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October 1, 2007
Vol. 65
No. 2

Special Topic / Learning Together, Living Together

In countries torn apart by violence and hatred, the children may be the only hope for peace.

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If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.
—Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi
Early this year, I joined a group of U.S. educators who traveled to Israel on an education mission sponsored by the America-Israel Friendship League (AIFL) of New York City. For more than three decades, the AIFL has sent groups of U.S. leaders to Israel. The visit opened our eyes, hearts, and minds to an extraordinary vision of “learning together, living together,” which is fundamentally challenging and changing the face of education in Israel.

Hope in a Torn Region

The situation in Israel is complex. Violence between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza Strip continues to affect the relations between the nation's Jewish majority and Arab minority. Jewish and Arab citizens live in highly segregated environments, often in communities that are geographically close but rarely integrated (Golan, 2006). Few opportunities exist for meaningful interaction between members of these two major groups. Furthermore, the majority of families—both Jewish and Arab—send their children to segregated schools, a practice that tends to promote rival views and little understanding of the other group's concerns. Ultimately, it can promote violence.
In 1997, the Hand in Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel was founded to build peace between Jews and Arabs in Israel through the development of bilingual and multicultural schools. In contrast to the segregated Israeli education system, these elementary schools integrate Arab and Jewish students. This alternative model of education marks a crucial pathway toward forging civility among people.

Bridging the Divide

A highlight of the AIFL's mission was a trip southeast of Haifa to the hilly Wadi Ara region of central Israel. The wadi—Arabic for valley—is laced with Arab and Jewish towns and agricultural communities. The Green Line that divides Israel and the West Bank runs to the south.
This is the location of Gesher al Hawadi school—Hand in Hand's third school and its first in an Arab town. Before the school's opening in the village of Kfar Kara, Jews in Israel didn't travel to schools in Arab towns to study because they considered the Arab community unfriendly and the schools' academic standards lower than those of Jewish schools.
Initially, the Israeli Ministry of Education resisted opening new schools in the area. Parents organized a group, calling themselves Gesher al Hawadi. In Hebrew, gesher means bridge. Combined with the Arabic word for valley, the name of the school translates to “bridge over the valley.” The goal was to bring Jewish and Arab students together in a learning environment of equal opportunities and resources. The parents believed that the new school would bring the Jewish and Arab communities together as well. After lengthy dialogue and persistence, the coalition of parents and community leaders prevailed, and the government approved the new school.
The school opened in September 2004, with 105 students in kindergarten to 3rd grade. In 2007, its enrollment reached 237 students in kindergarten through 6th grade—bridging the distance between the Jewish and Arab communities that are spread across the center of the country. In addition to its school in the Wadi Ara community, Hand in Hand has two schools that serve students in Jerusalem and the Galilee region.
The Gesher al Hawadi school is a modest, one-story structure perched on a hill at the edge of town. Our bus dropped us off at the bottom of the hill, and we walked up. Escorted through the school's security gates, we were greeted by school officials and the sounds of children, excited at the prospect of meeting us. A rich mixture of Hebrew, Arabic, and English filled the school's archways and classrooms.

Three Religions

In Israel, every school is required to teach specific subjects, such as language, mathematics, history, and science. But each school has the flexibility to develop additional curriculums. For example, at the Gesher al Hawadi school, the curriculum extends beyond national requirements. The school offers small classes, high-quality art and music instruction, and a creative approach to learning and teaching.
As in other Hand in Hand-sponsored schools, the Gesher al Hawadi school teaches Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. The three religions had never been previously taught together in Israeli schools. Today, Hand in Hand schools teach using the BARKAT—an acronym for the New Testament, the Old Testament, and the Koran. The BARKAT teaches the central stories and the fundamental aspects and values of each of the three religions. This instills in students knowledge about and respect for cultural differences.

Two Languages

Hebrew is the traditional language of instruction in most Jewish schools at all stages of education. Arabic is the language of instruction in Arab schools, including several institutes for teacher training. Although Arab students must learn Hebrew, Jewish students rarely learn Arabic.
The Gesher al Hawadi school, like other Hand in Hand schools, promotes balanced bilingualism, giving equal space to the Hebrew and Arabic languages (Ashkenazi, 2005). We observed students learning to speak, read, and write in both languages. The classes had equal numbers of Jewish and Arab students. Two teachers cotaught each class; the Jewish teacher spoke in Hebrew, and the Arab teacher spoke in Arabic. During class time, they worked together, paraphrased each other, and conversed. Several teachers commented that they developed teamwork “that will also be a model for the students.” The coprincipals, one Jewish and one Arab, noted that the school's focus on teaching both languages promotes a school community based on equality and respect in which Jews and Arabs can study, work, and live together in peace.

Toward One Community

Today, education extends beyond the school's classrooms to the families and communities of Wadi Ara. The school offers language classes, discussion groups, and various activities associated with seasonal and holiday events. For example, the school organized family meetings around the Jewish feast of Sukkot and the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan. One of those meetings took place inside a sukkah (festival tent); another meeting took place at a joint iftar (end of fasting) lunch.
When parents come together for frequent meetings, there is no side-stepping the serious issues affecting Jewish-Arab relations (Aisenberg, 2005). To promote greater understanding, the school's steering committee, which includes representatives from local volunteer organizations and municipal governments, supports a two-way flow of ideas and activities between the school and the wider community.

The Promise of Civic Education

Civic education at Hand in Hand schools is complex. It takes into account the conflicts within Israeli society, but at the same time, it addresses specific content areas (Hand in Hand, 2007). The civics program at the Gesher al Hawadi school develops students' understanding of the principles, values, institutions, and history of Israeli democracy and focuses on citizenship heritage and connection to the land that is Israel. It addresses stereotypes; promotes understanding and respect of different historical narratives; espouses humanitarian and democratic values; develops a culture of dialogue within the school; and creates a common meeting point for individuals, communities, and the society.
The microcosm of society reflected in the classrooms serves as a reference point for students, teachers, and parents learning together to respect pluralism and human rights. The Gesher al Hawadi school offers hope for the future as it takes the necessary steps to transform society and build lasting peace.

Aisenberg, L. (2005, April 29). Bridging the chasm: Jewish and Arab children in Kfar Kara are schooled in the art of co-existence. Jerusalem Post. Available:www.handinhand12.org/index.cfm?content.display&pageID=83

Ashkenazi, E. (2005, September 24). The Jew comes to learn from the Arab—and it works. International Herald Tribune Haaretz [English edition]. Available:www.handinhand12.org/index.cfm?content.display&pageID=99

Golan, P. (2006, September 17). Jewish and Arab children learn “hand in hand.” A Focus Beyond [weekly Internet newsletter]. Retrieved July 12, 2007, fromwww.Israel21c.org

Hand in Hand. (2007). What's new at Hand in Hand [home page]. Retrieved July 12, 2007, from www.handinhand12.org

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