Hand in Hand

one model of what's possible for Israeli and Palestinian kids

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I suppose this is the next installment of what’s now an ongoing series on attempting to disrupt binary narratives around Israel/Palestine, to remind people that there have long been people working towards a more whole vision for the future.

For those just tuning in, we looked at the multilayered nature of truth, here, and then at some of the peacemaking work being done by women. (As usual, if it’s bold, it’s a link.)

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Now let’s look at a school system. I hadn’t originally meant to write about them. but it strikes me that I have a set of experiences that most people writing for an English-speaking audience don’t, and I’d be remiss, at this hour, not to share them.

I know that the intensity and scale of the horrors happening now—the degree of suffering and pain, the unfathomable number of Palestinian civilians—children, families, innocents—killed, the reports still emerging about Hamas’ brutality, the siege limiting humanitarian support in Gaza, the hostages still not home—pales in comparison to this little story I’m about to tell. I hesitated to share it at all because it seems so insignificant now.

But please God, it seems that we might be near a moment of possible pause—respite for Palestinian civilians and return of hostages. May this herald the end of the bloodshed and the beginning of a true political solution.

And I remain convinced that the way home can always be found by following the people who have been working all along for the world we must have.

Who refuse to demonize, as easy as it is to do.

Who remain dogged in their commitment not only to the vision of another world, but to building it, now.

Even when things seem hard and painful and hopeless. As they have for so long.

We must look to those teaching truth and liberation now, and let them teach us the way.

We must follow them.

So here is one small story, buried in the context of much larger work.

The academic year of 2015-2016, my family and I spent the year in Jerusalem.1

In addition to the new baby who arrived not long after we got to town,2 that year our kids were in preschool and first grade, and we sent them to the Max Rayne Hand in Hand School, one of six Hand in Hand3 bilingual schools around the country dedicated to creating a shared society of Jews and Palestinians4

Each classroom had—has—two teachers.  In my eldest’s first grade class, Genia taught all the kids Hebrew, Sireen taught all of them Arabic, and they co-taught other subjects, like math and science (which are, by necessity, not taught as frontally as they might be in other schools.)  Each class has an equal number of Jewish and Palestinian kids, and even the principal’s job is held by two people, who divide responsibilities by grade level.

And of course even the preschoolers began to learn spoken Arabic and Hebrew,5 even if they didn’t worry about reading and writing until the kids were older.

The most transformative work that happens there was (is) its most quotidian. My eldest’s primary interactions with his Palestinian friends were as mundane as one would hope, centering around questions like: who’s going to play goalie at recess? Do you have a pencil I can borrow? Do you want to see the comic I just got?  Bonds are forged and thickened through a million small interactions, through connecting as kids first, as it always should be.

It sounds trite, but in a country still working to face the moral truth of Occupation, in which the polarization is constant, racism rampant, and in which there is little trust on all sides.. this matters.

But the school succeeds not by pretending that difference doesn’t exist, but by naming it and putting it in an appropriate context. In addition to learning to speak, read, and write each others’ languages, the kids learned to honor each others’ holidays, histories and narratives.

Some of it was easy and sweet—the communal bonfire for the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer, the joint Christmas/Hanukah concert (complete with four year-olds singing “Jingle Bells” in Arabic)6, the Iftar during Ramadan.  

But they faced the hard stuff, too. In the weeks leading up to Israeli Independence Day, the first graders also learned not only the Jewish perspective on founding of the state, but the Nakba ("disaster," aka Palestinians' loss of their homes during the 1948 war).

The first graders talked about the significance of keys to Palestinians, as well as coloring in the Hebrew word, יזכור, (“remember,”—also the name of the Jewish memorial service for the dead.)

They didn’t hide from the fact of multiple realities.

They simply named it.

Honored it.

Allowed true things to be true.

On Memorial Day, the Jewish children went to a memorial day ceremony honoring those who fell defending the country and the Palestinian kids attended a ceremony about the Nakba.7 At the end of the brief separation (the only one all year, as far as I know), all the kids came together to sing songs of peace and hope--pointing everyone at what can and should be.

The fall that we arrived, some issues over the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif led to what’s sometimes called the "Intifada of the Individuals"—named as such because of the large number of stabbing attacks by Palestinians of Israelis, unclaimed by any party or group. Towards the end of 2015, there were on average 3 attacks a day.  Between October 2015 and March 2016, there were 211 stabbings or attempted stabbings of Israelis by Palestinians, 83 shootings and 42 car-ramming attacks killing 30 Israelis and two Americans. Over 200 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces, 130 of them while allegedly carrying out attacks on Israelis.

The school’s response?

Was to build community.

They started having solidarity walks for the parents. The invitation was to drop off your kid at school and then all walk together for a mile or two—and then everyone would go off to their respective days. Every morning at first, and then a few days a week. Show up. Get to know the other parents in our school.

They had the older kids paint a massive banner that hung from the school that said,

“We will continue to live together.”

They had gatherings of parents to talk about some of the hard issues, too—to make space for more than just superficial friendships, but rather to do the necessary unpacking and trust-building needed in long-haul work of creating real relationships, building real solidarity.

What began with 50 Palestinian and Jewish children has grown to a network of six schools with over 2,000 students, though there are only 700 alumni of the 6 schools since the first one opened in 1997.  Would that there were more—more schools across the country, more government funding, more parents lobbying to send their kids—the peace and justice process might not be in the dismal shape that it’s in now.

But still, each child, each heart, each relationship is a good of its own—a seed that’s planted for a better shared future.

This matters, now more than ever.

This is the most right-wing government that Israel has ever had. Besides the seemingly intractable presence of Netanyahu—who has been Prime Minister 16 out of the last 27 years, and Leader of the Opposition 7 or 8 more—there are factors we’re not hearing enough about in the mainstream media.

Political parties espousing Kahanism—the racist terrorist Meir Kahane had called for Jewish theocracy in the Land of Israel—had been banned from the government for racist incitement since the 1980’s. In 2001, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called the official Kahanist website a hate site for spewing vile anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian garbage.

But Netanyahu, anxious to retain power and having trouble forming a government coalition that would stick, decided in 2019 to make a deal with the current Kahanist party, to bring them back into the fold in exchange for their support. So the current Minister of National Security, which includes police, prisons and border police—is Itamar Ben-Gvir, whose racist settler agenda is right there on the surface, and who is in the process of setting up militias in mixed Jewish-Palestinian towns, nothing terrifying about that.8 And the current Minister of Defense slash de-facto governor of the West Bank, Betzalel Smoltrch, is even more explicitly genocidal,9 and other members of their party have been engaging in even more dehumanizing incitement and suggestions of dropping nuclear bombs on Gaza.10

Things have to change, soon. One school, one network of schools won’t do it on its own, but this is an important part of the movement—fighting for legal rights,  building grassroots power, engaging in activism, educating, telling inconvenient truths, developing action plans, and so much more.

Of course, in education as in other sectors in Israel, significant systemic inequalities between Jews and Palestinians persist, and the Hand in Hand schools are not immune to the ways in which Israeli society favors Jews. In a Hebrew-dominant culture, all the Hand in Hand kids wind up with stronger Hebrew than Arabic, for example, and while both Jewish and Palestinian parents may send their kids to Hand in Hand both because it’s a good school and because they believe in the values of coexistence, it’s also more likely that some Palestinian parents may be motivated by pragmatic interests like their children gaining greater facility with Hebrew in a Jewish-dominated society than they could in an all-Palestinian school. (This information may not be surprising to many of you.) There is so much work yet to be done towards a more whole world.

There are so many kinds of change that are needed.

And of course even solving for the systemic inequities, just the school is not the whole solution—no one thing is. Especially now, as there are so many children beginning their lives traumatized, full of fear and pain because of the events of the last month and a half. We must work on healing them.

And we must look to those who already know how to teach kids that another world is possible.

I asked my eldest—now a teenager—what he remembers from his experience in first grade. He chuckled wryly. “I learned that some Jewish Israelis are nice and some are jerks, and some Palestinian kids are nice and some are jerks.”

Honestly, that’s so little, and so much more than so many kids in that region (or here, ahem) ever get. So basic, so fundamental: Everybody is people. And he was only there for a year. It’s something else entirely when you actually grow up in that community.

Another world is possible.

I pray that we will soon see a pause in the bloodshed.

I pray that it will become the beginning of a lasting peace.

And I weep, you know, a lot these days.

(Give yourself space to cry. Have you had the chance to actually cry lately? Given yourself permission? I’m just saying. This is a lot to hold.)

A month ago, the Hand in Hand school posted on Facebook:

When this war ends we will still study together, still play together, still work together, and still care about each other.

(And another friendly reminder that we can condemn violence without demonizing whole groups of people. Trust us, we do it every day.)

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Cited in this issue:

  1. I’m married to an academic who had a research sabbatical, and my work was portable enough. My spouse is Israeli; my in-laws’ families on all sides, pretty much, perished in the Holocaust except for those who had made it to that patch of land in the 1930’s. (The US sure wasn’t taking people.) Again, there are few facile narratives. My spouse, as I do, wishes desperately for an end to the Occupation and peace and freedom for everyone in the region. Our location choice for sabbatical years is driven by a desire for kids to be close to their grandparents and for my spouse to be close to longtime collaborators. I’m not including any photos of kids at the school because I sure don’t have permission from other parents for that. ↩

  2. Yes, we were expecting said baby. Things I can now definitively not recommend: 12 hour flights when 36 weeks pregnant, experiencing the final month of one’s pregnancy in Jerusalem during the peak of summer. ↩

  3. Aka Yad B’Yad- יד ביד/Yadan biYadan - يدا بيد ↩

  4. In Israel, both Hebrew-speakers and Arabic speakers have long referred to Palestinian citizens of Israel with the accurate term Arabs (or, by Jews, sometimes : Israeli Arabs, as a way—consciously or not—to distinguish and divide them from their kin in the West Bank and Gaza.) (Arabic-speakers may have long also self-identified as Palestinians, but in any case “Arab” is a common self-identification in mixed Hebrew-speaking society.) It has also become more common of late to refer to those same people in the context of the wholeness of Palestinian peoplehood, no matter where on the map people are with regards to Israeli borders. But as is clear from the Hand in Hand school’s own social media, “Arab” is still commonly used, and is an accurate term. ↩

  5. I mean, all the kids come in speaking one of those two languages, is the idea. We speak Hebrew at home. ↩

  6. screams from the rooftops Yes some Palestinians are Christian and some are Muslim, thank you for your attention to this matter.

    (But yes, it’s a little wild that they were singing a song, in Arabic, on a balmy 50F day, about dashing through the snow, written by a Confederate soldier who was the son of an abolitionist. I’ll wait for you to untangle that one.) ↩

  7. Though anyone was allowed to go to whatever ceremony they wanted to, and some kids did wind up going to the other community’s, or parts of both. ↩

  8. And survivors of intimate partner violence are terrified—evidently there’s nothing to prevent men with criminal records for domestic abuse from getting their hands on a gun now that firearms are generally easier to come by. ↩

  9. He called for the Palestinian town of Hawara to be “erased.” I am in no way going to apologize for or justify that. I am extremely careful in my use of that word, genocide—I don’t throw it around lightly—but nor am I going to cover for people who mean to do evil. ↩

  10. I’m not the only one who thinks that Smoltrich’s racism may be driving some decisions in this war. (Knesset Member Ofer Kassif, the only Jew on the Arab coalition party, got in official trouble for making that suggestion.) Even though technically now there is a Unity Government. ↩


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