Integration doesn’t stop at the school gate either — each school makes a concerted effort to build wider communities that involve parents as well. Dialogue sessions encourage parents to tell their family’s stories, often the first time they have done so to a mixed audience. It can be an empowering, moving experience.
“All of a sudden, people are listening,” says Nadia, an Arab Israeli mother of two students featured in a Hand in Hand case study. “People are connecting over pain, over sadness. It doesn’t matter who, it doesn’t matter on what side. All of a sudden, we’re together.”
When the Israeli-Palestinian conflict flares up, joint discussion sessions are held not only for students but parents too. “Everybody speaks and everybody listens, nothing is taboo,” Gordon says. The goal isn’t to debate or to win, but to listen with respect.
“One of the advantages of us discussing these things in the school is that everyone already has these strong bonds,” Gordon says, “they have this common denominator, their kids go to school together.”
An oasis amid tension
For Arab students attending Hand in Hand schools, the integrated environment is somewhat of an oasis from a more tense and divided society. “What I hear, especially from students, is that this is a place where they feel safe,” Gordon says.
But that doesn’t mean the outside world doesn’t sometimes intrude on the school community. Arab students have faced suspicion within their own communities for attending an integrated school. An Arab-speaking student on a bus was once slapped by a woman who demanded they speak Hebrew. In 2014, “Death to Arabs” was spray-painted repeatedly on school facilities. The community responded by hanging a banner saying: “There is cooperation, love and friendship here between Arabs and Jews.” Three weeks later, arsonists burnt down a classroom and scrawled “there is no coexistence with cancer” on the walls.
But with support from the school, and from their integrated friendship networks, Gordon says Hand in Hand students have proven resilient and united in the face of such attacks.
“Coexistence is Cancer” was spray-painted on one of the Hand in Hand schools in 2014 (Credit: Tag Meir)
The idea of integrated schooling inherently makes a lot of sense to people, Gordon says, even to the point of crossing fraught political divides. “I talk to people who are not J Street supporters, who go to AIPAC conferences, and they say this makes sense to them, that of course Jews and Arabs should go to school together,” Gordon says. “They may not know much about the situation but this makes sense to them, and I love that.”
“We are the pioneers of a different reality, a better one,” says Tamar Borman, a Jerusalem Hand in Hand graduate featured on the group’s website. “When they say peace can’t work, I tell them it’s been working for more than a decade.”
“I think a lot of people see our schools as a sign of hope,” Gordon says, “I like to think that Hand in Hand is a little model of what Israel could look like.”