In a nation torn apart by segregation, one organisation—Hand in Hand—is cultivating a new generation of acceptance between Jewish and Arab cultures. 

"We have to change our relationship with the Arabs"

So says Shuli Dichter (above). “It’s not to be the relationship of rider and horse—it has to be one of mutuality.” The 60-year-old is executive director of the Hand in Hand Foundation, a non-profit organisation that runs six integrated, state-funded and approved schools in Israel. We’re relaxing on the porch of his house in the Ma’anit Kibbutz in Northern Israel.

The kibbutz saw extensive military action in the First Arab-Israeli War of 1948; bullet marks can still be found around it. It’s a place that Shuli’s parents helped build and that he grew up in.

While we graze over a breakfast of olives, 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."

 

 

"Where Jews and Arabs learn together, there’s hope for a shared society"

 

 

Briefly pausing to let his concept fully sink in, he continues, "When Jewish and Arab children don’t meet each other in their day-to-day lives—while being raised in a war zone—how do you ensure they don’t grow up to hate everyone from the other side? You have to bring them together and let them play side-by-side. This is what we do in Hand in Hand. Where Jews and Arabs learn together, there’s hope for a shared society."

This concept was conceived in 1997 by Amin Khalaf, an Arab teacher, and Lee Gordon, a Jewish-American social activist, after they met while promoting Arab-Jewish dialogue in Israel. 

The schools they pioneered host an equal number of Jewish and Arab students respectively, and two teachers hold the lessons in both Arabic and Hebrew. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are also taught with equal weight to all students, and each faith’s respective religious holidays are observed.

Emphasis is given not only to one’s own culture and language but also to those of the “other”. The kids study two accounts of history: the creation of the “Jewish homeland” and the narrative of the Palestinian struggle.

This is a revolutionary approach within the tight confines of the Israeli educational system. Almost every other school that teaches the two million children of Israel is segregated along racial and religious lines—not by law, but by a tradition that goes back to before the establishment of the State of Israel in 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 is the Arab town of Kafr Qara. It’s situated within a stretch of land known as the “Triangle”, an area of Israel that’s 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 12. Significantly, Jewish parents have to journey into an Arab town for their children to attend school—which they’ve never done before.

Zohar Shachar, a scriptwriter and mother of three children at Bridge over The Wadi, says, "From a Jewish-Israeli perspective you have to understand that an Arab village is considered a very dangerous place. When my husband’s parents first learned I was going to send my kids here, they thought I was putting them at great risk and—as they saw it—sending them beyond enemy lines! But the minute we stepped inside, we knew it was the correct place for our children."

Fellow parent Tharwat Masalha joins us. He adds, "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 lose their identity. However, over time I started to realise I was wrong, that my kids will learn the Jewish culture and their own."

Tharwat admits that he never met a Jew to speak to until he was 16, while Zohar admits to never speaking to an Arab “eye-to-eye” until she was 25.

 

 

"This is what we should be doing—telling our stories, experiences and history to one another"

 

 

"We look ahead and we see how complicated it is to solve everything 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 pro-vide an opportunity for an open and frank exchange of views, highlighting the shared but different interpretations of their communal history. These encounters can be emotionally raw—as Zohar recalls, "Tears have been shed at these meetings."

Tharwat adds, "In the dialogue groups, we have Jews that have simply never heard the Palestinian story. This is what we should be doing—telling our stories, experiences and history to one another."

Around us, Bridge over The Wadi School is gearing up for its graduation ceremony, where the students will be putting on a performance dedicated to nations around the world.

The Students Council has decided to continue this theme at breaktime with a “chocolate activity”: croissants for France (with chocolate filling, of course), waffles for Belgium and ice cream for Italy are being served at three counters.

Soul Control’s “Choco, Choco, Chocolate” pumps out the speaker system while teachers Shuli Klein and Amina Tamne take the floor, transforming the playground into a makeshift dance studio. Pupils run around excitedly, joyfully shouting “Chocolate!” for all their worth.

Only five miles from the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock, 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 NGO’s flagship school, offering education to approximately 530 children up to the age of 18.

Following the Hand in Hand philosophy, the school has co-principals: Nadia Kinani, an Arab from Nazareth, administrates the lower school, while Arik Saporta, a Jew born in Jerusalem, is the upper-school principal.

 

 

"It’s a light even during the darkest times"

 

 

Tackling the complex question of the school’s role in fostering co-existence, Nadia outlines her thoughts: "People think we’ll solve the conflict alone, but it’s such a big question, it’s beyond us to change it all. However, we believe we can make a small difference that can change people’s lives. Our students will take that difference with them when they leave."

Arik nods in agreement as Nadia’s continues, "Many of our students go on to set up organisations and projects that foster co-existence. Some people say that we’re living in a bubble here, but it’s the outside that isn’t real. You can’t have two groups occupying the same land and living lives where they ignore each other."

The director of the educational department for Hand in Hand is Dr Inas Deeb, an Arab Israeli who chooses to live in the West Bank, making the daily commute to the school through the Israeli Defence Force checkpoints. She concludes that it’s not enough to put two groups of kids together to learn and play. It has to be "a shared bilingual education with equality of status among pupils, shared goals and institutional support to give the most effective form of education for reducing intergroup biases".

Hand in Hand’s vision is to extend its base of six schools with 1,320 Jewish and Arab students, which presently involve about 6,000 community members of parents and staff, to a further ten to 15 schools, which will involve some 20,000 Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens. As Shuli Dichter says, “Then we’ll have a movement.”

Revisiting her Jerusalem school today is 21-year-old Shira Minglegrin. Having graduated in 2012, she’s just finished her two-year compulsory National Service in the Israeli Defence Force. She says, “When the last war was going on in Gaza, my Arab friends were calling me to check if I was OK, while I was calling them back to see if they were fine in Jerusalem.”

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 people’s point of view. It’s a light even during the darkest times.”

 

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