Aladdin Jaber speaks my language. I do not speak his. That's his greatest power over me, says the principal of the Renaissance elementary and middle school in East Jerusalem, with a smile on his face. Jaber can't give his school's exact address, because it doesn't have an official one. Addresses in the occupied territories are a tricky thing. That's my power over him.
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East Jerusalem is part of the city that isn't really part of the city. Halved by the separation fence, it's a place that postmen and city officials refuse to enter and city police only go with backup from the Israeli Border Police. This, of all places, is where Aladdin Jaber chose to teach Hebrew, of all things.
"The idea came from great necessity, not out of great love," he explains. "We, I and a partner, founded the school in 2008. We looked at East Jerusalem and saw that the curriculum here is in total disconnect with the reality of life in this place. The residents of East Jerusalem live under Israeli rule, and still they are Palestinians studying in school the Palestinian curriculum. Residency gives them social rights but not political rights, meaning an Israeli passport, citizenship or the right to vote. It's not like Israel makes an effort to include them, but they still have to know the language and the population they live with, no?
"Take for example something that happens here on a daily basis: A person who doesn’t know Hebrew gets a letter from city hall informing him that his house will be demolished. Since he can't read it, he has no idea what it says. He puts it aside and then wakes up one morning to find his house is being destroyed without having the slightest clue as to why. We all know the bureaucracy of government offices. They pass you from here to there and from there to here, and if those of us who know Hebrew have a hard time, imagine what someone who doesn’t know the language and has to deal with all this alone must feel. It's very hard. That's why we set up this school. We want a different generation."
Renaissance is unique in East Jerusalem. It teaches 350 students, from first through tenth grade, the same Israeli curriculum learned by every Israeli student: Bible, history of the Jewish people and most ironic of all: civics.
"Let's face it. The people here see that the solution to the Jerusalem question is not going to be answered anytime soon," says Jaber. "In the meantime, they live under Israeli rule. They need the language; they need the tools to exist in that reality. The Palestinian curriculum is not updated and creates a very limited population, in terms of skills."
Jaber, an enthusiastic speaker who's a little cross-eyed, is – unlike his students – an Israeli citizen, a native of Abu Gosh with a master's degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is a civics teacher who took it upon himself to teach civics and Hebrew to those who are not citizens, or "Heebs."
"At one point in my career, I understood a Jew will never speak nice to an Arab unless the Arab or Palestinian will get to the point where they can speak the same language and broadcast on the same frequency. It might take two years, 10 years or even 20 years, but in the end the result will be worth it."
Still, Jaber has no delusions about the possible scope of his success.
"For me, if the situation won't worsen, that's already an immense achievement," he says. "Let them first face the reality of everyday life in a better way, with better tools. It's better than for them to stay where they are. Let them know their limits, so that they can deal better. As a Palestinian-Israeli, I know my limits. I will never be Prime Minister or a fighter pilot. When you know your limitations, you know how to deal better and you become stronger. I tell our students, 'You can be businessmen or high-tech entrepreneurs. You can study in universities, be doctors, contribute to your community. Even within the city, you may not be able to run for office, but you can reach a status that enables you to deal with your problems, taxes and infrastructure-wise.'"
"At first, the parents and the students didn't understand why they needed to learn civics or Bible and how it can help them," he says. "But then they got it. Civics especially gives them the tools to understand their unique status and live with it. You explain to them what is a democracy, what it means for a state to be Jewish, why they're not citizens, what are their rights. People here didn't know they even had rights. Plus, I studied the Israeli curriculum and gained because of it. I know more about Jews than they know about me, and that gives me tremendous power."
As Jaber talks with two young boys outside the school gate, he can't help but see the enormous wall looming just 15 meters away. The boys bounce a soccer ball off the wall and call their cousin to come play. Jaber sighs and says, "Overall, I am optimistic. I truly am. Because when I look at things, I look at where they were and where they'll be. Up until now, the residents of East Jerusalem have been disconnected with the reality of where they live. How can I not be optimistic, when the father of that boy right there comes to me one day and tells me, 'My son is five years old and he can read Hebrew road signs;' I don't know Hebrew, so I can't read the signs and I always get lost'?
Today, Palestinians understand that learning Hebrew, learning civics, learning Torah even – these are things that strengthen them. And they get it, finally. They don't want their children to go through what they went through."