Can peace be as simple as child’s play?

 
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 By Khaled Diab

Palestinian and Israeli children are victims of the conflict they have inherited. So can joint schools help them learn to live together?

Sunday 7 August 2011

Palestinian and Israeli children are born into a protracted and bitter conflict and conflict is the ‘normal’ backdrop to their childhoods, which can have serious long-term psychological and emotional repercussions.

In terms of the future, perhaps the most worrying aspect of childhood here is that animosity is almost a birthright, a jealously guarded heritage that is handed down from one generation to the next, perpetuating the hatred, distrust and fear that fuel the conflict.

One way of breaking this intergenerational cycle of hostility is through joint education, where Israeli and Palestinian children study together as peers rather than foes. This is just what the Hand in Hand network of bilingual schools seeks to do.

Set up in 1997 by an Israeli-American social worker, Lee Gordon, and a Palestinian-Israeli teacher, Amin Khalaf, the Hand in Hand network is currently made up of four schools. The largest school, with some 500 pupils, is in Jerusalem.

A few days before I went to the state-of-the-art $11-million Jerusalem campus, the Colombian pop star Shakira, who is of part-Lebanese heritage, also visited the school in her capacity as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, much to the delight of the school kids.

Lacking her talent and celebrity, the buzz of excitement and the frenzied commotion surrounding me had nothing to do with my presence but were what you’d expect from hundreds of youngsters counting down the long hours to their summertime freedom on the last day of term. The key difference was that the kids in question were speaking an organic mix of Hebrew and Arabic.

Given that Arabs and Israelis tend to believe they come from different planets, one thing that immediately strikes you is how similar all the pupils appear, and how hard it is, without language and dress as a guide, to tell them apart.

And the children themselves, especially the younger ones, often can’t tell one another apart or don’t care to. “The children at the school don’t look at each other as ‘Jews’ and ‘Arabs’, they use their own criteria,” explains Ira Kerem, an American-Israeli social worker who works for the charity running the schools and my guide for the day. “What they’re interested in are things like is this person good friend material, is this kid cool, how good is he at football?”

And this was confirmed to me by some of the pupils we came across in the
corridors. “There’s no difference here between the Jewish kids and the Palestinian kids. Unlike outside the school, here we feel equal,” agreed Mu’eed and Jouhan, two Palestinian teenagers studying at the school.

But the reality of the divided city remains just outside the school gates. When I probed the youngsters about whether they socialised with their Jewish friends, both answered in the affirmative, but noted that Jewish and Palestinian neighbours were not always as tolerant and understanding.

In addition, the conflict is never far away, especially at times of heightened tension. “During the Gaza war, we had some very heated arguments with our Jewish classmates, but we didn’t let it get in the way of our friendships,” describe Mu’eed.

Hand in Hand promotes honest and mutually respectful dialogue among pupils and parents alike. It also gives equal time and attention to both Israeli and Palestinian narratives and tries to strike a balance between them, perhaps in the hope of helping create a new, more inclusive history.

This contrasts strongly with the experiences of Palestinian-Israelis who grew up with the official Israeli state curriculum. “Palestine’s history was a missing link in our history lessons,” observed Hatem Mater, a father at the Jerusalem school, in a special book profiling the parents of Hand in Hand’s pupils. “I want my children to know the Palestinian story and the Israeli story. I want them to know the truth.”

Although this is commendable, how much difference can Hand in Hand and other schools like it really make in such an apparently intractable situation. Kerem explains that the schools role is not to resolve the conflict but, in a context where Palestinians and Israelis who live or work together are seen as collaborators or traitors, to show that coexistence is possible.  This motivation is similar to the one that drove the Jewish and Palestinian-Israeli families of Neve Shalom/Wahat el-Salam (Peace Oasis) to settle together for the past four decades.

“We have no illusions that this school will bring about peace between Israelis and
Palestinians,” one Israeli-Jewish father admitted to me. “But you have to do something and every little bit counts – change comes in drips. And you have to start with yourself.”

And this gradual change can be viewed in the shifting attitudes of the parents
themselves. “My association with Arab parents at the school has had a great effect on me,” writes Sigalit Ur, a Jewish mother at the school who defines herself as Orthodox, which shows that, despite stereotypes, it is not just secular, leftist Jews who are for peace and coexistence. “Once I used to take for granted that singing patriotic songs on national holidays was the right thing to do. Now I am more aware of the problematic nature of those songs.”

“This school offers a glimmer of hope for the future, and for the sake of our children, we need to provide them with every bit of hope we can,” a Palestinian mother told me.

Sadly, with Hand in Hand and other bilingual schools struggling to survive, even this glimmer risks being snuffed out. And if broader action to resolve the conflict is not taken, and if tolerance and coexistence are not taught across the board, then the enlightened voices of these youngsters may be drowned out by the overwhelming currents of hatred around them.

This article first appeared in The National on 29 July 2011.

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