Sep 2014 Journal

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Letter from Israel Hand in Hand

 While widespread unrest, followed by outright war, continued throughout Israel in a blazing summer of discontent, the Hand in Hand organisation continued its work of building bridges and establishing co-operation between Arabs and Jews, mainly through its work in its unique bilingual schools.
Hand in Hand, which was founded in 1997 by two visionaries, one Arab the other Jewish, seeks to demonstrate that Jews and Arabs can learn and live together and thus change the world together. Conscious of the fact that the Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel live in highly segregated environments, whether in adjacent neighbourhoods of the same town or in separate towns, and that this affords little scope for interaction, the organisation seeks to bring the two groups together, doing this by means of elementary and secondary schools. While fighting in Gaza was continuing, the organisation arranged for Jews and Arabs to publicly demonstrate their desire for peace and good relations.
The first bilingual Arabic-Hebrew elementary school was established in Galilee with the support of Israel’s Ministry of Education and donations from all over the world, and similar schools are now also to be found in Wadi Ara, Jerusalem
and Jaffa. Initially, each school was co-directed by an Arab and a Jewish principal and each classroom co-taught by Jewish and Arab teachers. Recently, however, once the basic values of equality and multiculturalism had been firmly established, the schools moved to a single-principal model, though maintaining a staff that comprises equal numbers of Arab and Jewish principals and teachers.
The festivals of each religion are celebrated and the respective cultures studied. The parents at each school participate actively in the extra-curricular activities and, currently, with some 3,000 parents and adults involved, Hand in Hand is the largest grassroots Jewish-Arab organisation in Israel and is expected to continue to expand despite current setbacks.
Peace education, conflict resolution and leadership development are fundamental to the organisation’s innovative curriculum. The general situation is integrated into discussions and lessons that help Jewish and Arab children communicate with and understand one another, even though they may not necessarily agree on all points.
Thus, for example, in March 2014 an Identity Exhibition was held at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Bilingual School in Jerusalem, representing the culmination of months of learning in the first- to the ninth-year classes and reflecting the various layers of identity: personal, familial, communal, religious and national. By studying the curriculum, pupils learned about their multiple identities, deepening their understanding of themselves and their surroundings.

In the framework of the events accompanying the exhibition, International Women’s Day was marked, supporting local Palestinian and Israeli women’s craft collectives and individual artists at a crafts fair. In addition, hundreds of children, families and community members gathered to listen to an Arabic music ensemble led by the school’s music teacher.
The culminating event of the school year - the screening of the final film projects of the school in Jerusalem - was due to be held on the day the news broke of the deaths of the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers. Despite the obvious difficulty, the school management decided to continue as planned, because otherwise the whole purpose of the organisation would have been defeated.
Similarly, when the body of a Palestinian boy who had been captured and murdered was discovered, the planned workshop for teachers on Jewish-Arab discourse went ahead. The topics for discussion were the various national memorial days – Land Day, Independence Day, and others – difficult subjects at the best of times. On both sides, the fear of extreme reactions was expressed and the determination to continue working to overcome the negative reactions was reinforced.
Summer camps in Wadi Ara, Jerusalem and Jaffa are held with the participation of both Jewish and Arab children, pre-school children continue to play and sing together and listen to stories in both languages, and the organisation is determined to continue its work of bringing together children and adults from both communities in order to foster mutual co-operation and understanding.
Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

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