Palestinian Teen’s Murder Shakes East Jerusalem School’s Faith in Coexistence

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Mourners rally for the funeral of Palestinian youth Mohammed Abu Khdeir, 16.Credit: AFP

As was true at many high schools on Monday, students at the Amal high school in East Jerusalem saw a small memorial in the entranceway to a classmate who had died over the summer. At Amal, that student was Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who was burned alive by Jews in a revenge killing that shocked the country in June.

Amal, located in the Atarot industrial zone, is a highly unusual school. Unlike most schools in East Jerusalem, it follows the Israeli curriculum rather than that of the Palestinian Authority. Principal Fawzi Abu Ghosh and his teachers insist on talking to their students about coexistence, human dignity and equality; Abu Ghosh’s motto is “a person should be a mensch to other people.” In this spirit, Amal is the only school in East Jerusalem whose students participate in the annual trip to the Nazi death camps in occupied Poland to learn about the Holocaust.

But this year, the trip has already been canceled. Even an unquenchable optimist like Abu Ghosh knows that in the current atmosphere, it’s impossible.

Other empty chairs in class

Abu Khdeir’s picture hangs on the blackboard of his 12th-grade classroom, and his chair stands empty. But it isn’t the only one. Two other students were also absent, having been arrested on suspicion of participating in the riots that erupted after the murder.

Another student, Yusuf Sau of Beit Hanina, said he was attacked by a Jew two weeks ago. “He asked me if I was an Arab and began to hit me, until another Jew came and made him leave,” Sau said.

Omar, a student from Kufr Akab, on the other side of the separation fence, said that security at the checkpoint has become much more stringent. It now takes him an hour to travel the three kilometers from home to school.

Asked whether they’re afraid to go to “Jewish” areas, the students answered “yes” in a chorus. “My father wouldn’t let me leave the house; I didn’t feel as if I had a vacation at all,” said one.

Amal, which Abu Ghosh has run for 31 years, is considered one of the leading technological high schools in East Jerusalem. Its dilapidated building is a typical illustration of the gaps between the city’s Jewish and Arab schools. But inside, it’s well equipped, with smart boards, computer labs and even an automobile electronics lab containing a complete car.

Usually, Abu Ghosh teaches the mandatory civics curriculum. But not this year.

“I teach about democracy, about respect between people, but it was all ruined the moment Abu Khdeir was burned,” he said. “There’s a clash between the theory in the books and what the children see on the ground. How is it possible to talk about respect; where is the respect? How can I talk about democracy; where is the democracy? If one of my students were to talk about democracy with the soldier at the checkpoint, they’d beat him. They see that Jews get democracy and they get only the theory.”

The school’s uniqueness is also reflected in its unusual cooperation with an ultra-Orthodox school from West Jerusalem. Some years ago, when the ultra-Orthodox school was short of space, Abu Ghosh let it use his school in the afternoons. A few years later, when Amal faced closure because its former building was being turned into a slaughterhouse, the other school returned the favor, letting Amal’s students use its classrooms.

Abu Ghosh has been criticized for taking his students on the trips to Poland, which some Palestinians view as a form of acceptance of the Zionist narrative. “But I thought we need to feel people’s pain with no connection to religion,” he said.

This year, Abu Khdeir’s class was supposed to go. But his murder made that impossible.

“Their parents wouldn’t agree,” said Sumia Haj Yihya, the school’s guidance counselor. “Just like they burned Jews for being Jews, they burned Abu Khdeir for being an Arab. The students would ask, ‘How do you want me to share my pain over this?’”

Fear, hatred, rage

Abu Khdeir was killed on the first day of summer vacation, so Monday was the first time students and teachers had met since his murder. The day was devoted to discussing the summer’s events, and teachers said the students’ feelings fluctuated among fear, hatred and rage.

“Mohammed was a diligent boy who loved learning, but didn’t understand anything about politics; he didn’t think about it at all,” said his teacher, Maher Izhaman. “He always wanted to help; he even wanted to help his kidnappers: They asked him how to get to Tel Aviv and he explained to them.”

One student recalled that four hours before he was killed, Abu Khdeir sent him a text message asking if the results of the matriculation exams had been published yet. The results came in only after the murder: Abu Khdeir passed English and math and aced the practical exam in electronics.

Another friend showed a Facebook status Abu Khdeir posted four days before his death. “Ramadan is better in paradise,” he wrote.

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