Begin with the Children

by Josie Mendelson
24 September 2004
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Four-year-old Noah has recently completed her first year of kindergarten.
Noah's parents, Olga, an immigrant from the former Soviet Republic, and
David, fourth generation Israeli, send her to an Arab-Jewish kindergarten
in Jerusalem, which is a part of the Hand in Hand bilingual school. David
told me that he had been totally against the idea, as he felt that Noah was
too young to be put in the "middle of the conflict", but at Olga's
insistence he went to see the kindergarten. "Within half an hour of being
in the kindergarten I was convinced that this was the place for my
daughter. I saw the children playing, heard singing and talking in Hebrew
and Arabic, heard the teachers telling stories in both languages and
realized that there was no conflict here. This is the way it is supposed to
be. What amazed me was how totally natural and normal it all was. So the
next day we registered Noah for the kindergarten."

A year later both parents were in total agreement that it had been a
wonderful year, "Noah now understands, sings, counts, and has an ever
growing vocabulary in spoken Arabic. She has Jewish friends, Arab friends,
has visited Arab homes, Jewish homes, celebrated Jewish holidays, Christian
holidays, Moslem holidays and all this while from her point of view just
experiencing a totally normal, stimulating and fun filled kindergarten."
The parents added that for them personally it had been a very special,
challenging and enlightening year, in which they had benefited tremendously
from the constant contact and dialogue with the other parents and staff.

Over 500 children and their families in Hand in Hand's three schools in
Israel today share this extraordinary experience of Noah and her parents.

Hand in Hand, the centre for Jewish-Arab education was established in 1997
with the goal of initiating and fostering egalitarian, bilingual,
multi-cultural education for Jewish and Arab children. In the midst of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict and against all odds the two co-founders, Lee
Gordon and Amin Khalef, set about looking for places in Israel that would
be prepared to begin this revolutionary experiment. Positive answers came
from two places, the city of Jerusalem and the Regional Council of Misgav
who, together with the Arab town of Saknin and the village of Shaab, were
prepared to form partnerships to open a school. Thus, in September 1998
Hand in Hand opened its first two schools, with twenty kindergarten age
children in Jerusalem and twenty-five first graders in the Galilee.

In the six years since the opening Hand in Hand schools have grown and
flourished. The school in Jerusalem has eleven classes, starting with
pre-kindergarten and going up to sixth grade, while in the Galilee the
first group of graduates completed primary school and started junior high.

In each school there are two principles, one Arab and one Jewish, in each
class a Jewish and Arab teacher, fifty percent Arab and fifty percent
Jewish children.

Together with a group of parents calling themselves "Gesher al Ha-Wadi,
(Bridge over the valley)", Hand in Hand opened its third school on the 1st
of September 2004. In a beautiful arched building in the Arab village of
Kfar Kara, one hundred kindergarten to third grade children and their
parents joined this exciting and special journey.

Hand in Hand has succeeded together with the children, their parents, the
rest of the community, the Ministry of Education, and local authorities to
build a cooperative framework that allows all involved to study and develop
together, sustaining and strengthening each group's language and cultural
traditions while learning about the other group on the basis of equality
and mutual respect. Magda, from Bet Safafa, is the mother of Azam, a
ten-year-old who has been in the school for five years. Magda sums it up
"we are equal in this school. That is why I feel equal to the parents, an
Arab teacher feels equal to a Jewish teacher, and my son feels equal to the
Jewish child sitting next to him"

The two class teachers teach the children simultaneously in both languages,
however nothing is translated, instead the teachers interact with each
other, elaborating and elucidating each other's sentences. Each teacher
teaches in his or her native tongue, and the children are encouraged to
answer in whichever language they feel comfortable in.

Our children like all the children in Israel are exposed to the constant
violence surrounding the conflict. In Hand in Hand schools the children are
encouraged to express their ideas and feelings, to question, to see and to
deal with this complicated reality. A visitor to the school asked
ten-year-old Zaher why he thinks there is a conflict. "The Arabs and Jews
don't agree how to share their land," he answered. To the question of what
he thinks they should do about it, he replied, "They have to sit down
together and discuss it, and if they asked me I would tell them that if
they can't agree it doesn't belong to anyone, but if they agree it could be
for everybody"

Seven-year-old Adam, a Jewish child in second grade, was playing at a
neighbor's house when a bomb exploded on a bus in Jerusalem. The neighbor,
angry at the news, shouted out "these Arabs just want to kill us all," to
which Adam replied, "I don't think that's true, my teacher is Manal and I
know that she loves me and doesn't want to kill me." Adam's ability to
differentiate between the individual and the group stereotype is the hope
for the future, and it is to this end that Hand in Hand continues to strive.

"If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a
real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children." It seems
to me that Mohandas Gandhi's words were never more appropriate.


###

Josie Mendelson is an early childhood educator, who opened the first
Jewish-Arab kindergarten at the Jerusalem YMCA. Prior to joining Hand in
Hand she was director of early-childhood education for the City of Jerusalem

Source: CGNews, September 24, 2004

Visit the CGNews website at: http://www.sfcg.org/cgnews/middle-east.cfm

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