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Was this for real?

Last month I attended a spectacular event, one that brought together some 500 Jewish and Arab citizens, adults and children. It was the "Holiday of the Holidays," a celebration held every December at the Galil bilingual school, in the Galilee's Misgav-Sakhnin region. The modest school building was packed, and the atmosphere electrifying, as dozens peered in from outside. The crowd consisted of Muslim and Christian Arabs as well as Jews, all of them residents of the region. They cheered enthusiastically as a rabbi, a parent from the school, lit the third candle of Hanukkah, and also when the Jingle Bells singers and the Arab "Dabka" dancers - all students at Galil - performed.

I pinched myself. Was this for real? I had had the same thought last winter during the "Du Bishvat" celebration at the Bridge over the Valley bilingual school in Wadi Ara, and more recently, when I attended a musical performance at the Max Rayne School in Jerusalem. Here were Jewish and Arab children studying, playing and creating together, and joined by their families in creating a civic partnership, despite the inherent conflict between them as Jews and Arabs - can this be a reality in today's Israel?

In the last decade, relations between Jewish and Arab citizens in Israel have progressed along two parallel but contradictory tracks. While the governmental and economic leadership have both sought ways to increase economic inclusion of Arab citizens, extremists in the Knesset take an active role in the ugly campaign to restrict the rights of the one-fifth of the citizenry that is Palestinian.

Although it's the extremists' vicious rhetoric that gets the most attention, the truth is that more than 10 years of multilevel advocacy conducted by civil society organizations has convinced decision makers within the government that meaningful participation of Arab citizens is good for the state. These leaders recognize that Israel's economy cannot continue its remarkable growth so long as 20 percent of the citizenry is not fully engaged in it. It was for this reason the government of Ehud Olmert established the Authority for Economic Development of the Arab Sector in 2008. And two years ago, Benjamin Netanyahu's government approved then-Minister Avishay Braverman's five-year plan for economic development in 13 major Arab towns, as well as another five-year plan for employment-oriented higher education for Arab citizens, at a total cost of NIS 1.1 billion. These are at least a step in the right direction.

But economic integration should only be the beginning, and despite the rough atmosphere in the "street," a comprehensive study conducted in 2007-2010 and published recently by Sikkuy: The Association for Civic Equality in Israel, reveals a Jewish public far more sensitive to the status of the Arab population as equal citizens. For example, 74 percent of Israeli Jews surveyed acknowledged that Arab citizens are discriminated against, with nearly 40 percent saying they were ready to pay a personal price to improve the situation. Other indications that the Jewish majority is ready to see Arabs better integrated into economic life are the growing number of Arabs in the Hebrew media, both electronic and print, and the rising visibility of Arabs in high tech.

Now is the time for the civil society organizations, the ones that pushed the government in the right direction in the first place, to set the next challenging goal: Arab-Jewish integration at the social level. The five bilingual schools around the country - in addition to the three Hand in Hand institutions, there is also the school at Neve Shalom/Wahat a-Salam and the Hagar School in Be'er Sheva - are all certified and supervised by the Education Ministry, and all have the potential to serve as focal points for joint Jewish-Arab social existence in Israel. The parents and other interested adults who are already involved in community activities centering around the schools, should institutionalize their activity, so as to create an organized, joint Jewish-Arab social structure, to exist in addition to, not in place of, each community's particular life.

In Israel today, there are a total of 1,250 students in bilingual schools. Each of them is immediately, daily connected to an average of three family members, which gives us some 5,000 people in Israel, Jews and Arabs, for whom partnership with the other side is a daily practice. These school-centered communities will be institutionalized with membership; scheduled annual events; community elected bodies; and such institutions as community gardens, sports teams, choirs, film clubs (all real examples ) and more.

It is not a wild dream to think of tripling those numbers within a decade. In 10 years, we should see 15 joint Jewish-Arab communities established around bilingual schools, which in addition to the respective towns or physical locales where members live, will also serve as a social shared space for the practice of cooperation, mutual acknowledgment and full respect.

The network of communities, spread around the country, and also linked with one another, will serve members and their children but also the general public, as a meeting point for people who today may well think of the other largely in terms of their differences. Despite the inherent conflict between Jewish and Arab citizens, we have to supply the much-needed structure of checks and balances so they can absorb and work through the stress and shocks of day-to-day life here.

So, is this for real? Yes, this can be real, if we want it enough and care enough for Israel's social and civic fabric, because it is Israel's future.

Shalom (Shuli) Dichter is executive director of Hand in Hand, the umbrella organization supporting the Galil, Bridge over the Valley and Max Rayne bilingual schools in Israel.