Inbar Shaked Vardi and Mouran Ibrahim are 14 years old but speak in a way that many adults in the maelstrom of the Middle East can’t muster – of Arab-Jewish “shared living,” a step even beyond mere co-existence. When their school, the flagship Max Rayne campus of the Hand in Hand Jewish-Arab bilingual school network in Israel, was attacked recently, their outlook on the world was tested once again.

Panelists at a USIP event, "Refusing to be Enemies" at Israel's Hand in Hand Schools, on Dec. 18, 2014. From left: Ned Lazarus; Inbar Shaked Vardi; Mouran Ibrahim; Rebecca Bardach; Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen.
Panelists at a USIP event, "Refusing to be Enemies" at Israel's Hand in Hand Schools, on Dec. 18, 2014. From left: Ned Lazarus; Inbar Shaked Vardi; Mouran Ibrahim; Rebecca Bardach; Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen.

The fire in the first-grade classroom on Saturday, Nov. 29 was accompanied by graffiti that made clear the extremist motivations: “Death to Arabs” and “There’s no co-existence with cancer.” The school was closed that day, and no one was hurt, but the initial panic prompted many parents and students to fear returning to class as scheduled that Sunday, wary of the risk of an even more violent attack another time.

Inbar, a Jewish Israeli in the ninth grade, told an audience at USIP on Dec. 18 that it was tempting to yield to the fear. But she said she and others quickly realized that would also yield to the whims of those who attacked the school.  “”That’s exactly what these people want – they want to stop the effects of our school, they want to stop the dialogue that we’re having,” she said.

“But we can’t let them win in this,” said Inbar, who was in Washington with Mouran this week to light Hanukkah candles at the White House with President Barack Obama.  “We have to keep fighting and keep coming to school and doing what we do every day …. We’ve been dealing with this kind of thing for a really long time, and we know how to handle it.”

Inbar and Mouran, an Arab citizen of Israel who travels 1 ½ hours each way daily by bus to attend the school, know “how to handle it” because that’s what they do every day. Hand in Hand was founded in 1998 to promote peaceful co-existence between Jews and Arabs in Israel through integrated, bilingual and multicultural schools. Peace education, conflict resolution and leadership development are integrated into the curriculum and the way of life in each school. Student populations and the staff are balanced for diversity.

The rapid expansion of the school network, which operates with the official approval and support of the relevant municipalities and Israel’s Ministry of Education, speaks to the popular demand for such a model, even amid constant tensions between Jews and Arabs in and around Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Hand in Hand now has five schools throughout the country, with 1,200 students and 5,000 parents and staff.

The schools also have in recent years made a particular effort to involve their surrounding communities so that the burden of a more constructive outlook on the broader conflict rests not only on the shoulders of children, said Rebecca Bardach, the director of resource development and strategy at Hand in Hand, who accompanied Mouran and Inbar to the U.S.

“You don’t have to like it, you don’t have to believe in it,” Bardach said. “But you can no longer deny that it’s viable or that it’s scalable, because both are the case.”

The school drew international attention and an outpouring of support for its mission after the Nov. 30 attack.

Hand in Hand students, staff and their communities engage on the basis of mutual respect and extensive discussion and acknowledgement of differences. They don’t shy away from each other’s historical touchstones, even jointly commemorating occasions such as the Holocaust and the Nakba, the name meaning “catastrophe” in Arabic that marks the displacement of Palestinians after the establishment of Israel in 1948.

“This attack very explicitly targeted the very core, the very heart of what the Hand-in-Hand schools are about, namely … the idea and reality of a society shared by Jews and Arabs in Israel,” said Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, the director of Arab-Israeli programs at USIP.

The remarkable outpouring of support for the school after the attack, from Jewish and Arab communities around the campus, from all over the country, from politicians, and in international media, “underscores what a unique … role the Hand in Hand school network plays in Israel, but [also] in the peacebuilding community more broadly,” Kurtzer-Ellenbogen said.

The students and staff all were “tremendously affected” by the flood of support, Bardach said. “It gave them this resilience. The parent who said Saturday night, `I can’t come back. I can’t keep sending my kid here,’ within a day said, `There’s absolutely no other place I want to be.’”

The school is unique in its determination to not only share a roof but also a curriculum, holidays and special commemorations important to each group. In other divided societies with histories of conflict such as Northern Ireland and Bosnia-Herzegovina, students might attend the same schools, but their ethnic or religious groups cling doggedly to separate curricula and other elements that perpetuate the rifts, said Ned Lazarus, a visiting assistant professor of international affairs at the George Washington University and a former USIP Peace Scholar. In most cases, the fissures are dealt with through separation, Lazarus said.

“They don’t talk about the crisis that they live in,” he said.

Lazarus conducted a focus group of ninth graders a few months ago at a normal Jewish Israeli school in west Jerusalem, asking them questions about what they know and think of Arabs and of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Though two had hostile opinions of Arabs, the majority was mixed between feeling threatened or understanding that each group has its good and bad, he said.

He found that none of the Israeli Jewish students knew any Arabs their own age, but all, except the two who were more hostile, said they would like to meet Arab cohorts. Only one of them knew of any way to meet an Arab her age, and she did so because she knew a Jewish friend who attends Hand in Hand.

“There is potential demand that is out there [for greater interaction] that isn’t reached because the capacity isn’t there yet,” Lazarus said. He said the U.S. House of Representatives is considering legislation to create a fund that would support civil society projects that promote such coexistence and broad support for peace.  “Something like that could increase and amplify the voice of programs like Hand in Hand,” he said.

Research shows that students at Hand in Hand tend to speak with more nuance and complexity about the Arab-Israeli conflict and the associated questions of identity, Lazarus said.

For Mouran, despite her long commute, she doesn’t want to transfer to a school closer to her home.

“It’s my school, so I have to keep fighting for it,” Mouran said. “We have an important message to show the world that Arabs and Jews can live together.”

Viola Gienger is a senior writer at USIP.

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