The construction paper artwork taped to the wall is the same as in every other elementary school across Israel, and the world. The crooked cutouts of trees decorated with sparkles and magic marker are no different than what I am sure is hanging on the walls of the school down the street. The titles and captions scrawled on the bottom of the colored paper at the school down the street, however, are in Hebrew. Or maybe they are written in Arabic. It is only in this school that the children's artwork feature titles scrawled in Hebrew and Arabic, side-by-side in big, curly, teacher-handwriting.
The artwork, the signs around the building, the voices over the loudspeaker, the words overheard in the hallway -- at the "Hand in Hand" school in the Beit Safafa neighborhood of Jerusalem everything is double, everything is done twice -- in Hebrew and Arabic.
As their website explains, Hand in Hand was founded in 1997 to "build peace between Jews and Arabs in Israel through development of bilingual and multi-cultural schools."
There is no doubt that this is an ambitious, and maybe even slightly idealistic, goal but with a four schools now up and running in Israel from the Galilee region all the way down to Beersheba it certainly does not seem like an impossible one.
At first glance, visiting a Hand in Hand school is like boarding a peace time-machine and entering an alternate universe where the team of architects most likely included folks like Arlo Gunthrie and Joni Mitchell. Kindergarten teachers name their classroom the "Peace Garden." Children whose people and families are living in an all-consuming fear of each other just down the road are jumping rope and playing kickball together as if the words "suicide bomber," "Right of Return" and "Hamas" are not included in their impressively expansive vocabulary. After the first glass, it is clear that despite the peace bubble that engulfs the school these words are most certainly part of everyone's vocabulary, and their reality. Johar, a tenth grade physics teacher, articulates this underlying reality:
When I am teaching here, I am not really teaching physics. I mean yes, we learn physics, but in everything I am doing I am bringing my students together for the sake of our country. When I assign partners for an experiment, when I use everyday examples to explain a principal of physics, I am bringing together, integrating our cultures, our language and our people. It is about much more than physics.
Every teacher here has their own story, their own history that brought them to this point, but they all share this same agenda. From the young kindergarten teachers to the older, more experienced principals when they talk about their students they are not really talking just about students, they are talking about their country. It is as though they are all willing participants of a very emotional experiment. Many of them have a sense of having been through hell, having seen the alternative and now, as their only hope left, they have invested themselves in the next generation and in the school's educational approach. When they teach, when they interact with the students, it is clear that there is something between everyone at the school, something much stronger and much more fragile than a regular teacher-student relationship. For the teachers, the students are their only hope for an end to perpetual war, and for the children, the teachers are their constant reassurance and guidance that it is okay, in fact it is commendable, to behave in a counter-culture way.
This relationship and commitment are apparent in every aspect of the structure of a Hand in Hand school day. The announcements over the loud speaker alternate between Hebrew and Arabic. Half of the student body is Arabic and half is Jewish. Each classroom, until grade seven, has two teachers -- an Arab and a Jew. After grade seven the idea is that students are acclimated enough to both cultures and both languages that the ethnicity or religion of their teacher is a moot point when it comes to learning physics or geography.
The effects of this educational and ideological approach are hard to miss in the stories and behaviors of this unique and outspoken group of students. In response to the often repeated mantra about the "reality" that Arabs want to wipe Israel and the Jews off the map, one Jewish student offered a simple, counter-demonstration when he turned to an Arab classmate and asked:
"Do you want to kill me?"
With impressive comedic timing the 16-year old girl replied:
"No...well, sometimes, but not because you're Jewish."
Even for the younger students this idea of conflict and hate between the two peoples is ridiculous enough to joke about because to them, there really is no difference, they have grown up together. Any inquiry about getting along or problems between Jews and Arabs is lost on them. They have a sense that there is something different about their community, but that is about it. Mostly, they just find it silly that the rest of Israel would live any differently. Alia, an 11 year-old Arabic girl in the middle of some sort of complicated jumping game that involves rope and chalk, stops for a moment to explain this concept to me:
I have to learn Hebrew because there are some people that don't like Arabs but there is no difference. We are learning and we are together [pointing to students involved in the jumping game]. Like she is speaking Hebrew and she is speaking Arabic but it is okay because we are still the same. It's okay.
For some students, however, it did not come quite that easily. Many students transferred to Hand in Hand after years of a more isolated educational experience.
"I used to go to school only with other Arabs but my parents made me come here because it is better preparation for the University. At first I was afraid. My cousins warned me, they thought it might be dangerous. It took them awhile, I try to show them that it is okay to be friends with Jews, that they are the same but I don't think they really believe me."
Fatin's story hints at the only real problem with Hand in Hand. She came to the school for a better education. Her family was in a position to pay a tuition fee in order to give their daughter the best education possible. Most of the students at Hand in Hand come from middle or upper-middle class families. Many of the families are secular, or even progressive. In some ways, this is Hand in Hand's biggest challenge: they may very well be preaching to the choir. The group that would really benefit from a Hand in Hand education most likely cannot afford to attend the school, or if they could, would never send their child to the school.
At the moment, Hand in Hand survives primarily on private donations, tuition fees and some minor support from the Israeli government. They are able to offer a small amount of scholarships but not nearly enough to really address this challenge of reaching the most "at-risk" students. This is not to say that middle-class students and families do not benefit, or do not need, this type of integrated immersion. In fact they are often just as resistant to the idea of integration as other classes of Israeli and Palestinian society. When the Jerusalem Hand in Hand school was first created there was a major protest from the surrounding middle class neighborhoods -- from Arabs and Jews. However, it is certainly clear that this new generation that Hand in Hand is investing in and pinning their hopes on is a generation made up of decidedly upper class students.
The homogeneous socioeconomic makeup and the physical similarities of most Middle Easterners creates an environment at Hand in Hand where, to the untrained eye, most of the students don't look much different from each other. It's not as though we are walking the halls of a Hand in Hand school in Harlem or Anacostia. However, everyone knows who is Jewish and who is Arab. There are subtle physical differences but more apparent are the circumstantial differences -- what it means to be a Jew or an Arab in Israel.
One of the biggest differences between the two groups is the looming reality of Israel's mandatory military service for all Jewish Israelis. Half of Hand in Hand's students will go to the army at some point, the other half will not. For the older students, this is a major point of difference. The students at Hand in Hand appear to have a very clear understanding of what they should expect to find in the army. When two 16-year-old Jewish students talk about how they will handle going to the army, their two Arab classmates listen carefully, with tentative and distant expressions. Talking about the army is the only moment that incites awkward glances and uncomfortable looks between classmates.
"I think it is going to be very hard for me. I grew up like this, this is what makes sense. I think it will be very hard for me to have to join the army in two years. I don't know how I will be able to handle it."
Jamie is 16 and in the tenth grade at Hand in Hand's Jerusalem school. He's not the only one who wonders what it will be like when he joins the army. His class will be the first graduating class of Hand in Hand. There is a pervasive feeling of anticipation and anxiety about Jamie's class. In fact, this seems to be the big, unanswered question: what will happen to these graduates? Will everything they learned at Hand in Hand, the friends and connections they have developed be enough to create a new generation that finds the idea of war more ridiculous than the idea of actually living in peace?
It is clear that when it comes time for the mandatory service of the Jewish students, this new generation will face a defining moment. How the Jewish students respond -- passive or active resistance, acceptance or refusal of the "army education" -- and how the Arab students react -- resentment or understanding, maintaining relationships with a drifting group or isolation within a new community -- will be a serious test of the limits of a Hand in Hand education.