastern reaches of Jerusalem.

Beside a railway track that separates the Jewish community of Patt from Beit Safafa, its Arab neighbour, stands a low-rise complex of limestone blocks, picture windows and exposed steel beams.

This is the Max Rayne School, part of an in inter-ethnic accommodation called Hand in Hand that began in 1998.

"A lot of Jews and Arabs do not believe we can live side-by-side in peace," says Sam Shube, executive director of the project. "But this school is a microcosm of what we want Israel to be."

What is perhaps most remarkable about the Max Rayne School is that, at first glance, the facility seems indistinguishable from countless other schools in Israel, almost all of which are segregated between Arabs and Jews.

Whatever their ages, the children seem to interact without regard to distinctions such as who's a Jew or Arab, and they themselves insist that questions of religion or ethnicity play no role in their social decisions.

Asked to formulate a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Nashef barely hesitates before putting her finger squarely on what may well be the crucial missing element.

"I think both sides need to listen to what the other side says," she replies. "They think only about their own side."

Max Rayne School's 467 students are divided almost evenly between Jewish and Arab. The same is true of its teachers.

The principal, Ala Khatib, is an Arab.

Instruction is provided in Hebrew and Arabic and, by the end of the second grade, most students are fluent in both.

"People thought we were crazy," says Amin Khalaf, founder and co-director of Hand in Hand. "But we succeeded. We proved to everybody that it is possible."

Nowadays, some 900 students are enrolled at four bilingual schools, one here in Jerusalem, another in the southern city of Beersheba, another in the Galilee in the north, and yet another in Wadi Ara, an Arab village south of Haifa.

Unpleasant truths abound in the Holy Land – everything from suicide bombers to Israeli military incursions into Palestinian towns – and Khalaf says they are addressed by teachers and students.

"We put everything on the table," he says. "We have a real dialogue. If we really want to change the situation, we have to speak of these issues."

Funding for the schools is provided in roughly equal measure by the Israeli ministry of education, the students' families, and outside donors both in Israel and abroad.

At the Jerusalem school, annual fees paid directly by parents come to about $1,600 per child.
There is a permanent waiting list of Arab students eager to enrol, although this is not so on the Jewish side.

"It's not a huge, revolutionary change for Arabs," says Khatib, principal of the Jerusalem school. He notes that Israeli Arabs, who make up about 20 per cent of Israel's population, already dwell in a larger culture dominated by Jewish customs and the Hebrew language.
"For Jews, it is a huge, revolutionary change. They are crossing virtual borders."

Hand in Hand organizers predict that once Areen and others like her become adults, they will help make Israel a far different place from the divided land of today.

"It takes time," says Khatib. "But you have to start somewhere. We are raising leaders in this school."
 

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.