It’s mid-morning in grade one and children are sitting in small groups, peering over colourful maths books. When it reaches 9.45am, a song plays for morning break and excited chattering breaks out.
It sounds like a typical classroom scene, but their school, say students, is unlike any other. The children are growing up in Jerusalem, a city at the heart of the Israel and Palestine conflict, where communities are deeply divided. Max Rayne Hand in Hand school is the only place in Jerusalem where students from Jewish and Arab backgrounds learn together, studying a bilingual and multicultural curriculum.
The school takes children from kindergarten to 12th grade.
Every class has two teachers – one Arabic speaker, one Hebrew – and textbooks are distributed in both languages. Much of the curriculum is bespoke. History is taught from more than one perspective, with students learning about their own identities, as well as that of their classmates.
“We get to know things that we wouldn’t if we were not in this school – about everything in the world, cultures, people, religions,” says Quds Ayoub, 12, who is in seventh grade. “We get to know the person that they always tell us ‘he will hurt you’.”
Communities in Jerusalem, home to around 550,000 Jewish and 332,000 Palestinian residents, rarely mix. Palestinians live mostly in the east, over the “green line” that separated Israel and Jordan until 1967, when Israel occupied East Jerusalem. Jewish residents live mostly in western areas.
“There’s like this invisible wall, there’s a big separation,” says Rivka Bronner, 13, who also studies in seventh grade.
The education system perpetuates divisions in society: a child’s racial and religious background dictates the school they attend, the friends they make and the history they are taught.
For Arik Saporta, the school’s co-principal, growing up in this environment was alienating. “I had this really hard experience feeling I was totally disconnected from what was happening outside, which stayed with me from childhood,” he says. He attended a Jewish school, followed by arts college where there was not one Arab student on his course.
“When I was a kid walking around the old city of Jerusalem, I would walk around like I was a tourist,” he says. He didn’t have friends there, and didn’t know Arabic.
Jewish and Arab schools in Jerusalem have separate education systems, and there’s no one single rule on teaching second languages in schools. Last year, the government downgraded Arabic, removing it as an official language.
“It’s like living in a house with people and you don’t know how to connect with them,” says Quds, baffled. “It’s like not knowing the language of your sister and not knowing how to connect with her.”
Hebrew tends to be more dominant in the school, partly because fewer of the Jewish teachers speak Arabic. But students still spend more time learning a second language than in the vast majority of schools, and parents are also invited to study Arabic or Hebrew.
Rivka is proud to speak Arabic and to have Quds as a close friend, but she has faced hostility from some in her own community, because she attends a multicultural school. “A lot of times I’ve had people be like: I’m sorry, if you learn with Arab kids I can’t talk to you anymore, I can’t be your friend anymore,” says Bronner. “I’ve also had experiences of people saying I want all Arabs to die, and I’ve been like, sorry, if you don’t change that state of mind I don’t feel comfortable talking to you.”
“If you believe that … I’m wrong for having Quds as a beautiful friend, that I love so much, then that’s your loss,” says Rivka. “[If] you can’t ever know about the other side, you can’t put yourself in someone else’s shoes… then it really is your loss. And one day I hope you’ll change.”
In 2014, the Hand in Hand school was attacked by arsonists who torched a classroom and sprayed “death to Arabs” on the wall. In the aftermath of the attack, the school was flooded with support.
Through weekly dialogue sessions, students are given space to talk about conflict and events in the news, as well as cultural debates.
It’s a chance for students and teachers to understand each other’s perspectives, says Engi Wattad, vice-principal of Hand in Hand’s high school. Last month, she was approached by Palestinian students who were marking the Nakba. Some Jewish students came to school wearing white – an act which offended their Palestinian classmates, many of whom had worn black to show grief. The issue was discussed in class, and it became clear that the Jewish students were wearing white out of solidarity, because this is how they mark their own memorial days, says Wattad.
The incident “opened a discussion about how you respect something that is important for the other – do you do it in your way or in their way?” Wattad said. While some in her community argue the school weakens children’s identities, she feels that such discussions in fact have the opposite effect.
Debates are respectful and everyone has a chance to speak. “You can disagree while also having empathy,” says Quds. It’s a contrast to life outside of school, she adds, where she has experienced racist abuse. She recalls how, on the street, a group heard her speaking in Arabic. “They started to say Osama Bin Laden, allahu akbar, bombs,” she remembers. “We need to live with each other, we’re in the same place.”
At school, students are encouraged to think critically about where they are getting their information from, and to question media bias. “It’s a really big problem that they [the media] don’t show us the whole story,” adds Quds.
Hand in Hand’s approach to education is unique, and it has just six schools across Israel, including in Jaffa, Galilee and Haifa. But there are plans to grow further by opening in new locations, expanding existing schools and creating a resource centre to share lessons with other government schools. The majority of the schools’ costs are funded through a mix of philanthropic and public funding, while parents cover a tenth of the budget. Scholarships are offered to 15% of students.
For the first time, the school has equal numbers of Jewish and Arab children on the 200-strong waiting list for kindergarten. The school aims to have equal numbers of Jewish and Arab students in every class. Historically it has received the highest demand from Arab parents, who have fewer options for good schools.
It may be a sign of how disillusioned people are with politics, says Maya Frankforter, who is Jewish, and whose eldest son has just graduated from Hand in Hand. “The situation in Jerusalem, in Israel, is getting so extreme, so violent, so racist and maybe that also shakes them and they seek another way to raise their kids. They see the outcome of the separation.”
For Rivka and Quds, the school is proof that peace is one day possible. “Peace will come as we talk to each other and know way more than stigmas,” says Quds. Bronner agrees: “We’re working on it. It can take time,” she says. “I believe the people who are growing up in this school are the future of this.”