April 24, 2008
Debra Winger explores Jewish/Arab day schools
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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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