Text size

When my oldest granddaughter, Tamar, 5, and her father, David, want to communicate without Mother understanding, they speak Arabic. With her friend Bana from Beit Safafa in southern Jerusalem, old Tamar speaks half Arabic and half Hebrew. Tamar and Bana met last year at the bilingual preschool run at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand School for Bilingual Education (Yad B'Yad).

On Sunday this week, they met again at kindergarten, in a class run by Sabrine Salman and Natalie May Raphael. The class had 30 children, about half Muslim and Christian Arabs, and the rest Jews, some observant. Some of the children are from mixed couples. Some come from East Jerusalem, and some are Armenians from the Old City.

The Hand in Hand school was founded 10 years ago by the Hand in Hand (Yad B'Yad) Association, which runs three bilingual schools in Israel. The school teaches children from kindergarten through 9th grade, and has 410 children. For eight years, one of the schools operated out of the Denmark School in Katamon, but next month it will move to a new building between the Patt and Beit Safafa neighborhoods. On Tuesday morning, after recess, the kindergarten teachers brought the children inside for the daily "meeting." Beneath decorations celebrating the start of the school year, Natalie told the children in Hebrew that Tamar's grandfather wanted them to tell him about the school. Sabrine explained in Arabic that the guest wanted to know what was special about their kindergarten.

"We speak Arabic and Hebrew too," Eviatar said with serious mien.

Do you like it?

Eviatar thought for a moment. "Sometimes I do and sometimes I don't," he replied.

Natalie nodded: "That's right, we don't have to like everything."

To the obvious question, "Which holiday is coming up?" the children answered, "Rosh Hashana." Haviva added in Arabic, "Preparing pomegranates."

"Whose holiday is it?" the teachers asked. "The Jews," the children replied. And who will celebrate? "Everybody together." "How will we celebrate?" "We'll eat apples with honey."

And what will we do on Ramadan? "We will set up a tent and the adults will fast during the day and eat at night." A girl raised her hand and said, "I like that on Hannukah there's Christmas too, but I'd like the Jewish children to learn to speak better Arabic."

Adam, a fair-haired Jewish boy, started singing a Christmas song in Arabic, and some of the more veteran Jewish children happily joined him. Last Hannukah, when we celebrated Tamar's birthday, the kindergarten was decorated with a menorah, dreidels, a Christmas tree, and a tent with colorful cushions and a coffee urn. Vacations are timed to coincide with the three religions' holidays.

Tamar knows there are children who speak Hebrew and children who speak Arabic in her class, but never "Jewish children" or "Arab children." She apparently still doesn't associate between the Arabic-speaking children in her class and children who are killed in Gaza on television.

When Tamar begins to understand the so-called demographic threat, she might think of her friend Rima, who hardly seems threatening. Rima is the daughter of Ala Khatib, who runs the school along with Dalia Peretz. Like the kindergarten teachers, the other teachers and the secretaries include observant Muslim women and religious Jewish women (men are a rarity): the management is diligent about maintaining equality.

Khatib hails from Tira and has a master's degree in genetics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He says the children love the holidays, but when they reach the section in the Passover Haggadah, "Pour out Thy wrath upon the nations that know Thee not," the Arab children feel uneasy. "By first grade, our pupils know the Jewish children have 'the binding of Isaac' and the Arabs have 'the binding of Ishmael,'" Khatib says. "Each has his own story."

Peretz adds that the school runs on the principle that people don't have to agree with everything. "We live in a complex reality and are creating something new with it," she says.

Hand in Hand does not purport to create political solutions or a uniform narrative. It's no coincidence that the school is called bilingual or tri-religion. The same is true of Galil, established 10 years ago for the children of the Misgav, Sha'ab and Sakhnin region (230 students); Bridge over the Wadi, which opened in Wadi Ara three years ago (200 pupils); and a new Hand in Hand school that opened last week in Be'er Sheva (60 pupils in two kindergartens). "Our goal is to create a civilian partnership that enables Jews and Arabs to live together, with each group maintaining its identity and culture," says Peretz. Khatib adds: "We try to teach the children about the value of life, that it isn't good to die for one's country, but to live well in it."

"We don't live on an island," says Peretz. "Life outside the school comes inside all the time." One of the deadly terror attacks during the second intifada happened right at Patt intersection, around the corner from the school. The teachers convened the children, together of course, and talked with them about the conflict, violence and fear.

"We talked about the death of Yasser Arafat and some said he was a terrorist," Khatib recalls. "When Ariel Sharon fell ill, some children, including Arabs, wished him recovery."

Pupils in the more advanced classes learn the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, as well as the meaning of the Israeli flag flying on the school roof. Last spring the school management wrote a letter to parents: "Tomorrow we will be marking Memorial Day for Israel's fallen soldiers and the victims of terror attacks. In three weeks we will be marking Nakba Day. The school acknowledges that there are two central historical narratives and is not obscuring that fact, or the existence of a conflict. However, a no less important purpose is emphasizing what unites us, and what we have in common. On Memorial Day and Nakba Day, children can choose to participate in a ceremony or an activity of the other nation ... Parents who do not want their children to participate in a ceremony are asked to explain this to their children and prepare them."

The Hand in Hand institutions encourage parental involvement and family activities outside study hours. Natalie May Raphael, the kindergarten teacher, says she hopes Jews will start frequenting Arab neighborhoods more often and stop looking at her strangely for taking her young son to a babysitter in Beit Safafa. "The Jewish parents have something to learn from the Arabs regarding willingness to hold open dialog and to respect the teacher," she says. "You never hear an Arab parent rebuking the teacher."

In the kindergarten class, the Arab children speak Hebrew more easily than the Jewish children speak Arabic. Khatib says the Jewish children's dominance persists in the higher classes too: "You see seven Arab children talking in Arabic in the yard, and when one Jewish boy joins them, who also speaks Arabic, they shift to Hebrew," he says.

The management hopes the Education Ministry will soon allow it to continue teaching through 12th grade. Meanwhile, the bilingual schools are having trouble keeping the Jews through middle school. In Grades 7 and 8, few Jews remain, and by Grade 9, only Arabs are left. Khatib says this is because there are other prominent high schools in Jerusalem. Or perhaps, as the children become teenagers, their social needs and the mixed messages they receive from Jewish society make the Hand in Hand environment seem different from what Tamar and her kindergarten friends see at age 5.