Essay: Jerusalem’s True Believers

December 7, 2017, 7:02 PM UTC

People in the U.S. woke up to a Middle East on edge today, after President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on Wednesday.

The news sent shockwaves throughout the world. But Palestinians, who also see Jerusalem as their capital city, were particularly stunned. The announcement breaks with decades of U.S. diplomacy, and appears to end any role the U.S. may have sought to play as a neutral peace broker.

Angry clashes have already been reported, and the city is anxious about Friday, the Muslim holy day for weekly mass prayers. “Talk of a new uprising (intifada) after Trump’s statement on Jerusalem,” NBC’s Richard Engel reported via Twitter. “Palestinians say peace process hasn’t worked.”

In search of understanding and perhaps a bit of hope, I spent some time learning about The Max Rayne Hand in Hand School, the only school in Jerusalem where Arab and Jewish kids learn together. It’s a radical experiment in peace-making through inclusion and understanding, now under siege yet again.

The school’s video explainer is enough to inspire: “When you raise children in a war zone, when Jewish and Arab children do not meet each other in their day to day life, when they are divided, and they go to separate schools, how do you make sure that they don’t hate every person from the other side? You bring them together.”

All classes are run by two teachers and taught in Arabic and Hebrew, a far less cumbersome arrangement than one might think. Pre-school kids learn both alphabets at the same time, and unless they are sharing specifics about their lives, there is typically no way to tell who is Arab and who is Jewish.

There are now Hand in Hand schools in six cities around Israel. The Jerusalem location is more than ten years old.

Jerusalem is a uniquely complicated place, which makes the school even more notable. As this 2016 report from Israel’s Channel Two points out, “In the most conflicted and blood-soaked city, with the uttermost fear and distrust between nations, Jews and Arabs sit together in a mixed group and it doesn’t seem unusual to any of them,” says reporter Tzion Nanous. “We’re the sane ones,” says co-principal Nadia Kinani. “When some people say that we’re a bubble, I think that’s what’s happening outside is not realistic.”

But they are in the thick of things. In 2014, the school was hit in an arson attack, after a series of escalating incidents. Books were set alight destroying two first grade classrooms and threatening messages were left behind: “There is no coexistence with cancer” and “Kahane was right,” referring to the controversial Rabbi Meir Kahane, who called Arabs “dogs” and advocated for their removal.

The school responded by making and hanging a banner that said, “There is cooperation, love and friendship here between Arabs and Jews.” Then thousands of Arab and Jewish parents and other supporters marched together with balloons, red clown noses, drums and signs, chanting, “We continue together, without hatred or fear,” and “We won’t be stopped.”

But the pressure is constant. One Arab parent of fourth-grader told Channel Two’s Nanous that when asked by his teacher what smells he associates with autumn, his answer was tear gas. (At the 6:35 mark.)

Since students are often the same age, living in the same neighborhoods as the people who commit the violence, the school encourages students to face the issues head-on.

As a result, eleventh-graders who should be worrying about dating and college prep are talking about bombings, checkpoints, and struggling to work out who is a terrorist and who is a martyr with an enemy who is also their lifelong friend. “They don’t agree with each other, their parents don’t agree with each other,” said one teacher. “The common ground is that they choose to be together.”

And that means the mundane moments are particularly sweet. “Why should I argue with him about who is or isn’t a terrorist, if I can argue with him about what we’re going to eat for lunch?” says a student named Tala Jabara.

The extended community that has invested in the Hand in Hand concept all believe that their method is the only way forward. As compelling as it is, it’s hard not to imagine their voices being overrun in the chaos that now seems inevitable.

But as I told my editor, Stacy Jones, after spending a few hours watching videos and learning more about the people who believe in the school, I feel like I have new friends in Jerusalem.

Proximity, even the technologically-enabled kind, can be such a gift. But it’s also an act of faith.


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