April 18, 2012

Bridging the gap in Israel

After decades of stalemates and failed agreements, it may seem that achieving peace between Israelis and Arabs at the government level is impossible. For Lee Gordon, however, understanding must start in another place: schools.

Gordon, who spoke at Knox on Wednesday, is the executive director of American Friends of Hand in Hand, an organization dedicated to building multicultural, multilingual schools in Israel. Instead of the segregation present in most primary education in Israel, Hand in Hand schools feature Jewish and Arab children in the same classroom with classes conducted in both Hebrew and Arabic.

“I felt like I needed to do something where I could see some kind of impact, some kind of tangible result,” Gordon said. “If you look at the bigger picture, it’s really easy to become cynical.”

Although Arabs make up a sizable minority of the Israeli population — about 20 percent, according to Gordon — Jews and Arabs do not often interact. A member of one group will often not personally meet a member of the other until college, if at all.

“Not only is it not equal, it’s also one of the things that helps keep this conflict going,” Gordon said. “If people never meet each other and never try to break down barriers, you’re not going to end the conflict.”

Hand in Hand built its first school in 1998 and has since built three more across Israel. Over 1,000 students have been exposed to the school’s unique curriculum, in which everyone learns three languages: Arabic, English and Hebrew.

“I loved the idea of the schools — not just the larger idea, but the idea of bilingual education was really interesting,” junior Rana Tahir, president of Islamic Club, said. “That something is being done in a place painted as so volatile to cooperation is amazing.”

To further linguistic immersion, each class in the lower grades is taught by two teachers, one Arab and one Jewish.

“It’s not just a language thing. It’s also a cultural thing,” Gordon said. “We need both teachers to … show equality.”

More important than the curriculum, according to Gordon, is the sense of community cultivated by getting Jewish and Arab students together in the same room and talking about each other’s cultures and religions.

“We’re calling it school-centered shared community, so that the schools will be a base of wider and wider shared society or shared citizenship, where citizens of the same country can find common ground among the conflict,” Gordon said.

By bringing students together, Hand in Hand is also able to engage parents whose cultural stereotypes are often more deeply entrenched. Gordon told the story of a Jewish mother who had originally never imagined that her daughter would visit an Arab neighborhood or spend time with Arab children. Thanks to Hand in Hand, however, this is now regular practice for many Jewish students and vice versa. Parents also often form friendships that cross cultural lines, just as their children do.

Still, there are many skeptics, especially among the fervently religious. Stereotypes pervade discussions about the schools; outsiders often believe that one side only wants to hurt the other and that education is just a pretense.

“People ask if [students] will lose their identities or if our school might brainwash them. We get comments like that a lot,” Gordon said.

Students who attend Hand in Hand schools get questioned as well. Gordon said that this exposes students to the tensions in Israeli society while teaching them to defend the crossing of cultural boundaries, an essential first step in the peacebuilding process.

“There is always going to be conflict. Part of the solution is always having conflict resolution going on,” Gordon said. “Peace is not going to break out because of our schools, but it will be helped along by projects like these.”

Gordon’s visit to Knox was co-sponsored by Islamic Club, Hillel Club, the Israel Education Fund and the Educational Studies Department.

Note: Rana Tahir is a columnist for The Knox Student.

Anna Meier

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