The art classroom is abuzz with children creating masks for Purim. About twenty-five third graders are at work at various stages of the process, turning wet paper mache into their own unique creations. Some are already applying the finishing touches, their masks heavy with paint and sequins. Others work slowly, their teacher patiently offering suggestions and help where needed.
One little boy notices the camera in my hand and gestures excitedly for me to take a picture of him holding his mask. He proudly holds the mask next to his smiling face, and I snap what is to become one of my favorite photos ever. This picture is worth more than a thousand words.
This one simple image contains a story that is huge and significant.
The boy is an Arab Israeli child, who, along with the rest of his Arab and Jewish classmates, is making a mask for Purim.
He attends the Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem, where both Arab and Jewish cultures are celebrated and where children are taught in both Hebrew and Arabic.
Hand in Hand Schools: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel were co-founded in 1997 by Israeli-Arab educator Amin Khalaf and Lee Gordon, an American-born social activist and community organizer who lived for two decades in Israel. Today the network of three schools, located in Jerusalem, in the Arab village of Sakhnin in the Galilee, and in Kfar Kara in central Israel educate nearly one thousand students.
Their mission is to increase peace, coexistence and equality between Jews and Arabs of Israel, using a bilingual, multi-cultural curriculum which combines peaces studies with top academic standards.
Four years ago, while in Jerusalem, I asked to visit the school and see for myself what amazing things were happening there. I intended to drop in for an hour. Instead I could barely tear myself away after an entire day.
I saw Arab and Jewish children thoroughly mixed together, switching easily between Hebrew and Arabic. I watched classes that were team-taught, by a Hebrew-speaking teacher and an Arabic-speaking teacher. In other classes, there was just one teacher – fully fluent in both languages. The Hand in Hand schools’ specialized curriculum teaches about Judaism, Christianity and Islam, along with a civics curriculum that focuses on citizenship and democratic values.
They seek to break down the barriers between Arab and Jewish Israelis, who live in close proximity to each other, and yet exist worlds apart.
I left the school that day filled with optimism and frank admiration for the people working so hard to create a better future for Israel’s children. And the photo of the Arab child holding his Purim mask has remained one of my favorites.
Last week I received a disturbing email from Lee Gordon, now living in Portland, Oregon and serving as executive director of American Friends of Hand in Hand.
On February 6 the Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem was vandalized, the words “Death to Arabs” spray painted across the outside of the building.
A nearby Greek Orthodox Christian monastery was defaced as well, the words, “Death to Christians” scrawled across its walls.
The crimes, under investigation by the Israeli police, are thought to be the work of ultra-right wing extremists, who carry out these “price tag” crimes in response to government efforts to take down illegal settlements in the West Bank. Attacks are aimed mostly, but not exclusively, at Arab property. Vandalism is the “price” that must be paid for policies they perceive as anti-settlement. Mosques in the West Bank have been vandalized; a mosque in the Galilee was a target as well. Vandals struck again this week, defacing a downtown Jerusalem church with the words “We will crucify you”, and more.
In a telephone interview, Gordon shared with me how the school coped in the aftermath of the attack.
He emphasized that support was quick in coming – the Chief of Police himself came to the school to begin the investigation.
Reuven Rivlin, Likud party member and Speaker of the Knesset wrote this letter of support to the school:
“First of all, I would like to say how I understand and empathize with your honest concerns about the ugly and dangerous phenomenon referred to as the “price tag” attacks. If it turns out that these ugly and criminal incidents that damaged mosques, homes and personal property were perpetrated by Jews, then we are now faced with genuine “Jewish terrorism,” which cannot be labeled by any less serious a title.”
“This is a dangerous terrorism carried out by people who have no respect for the law or the society that enacted these laws, and we have no choice but to condemn these acts and to work to stop them from occurring in the future.”
Gordon told me about the peace rally that was held at the school following the attack. Discussions were held in each class in an age-appropriate way. I asked how parents of Arab students were feeling. Gordon said, “Arab parents say, ‘It’s our school and it is here to stay.’ They want their kids not to generalize. There is a solid foundation. People support our school, including those from the right wing.”
Gordon went on to share with me the schools’ recent successes and plans underway for expansion. The Jerusalem school graduated its first high school class last year. These fourteen students began kindergarten when the school opened, and a new grade was added each year. Next year’s graduating class is about twenty. The number of graduates should keep rising; each grade from K-7 now has two classes of students.Today more than five hundred Jewish and Israeli students attend the Jerusalem school.
Hand in Hand received grants from the U.S. government in 2004 and 2007. A new U.S. grant of one million dollars, to be paid over the next three years, will enable Hand in Hand to expand, building schools in Tel Aviv and Haifa, as well as other locations with mixed Arab and Jewish populations, such as Akko.
Gordon shared other ideas, among them, creating a program for Hand in Hand graduates to do a year of national service together, Jewish and Arab young adults working side by side in needy communities. He sees the schools expanding to serve the role of community center, bringing Arab and Jewish adults together in the evening for classes and other activities.
Hand in Hand’s work is a natural fit for people who care about promoting peaceful coexistence.
Gordon shared two examples of Americans partnering with the school in a meaningful way. Bar and Bat Mitzvah children have chosen Hand in Hand as their tzedaka project, raising funds, donating books, and more. A month-long English language summer camp, Project Harmony, has operated on the Jerusalem campus for the last few years, drawing as many as one hundred children in grades 5-8. Who staffs it? American college and high school student volunteers, dedicated to the hands-on work of peacemaking.
Gordon sees Hand in Hand Schools as one part of a larger mosaic of initiatives – environmental, economic, cultural, artistic – that will bridge the divides in Israeli society. He characterizes the schools as a major player in building a better future in Israel, and is justifiably proud of their success.
I believe that Hand in Hand’s tireless work to build something good in Israel deserves at least as wide a hearing as the evil acts of “price-tag” extremists, whose actions violate every value of normative Judaism.
Gordon concluded our conversation with this message to our community:
“I invite people in the Twin Cities to learn about Hand in Hand, to engage and partner with us because we are doing something of vital importance for Israel and the world.
We are helping build peace, partnership and coexistence in Israel, helping to create more hope and optimism in a place where this conflict has gone on for so long.”
[Eds. Note: Check out the Hand in Hand Schools’ website to learn how you can get informed, inspired and engaged in this important work.]