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Building a Shared Israel: One Child, One Family, and one Community at a Time

HAND IN HAND

Building a Shared Israel: One Child, One Family, and one Community at a Time

by Vicki Garlock

Nothing in the remarkable story below has anything to do with the digital world. It is all about the raw courage and imagination to reach across the room to become friends with those who have been enemies. This is all about nitty-gritty human interaction.

However, there is a digital superstructure supercharging Hand in Hand, empowering its funding and becoming increasingly influential as a peacemaking resource. When you finish the article, click on the Hand in Hand link (you’ll find it in the first paragraph), and look at what is being offered. The digital platform addresses their mission and methods, creates a network of institutions and the vital community they represent, welcomes visitation and volunteer opportunities, gets personal, shares the news, identifies partners, and gives you a way to donate.

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“We are part of the mosaic of peace-keeping.”

                    — Lee Gordon, co-founder of Hand in Hand

Long-term conflicts require long-term solutions. With over 1,750 children in grades preK-12 at six schools across Israel, Hand in Hand is becoming an important player in the Middle Eastern peace process. With its commitment to bilingual, integrated education, Hand in Hand provides a place where “kids come together for a long period of time, which leads to long-term dialogue, which then leads to parents, which then leads to community, which then offers opportunities for lasting impact.”

In a region where separation, distrust, and wariness are the order of the day, Hand in Hand provides a promising and practical alternative. Even their name, Yad b’Yad in both Hebrew and Arabic, is symbolic of their dedication to open dialogue. The Hand in Hand model is also crushing stereotypes about what everyday families desire for the next generation. With hundreds of families on wait lists, and an almost equal number of Arab and Jewish students in each school, Hand in Hand challenges the notion that their schools are primarily only for Arabs seeking a better education.

A Bit of History

  Israeli Prime Minister    Yitzhak Rabin   , U.S. President Bill Clinton, and    Yasser Arafat    at the Oslo Accords signing ceremony on 13 September 1993 – Photo:    Wikipedia

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. President Bill Clinton, and Yasser Arafat at the Oslo Accords signing ceremony on 13 September 1993 – Photo: Wikipedia

Hand in Hand was founded in 1997 by Amin Khalif (an Arab) and Lee Gordon (an American Jew who lived in Israel for two decades), following the breakdown of the Oslo Accords. The mid-90s were marked by significant progress in the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In a series of secret negotiations in Oslo, Norway’s capital city, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) formally recognized the State of Israel and Israel formally recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people. The Oslo Accords built on this positive relational foundation to create the Palestinian Authority, which held some governing capacity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The accords also acknowledged the PLO as Israel’s future partner in negotiations over various issues, including land borders, water rights, Israel’s military presence, and the status of Jerusalem.

Oslo Accord I was signed in 1993. Oslo Accord II was signed in 1995. Six weeks later, Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated in Tel Aviv by an Israeli ultranationalist who opposed the softening of hostilities. Rabin’s death brought about a near-complete unraveling of the peace process, and the entire notion of rapprochement was almost entirely derailed. Despite the shocking setback, many people on both sides of the conflict sought ways to keep the peace initiatives alive. As Gordon said, “I saw schools as an avenue for building partnerships, starting with kids.” The seeds for Hand in Hand had been sown.

How Hand in Hand Works

Offering a bilingual, integrated education within the Israeli public school system is no easy task, but Hand in Hand has developed an impressive formula for achieving this goal. From the outset, Hand in Hand schools have used core curriculum materials that are officially approved by the Israeli Ministry of Education, which means their schools are supervised by, and receive some operational funding, from the  government agency.

  Photo:    Hand in Hand

Hand in Hand institutions are fully bilingual. Every student, beginning in kindergarten, learns both Hebrew and Arabic. Instruction happens in the native language of the teacher, and questions asked in Hebrew might be answered in Arabic, or vice-versa. Creating and maintaining such an environment is not easy. Because the dominant language outside the classroom is Hebrew, Arab children learn Hebrew much more quickly and Arab teachers often speak Hebrew. Israeli Jews, on the other hand, rarely speak Arabic, and opportunities to do so are limited outside the walls of Hand in Hand schools. In many classes, there are two teachers – an Arab and a Jew – and instructors often find it necessary to develop their own supplemental materials to incorporate Arab viewpoints.   

The school calendar is also adjusted annually to incorporate the holidays of the three main Abrahamic faith traditions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam). In addition, content about the history, values, and beliefs of all three religions are included in the curriculum. Accommodations are made for Muslim children observing Ramadan, and open dialogue surrounds holidays complicated by cultural/religious divides.

For example, at the end of April/beginning of May, Israelis celebrate their declaration of independence, Yom Ha’atzmaut. Shortly thereafter, on May 15, Arabs remember the exact same event with Yawm an-Nakba, meaning Day of the Catastrophe. As Gordon pointed out, “Everything that happens outside the classroom impacts what happens inside. When Arab leadership calls for a strike to protest violence in Gaza, Jewish kids come to school and see that their Arab friends are not there. They learn to ‘agree-to-disagree.’”

Not Just for Kids

  Photo:    Hand in Hand

Part of the organization’s mission is reaching out to the broader community. To that end, Hand in Hand regularly facilitates integrated community activities for adults. It provides educational programs focused on learning the language, culture, and traditions of “the other.” It fields sports teams that are routinely the only Jewish-Arab teams in the leagues. And it offers special projects (e.g., a parent-child garden) on school campuses to foster interaction. Gordon estimates that, to date, over 3,000 adults have participated in Hand in Hand’s joint community programming.

Looking Toward the Future

  Photo:    Hand in Hand

Hand in Hand hopes to open two additional schools in the next five years, with a ten-year goal of more than ten schools. Such ambitions require both organizational and fundraising efforts. About 20 percent of each school’s budget comes from a “fee” paid by parents. Since the fees to attend Hand in Hand schools are quite a bit higher than other schools in Israel, Hand in Hand also offers student scholarships. Another 40 percent of their funding stems from being part of the Israeli public school system. The final 40 percent, about $8 million annually, comes from foundations, individual donors, and other granting agencies (including the U.S. Agency for International Development, a division of the U.S. State Department).

Clearly, there is always plenty of work to do. Arabs and Jews live almost totally separated from one another in Israel, a country now suffering from generations of intolerance, misunderstanding, and violence. Hand in Hand offers a unique, yet viable, method for promoting civic equality and serves as a model for social inclusion.

If you want to learn more about Hand in Hand, check out these articles:

Jewish and Arab Students Cross Cultural Boundaries (Haaretz)

School for Arab, Israeli Students a Shelter of Calm Coexistence (Jerusalem Post)

Arab-Jewish preschool an island of sanity amid violence (USA Today)

And if you’re interested in making a contribution, click here.

Header Photo: Hand in Hand Facebook