As Conflict Hovers, Jerusalem's Arab-Jewish School Says It’s Not Just a Marginal Trend

Against Israeli grain, teachers and students believe in change despite someone writing 'death to Arabs’ on its wall this summer

Emil Salman

Shiraz Khatab, Amal Matar, Adan Kinani and Emily Deeb, graduates of Jerusalem’s bilingual school, entered seventh grade this week. They milled among excited students and handed out bags of sweets with a welcome from the administration: “Have a fruitful, meaningful and challenging year.” The welcome, like everything within this educational institution, is written in Hebrew and Arabic. Graduates of other schools usually visit mainly for Memorial Day ceremonies – here they return for the first day of school.

City workers cleaned off the “death to the Arabs” graffiti written during the war in Gaza on a wall next to the school and in its entrance. Physically, the stain is nearly gone, and a big sign about the new school year covers the wall. Teachers ask the seventh graders to pick an expression to describe the summer’s events. One chooses “young children” and says that “the children in Gaza suffered in the war, and now they don’t even have a school to attend.” Another mentions “cease-fire” and a third talks about Hamas and the war. Arabic and Hebrew alternate.

The Max Rayne Hand in Hand school houses 624 students, pre-kindergarten to 12th grade. Another 140 students learn in Misgav’s Galilee School and 250 students are at the “Bridge over the Wadi” school in Kafr Kara. The Hand in Hand network’s kindergartens are flourishing, with 90 children registered in Jerusalem, and the numbers doubling in one year to 75 in Haifa and tripling to 105 in Jaffa. Dozens of like-minded parents, refusing to obey the logic that segregates the Israeli school system, are on the waiting list.

“There is a tendency sometimes to see bilingual schools as a marginal phenomenon on the edges of the political spectrum. That’s not true,” says Shuli Dichter, executive director of Hand in Hand – Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel. “Parents sending their kids to us are regular citizens who want their children’s education to be relevant to life in the modern world. Our children learn to live in a varied society, just like the true image of Israeli society.”

In mid-August, school principals Nadia Kinani and Arik Saporta convened the teachers for a closed meeting. They also needed to vent their feelings, like fear of the war and fear to walk in public, which is less tolerant of Arabs.

The meeting between Arab and Jewish children on Monday, as in past years, does not mean that both sides play nice for the sake of harmony. “We encourage debating conflicts. It’s our way of coping,” says Kinani. “It starts with the most basic things – who sits next to who, or arguments between boys and girls – and develops gradually into grappling with history, politics and ideology, everything in accordance with the children’s level of development.”

The conflict hovers all around – in the school’s location between the Patt, Gilo and Beit Safafa neighborhoods; in the curses and spitting incidents the Arab students suffered when they took a bus last school year, which led Jewish and Arab parents to chaperone their children on school trips.

The school apparently doesn’t like being defined as a bubble; a hothouse would be more exact. “We know the encounter here does not transpire outside, but seedlings that grow in a hothouse are also eventually replanted outside,” says Kinani. “We’re not staying inside.”

Kinani’s daughter Adan is one of the graduates who returned yesterday to school. Adan says that last summer she was angry at her mother for “putting me in a joint school with Jews. I reached a stage that I wanted to be extreme. It’s easier to hate. Afterward, I calmed down a bit.” Her friend, Shiraz Khatab, agrees. “There were many moments when I was fed up with everything I learned here and I despaired,” she recalls. “But then I thought about what else I could do.”

Amal Matar says her class was perfect until sixth grade – half Arabs and half Jews. “Suddenly in seventh grade almost all the Jews left,” she says. “There was anger at them. Some explained that they were afraid the school would not develop into a high school. Some said they were starting to think that it was weird to be with Arabs.”

There was one Jewish girl in the class with Matar, Khatab and Kinani. This year, there is not even one in 11th or 12th grade. Despite the statistics, the center kept the high school framework alive without Jews. The gamble paid off; the ratio of Jews rose to 40 percent in 9th grade and 35 percent in 10th grade. Initiatives like Hand in Hand require a lot of patience.