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Jewish Journal

Debra Winger explores Jewish/Arab day schools

by Orit Arfa

April 24, 2008 | 6:00 pm

Debra Winger poses with students at the library of the Hand in Hand Max Rayne School in Jerusalem. Photo by Orit Arfa

Students at the Hand in Hand Max Rayne Bilingual School in Jerusalem didn't know they were meeting a celebrity. They weren't born when the films "Officer and a Gentleman" and "Terms of Endearment" garnered Debra Winger her Oscar nominations.

But Winger's tour last month to the Hand in Hand Arab-Jewish day schools was not necessarily meant to move the students, but to enrich her own understanding of pathways for Arab and Jewish co-existence.

"I'd like to think I'm helping, but in the end, it feels selfish -- how much I got out of seeing this and what it did to my heart," the 53-year-old actress told a group of reporters in the library of the school's new Jerusalem campus.

Raised in a secular Jewish household in Cleveland, Winger volunteered on a kibbutz in 1972 and has maintained her connection ever since. In fact, she was introduced to the bilingual schools following a talk at the Jewish Federation in Florida on the occasion of Israel's 60th anniversary.

Speaking to the federation audience, she recalled a "fight" she had with an Arab American friend that was triggered by the Second Lebanon War, which broke out while Winger served as a judge for the Jerusalem Film Festival.

"We couldn't even talk to each other," Winger told The Jewish Journal, recounting the episode. "She would forward me e-mails with newspaper articles for me to read, and I would reply, saying could you please replace 'Zionist occupation' with 'Israel' before you send it to me, and then I'll read it, because I want to hear different opinions, and you have to show some respect."

Eventually the two reconciled and made their private peace.

"I think in a way we have a deeper, richer understanding and more openness," she said.

At first, the audience -- perhaps expecting a more "what-Israel-means-to-me" type speech -- responded with silence to the story. But then Lee Gordon, director of the American Friends of Hand in Hand and the bilingual schools' co-founder, initiated a contagious round of applause. After the talk, he spoke with her about the schools' efforts at promoting dialogue.

Initially, Winger was skeptical of the educational franchise.

"I thought, 'Oh, it's another Jewish school that's inviting a few Arabs, kumbaya, and, you know, it doesn't ultimately work,'" she said.

But she accepted Gordon's invitation and went to Israel with her husband, director and actor Arliss Howard, and their 10-year-old son. Upon touring three of the Hand in Hand schools, Winger's skepticism softened.

"I used to think I could see the face of a peacemaker," she said, "but clearly, I've been wrong way too much. The [students] look like peacemakers to me. They understand the dilemma in a different way."

At one point, Winger stopped two children in the yard, and they admitted they didn't know who she was. They thought she was just some American visitor.

"Do you have any questions for me?" Winger asked.

They stared and smiled.

The students carry on their day as usual in what comes across as a typical elementary school. Teenagers roam the halls in jeans and sneakers, and toddlers storm the yard at recess. At one point, Winger joined the children for folk dancing in the yard.

Several clues hint to the school's uniqueness. Two languages are spoken: Hebrew and Arabic. Some female teachers wear the traditional Muslim hijabs. Universal messages of love and peace taken from the Torah, the Gospels and the Quran, as well as from great Western thinkers, are printed in Hebrew and Arabic on classroom doors.

The Jerusalem student body is equally diverse -- 50 percent Jewish, 40 percent Muslim and 10 percent Christian. The majority of Arabs are Israeli citizens.

A good portion of the classes are taught by an Arab-Jewish team. The school supplements the state curriculum with programs that attend to the dual nature of the school. From fourth grade on, Jews and Arabs study their respective religious traditions independently.

The Jerusalem branch opened 10 years ago, along with the Galilee branch, followed by new schools in Wadi Ara and Beersheva. The new Jerusalem campus testifies to the growth of the school from a small, first-grade class to a full-fledged day school with 450 children. The school is expanding into high school, and this fall will add a 10th-grade class.

Seventh-graders Areen Nashef, a Muslim, and her Jewish best friend, Yael Keinan, both 12 years old, smiled mischievously when they got called out of class to speak with The Journal. This is not the first time they've spoken to the press. Friends since first grade, they often get together outside of school and sleep over at each other's houses.

"I thought Areen was a Jew when we first met," said Yael who has long, dirty-blond hair and a pink paper clip dangling from her earring. "After a few days, she told me she was an Arab, and after that it didn't matter."

Both are proud for breaking stereotypes of the "other."

"I went to my cousin who lives in Taibe, up north," said Areen. "They didn't know that I study at a bilingual school. They study in Arabic and learn Hebrew because you have to communicate. When I told them I study with a Jew, they asked, 'What, they didn't hit you, hurt you?'"

Yael, who describes herself as traditional, has encountered similar suspicions.

"I have a friend who couldn't believe I had an Arab friend. She saw only what she saw on the news," Yael said.

Both thoroughly enjoy their studies.

"It's fun to speak more than one language and also learn another culture," said Yael.

Speaking in Hebrew, the students have much to say about sensitive issues, particularly politics. Areen described wanting "to feel that Jews were hurt by the Nazis." On the same note, Yael recalled visiting Arab villages that fell to the Israeli forces during the War of Independence.

"I don't identify with the Jews or the Palestinians," said Areen. "I just know you have to have two nations. I think you may need a Jewish state, but it shouldn't come at the expense of another people." She favors a two-state solution, while Yael suggests a joint government.

"The conflict is about who comes first," Yael said.

When they disagree, "We don't fight about it, we discuss it," Areen said.

Their views do not necessarily represent the school's, which does not hold any political platform. The school's focus, said Ala Khatib, the Arab co-principal, at an interview with his Jewish counterpart, Dalia Peretz, is quality multicultural education.

"National issues and the like are not as sensitive here as they are on the outside," Khatib said. "It's part of the program. They study it, tackle it, investigate it. Students learn about differences and respect the differences.

"It's very important among us that we don't have to agree," he continued. "You can disagree, but the question is how to stay together even when the differences are very difficult and sensitive."

Sympathy for the other's narratives and grievances is expressed on Yom Ha'Atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) when two ceremonies are held: a commemoration of Al Nakba (the Catastrophe), which marks the expulsion of Arabs from lands captured by Israel, and a festive celebration in honor of Israel's founding.

"For us, Yom Ha'Atzmaut is a happy day; for them, it's a sad day," said eighth-grader Jamie Pregman, 14. He took time from recess with his Muslim classmate, Haneen Kinani, to speak with The Journal. She wore jeans and he an Adidas sweatshirt; it was hard to tell their ethnicity by appearance alone.

"As an Arab, it's hard for you to believe in a land that you feel was taken from you. So how can you support that?" Haneen exclaimed in perfect Hebrew. "Yom Ha'Atzmaut is a day that's not connected to me. I don't have to celebrate it. With Al Nakba, I identify with it more."

Most of the time, though, they don't discuss politics; they are too busy studying for their matriculation exams. During Winger's visit, Jamie, whose parents are American, asked for Winger's autograph on a photograph he printed from the Internet.

The idea of teaching Al Nakba in grade school sparked controversy in the Knesset last year, when the Education Ministry approved its inclusion in Israeli textbooks.

"Outside, one may ask, 'How do you teach Nakba; how can you challenge state basics?'" said Peretz, sister of former Defense Minister Amir Peretz. "I don't see it this way, and the school doesn't see it this way. We see the attempt to ignore other things that exist -- to hide and bury them -- as really dangerous."

Dr. Daniel Gordis, senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem-based think tank and research institute in the process of starting Israel's first liberal arts college, questions the wisdom of teaching competing national narratives at this level.

"If engaging in this multicultural education undermines our ability to engender in young Israeli kids a belief in the importance, even sanctity, of the Jewish state, as noble as the idea is, it might be a foolish and shortsighted idea," Gordis said.

He has visited the school in the past and met with parents who described the Yom Ha'Atzmaut/Nakba commemorations. While he appreciates Hand in Hand's intentions, he believes high school and college are more appropriate stages for Jewish students to study critically "the narrative which, of course, doesn't just tell a different story, but a story that says Israel is fundamentally illegitimate."

Peretz thinks that teaching both religions and historical narratives does not require Jewish students to sacrifice their national or religious identity.

"The perspective of the school is that each child has to be strong in his own identity," she said. "Through the strength of knowing their own heritage and history, they deepen familiarity with the other's culture, history, language."

The divide between Jews and Arabs was brought to the forefront of public discussion after last month's attack on yeshivat Merkaz HaRav by an Arab from East Jerusalem. The school addressed the attack as it did any violent incidents that severely affect Arabs and Jews -- whether rocket attacks on Sderot or operations of Israel Defense Forces in Gaza. The faculty and administration discuss the incidents beforehand, and teachers air emotions and concerns in class according to the students' age group.

"We oppose any kind of violence," said Peretz, "so when it's violence that hurts innocent citizens, it's something that everybody here objects to -- doesn't matter if the victims are Arabs or Jews. With children, we have to deal with fears that they bring up."


Two students -- an Arab and a Jew -- discuss their school. Video by Orit Arfa


Gordis is concerned that such an attitude breeds moral relativism.

"The minute you teach kids that any violence is bad," he said, "what you are effectively stating is that the State of Israel doesn't have the right to defend itself, and it plays into the hands of the enemy."

At the informal press conference with Winger, Areen offered her reaction to the Merkaz HaRav attack.

"I felt how can my Jewish friends look in my eyes and not feel bad or angry," she said. "But this is the school, and we need to handle those things in our own special way, to go through them, not to get mad at each other, but to help each other in the hard times and to talk about it, not ignore it."

Areen aspires to be an interior designer; her best friend Yael envisions a career in politics.

"I think when we'll be older, maybe after college, we'll meet each other in the government and change things," Yael said. "People hear about us all over the world."

Before returning to her home in New York, Winger pledged to help increase awareness.

"I'm not carrying a message," she said. "Every day is the message. Every day when you see them drop their children off or say good morning to each other and leave their children here, I don't need anything more than that."

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