Cars were lined up around the parking lot, honking to urge parents on as the children filed through the front doors of the schools. They pranced in with their backpacks, past the first grade classrooms that had been burned over the weekend. The mood was high, not at all what I was expecting. They were there to learn.
Saturday night, on November 29th, vandals entered the Jerusalem Hand in Hand, (Yad b'Yad in Hebrew) school grounds to scrawl defamatory graffiti on the walls and start a fire. The flames were ultimately extinguished by local firefighters, but not before destroying two first grade classrooms. Temporary classrooms were quickly constructed and the children went to their classes on Sunday morning, as usual. They were greeted warmly by signs of encouragement and school staff. Some students found it difficult to return to school after the devastating event. Some parents found it difficult to send them. If a fire can be started on a Saturday night, what can happen while children and staff are there for seven hours each day?
Seven hours of conflict-free time every day
Hand in Hand is a pillar of coexistence for youth in a nation that appears to be tearing apart at the seams. Jewish and Arab students, from kindergarten through grade twelve, come together to learn, from an inclusive curriculum at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand school in Jerusalem. A Jewish and an Arab teacher are in every classroom, teaching in both Hebrew and Arabic. The result is a bilingual student body of 624 students that come from every walk of life, from communities all around Jerusalem. The Max Rayne school was started in 1998 and moved to its current location in 2008. It is a bubble where children can play, learn, and act freely and teachers with different politics are able to come together for a common goal. Although they all must leave at the end of the day and resume separate and essentially segregated lives, they have seven hours together when the conflict doesn't have to infiltrate every aspect of life. Hand in Hand also has a preschool in Haifa, a prekindergarten in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, and elementary schools in the Galilee and Wadi Ara areas of Israel.
At the Hand in Hand school in Jerusalem
On Tuesday when I attended my day of volunteering, children were actively participating in the cleanup process. Their resilience was astounding as they swept and carried cleaning supplies to assist the municipal workers already engaged in rehabilitating the environment. Classes went on as normal; model homes were arranged for display in the hall, a representation of healthy lungs were hung in the teachers' lounge, students kicked soccer balls around the courtyard. At the end of the day, fliers were handed out at the door to invite supporters to join in a march of solidarity with the school.
Art against hate
A few weeks before, another hate crime was enacted upon the walls of the school. Graffiti was tagged “Death to Arabs” inscribed on the walls. Students took selfies on the recent occasion and reconstructed the hateful words into art that helped them move past it. These hate crimes are not unusual for the Hand in Hand community; these exact words have been spray painted on the walls many times, and each time, they are covered over. Students channel their feelings in powerful ways, including artwork that is displayed throughout the school. But the act of terrorism they faced this past weekend is one that has engaged the neighborhood in a positive way. Teachers gathered in the teacher's lounge and shared stories of support from friends, family members and community members. Donations for classroom reconstruction have been materializing. Students from other schools in Jerusalem have shown support by writing letters and sending pictures, which are on display near the principal's office.
Signs on the walls of the school made by children in Hebrew and Arabic, for equality and peace
Solidarity and encouragement, despite the growing chasm
These scare tactics have come on the heels of enhanced aggression across Jerusalem. Fears over changes at the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary, the holiest site for Arabs, have resulted in many deaths over the past few weeks. Rhetoric in the Knesset has escalated. The new 'Jewish Nation-State' proposed law that has been postponed by Prime Minister Netanyahu after it was approved by the cabinet and may become law. This law will discriminate against non-Jews and further intensify the chasm that divides Israelis and Palestinians in this land which must be shared in some way. Meanwhile, Jerusalem's local government, including Mayor Nir Barkat and other city council members, have been onsite to assess the damage of the fire at Hand in Hand and hold meetings with the school community. United States Ambassador Dan Shapiro visited the students in their new classroom last week. Knesset members have visited, the Minister of Education has spoken in support of this special learning community and even President Reuven Rivlin has hosted Jewish and Arab students from the school at the President's Residence. A march of solidarity with Hand in Hand took place on Friday, December 5th at Oranim Juncture in Jerusalem. The group marched through the Mesila Park and on to the school, where the main event took place.
The outpouring of encouragement from local, national and international allies is a sign that peace can be waged as we move forward together. Schools are sacred, in a way. Any school that brings individuals together in a move towards peace is one that must be reinforced. Parents should not have to worry for their children's lives when sending them to a state supported facility, no matter where in the world they live or what conflict is going on. If our children are able to learn and grow together, let's let them becomea model for the adults. If we can all agree that we have had enough war, that we have lost enough lives, that too much time is spent in mourning, let's agree that we can move forward together in peace. Can both sides of this conflict come to those terms together for the future of the children?
Painting wishing the students a successful school year in Hebrew and Arabichttp://www.handinhandk12.org/inform/schools/jerusalem https://www.facebook.com/pages/Hand-in-Hand-Center-for-Jewish-Arab-Education-in-Israel/132094370146131?sk=timeline