Despite bullets and stones, Arab-Jewish schools press on

JERUSALEM — The scene looks completely normal: young children playing together, listening to stories, learning to tie their shoes and spell their names.

But this is not a normal school in Jerusalem. This is the YMCA, home of the Peace Kindergarten and the Integrated Kindergarten in Jerusalem, attended by both Arab and Jewish students.

Founded five years ago and supported by former Mayor Teddy Kollek's Jerusalem Foundation, the schools are an oasis of coexistence in the desert of mistrust between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

Here, children learn each others' languages; Jewish, Christian and Muslim holidays and customs; and how to get along.

They have both Jewish and Arab teachers, and the program involves contact between their families as well.

"I wish all Israel could be like our school," said Nida Subhi, a Muslim teacher surrounded by children in the enclosed playground.

Not far from Jerusalem, in the "peace village" of Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salaam, 50 families — half of them Jewish, half Palestinian — continue their 23-year-old experiment in coexistence. They try as adults to practice what they preach to their children — that problems can be discussed rationally, and that Jews and Arabs can live together, even if some differences are painful.

"If we lost hope, we would leave the community and drop everything," said Abdessalam Najjar, a founder of the community. "And of course we think that education is a very important tool for preparing these generations for a better future."

Outside these oases, tensions explode and children are not exempt. In November, a Palestinian gunman opened fire on a bus filled with schoolchildren in northern Jerusalem, killing two students and injuring another 50.

Earlier, a Palestinian detonated a bomb outside the French School in the center of town. Pieces of the terrorist's body landed in the schoolyard. No one else was injured.

And attacks on Israeli school buses in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are all too common.

Nor has it been easy on Palestinian children. Many have been killed during the ongoing al-Aksa intifada — and schools have had their schedules disrupted by violence.

Certainly, the tension outside is more pervasive than the peace within a few enclaves. Such intercultural projects are the exception in Israel — and unheard-of elsewhere in the Middle East.

But the YMCA schools continue to attract enough parents, despite a consensus on the Israeli street today — even among many former believers in the peace process — that Jews and Arabs cannot live together.

"There are 135 children in the program this year, more than last year, despite the situation," said Daphna Bassewitch-Ginzburg, the YMCA's preschool director. No one has left the program since the start of the intifada a year ago, she added.

"The people who choose to bring their children here are already not extreme," she said.

The same is true for people who want to live in Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salaam, which also has a Jewish-Arab kindergarten and primary school. The school is located about half an hour from Jerusalem on the road to Tel Aviv.

"There is a waiting list of about 300 people who want to live here. But the problem is, we don't have the space," Najjar said. The current population is 150.

Outside tensions do filter into the community, said Najjar, who is Muslim.

"When we try to talk rationally about problems we can get a lot of agreement between the Jews and Palestinians here," he said, referring to Arab citizens of Israel, many of whom in recent years have taken to calling themselves Palestinians.

"But when we get emotional, then fear will influence our behavior and anger comes out of that fear," he said. "Sometimes we even examine hatred and prejudice in the community."

During last February's elections, for example, "there was a very big dispute when the Palestinians said they were not going to vote. There was some anger from the Jewish side," Najjar said.

Palestinians "said it was the same for us if it was Ehud Barak or Ariel Sharon, since Barak would not take responsibility for the killing of Palestinian youngsters who were in the state of Israel," he continued, referring to October 2000 riots in which 13 Israeli Arabs were killed in confrontations with the police.

Jews "felt abandoned" by their Palestinian supporters and by the Jewish peace movement in general, Najjar said. "The Jews said they felt that the Palestinians had left the peace camp" in Neve Shalom.

Through thick and thin, the integrated schools in Neve Shalom continue to function. Some 300 children from outside the village, including a few graduates of the YMCA kindergartens, attend primary school there.

Call them optimists or call them blind, but proponents of coexistence continue to struggle against the tide. The Jerusalem Foundation is planning to create an integrated primary school in Jerusalem. There also are mixed kindergartens in Jaffa, other areas near Tel Aviv and the Galilee.

In Jerusalem, the YMCA school is unique. And while the word is spreading among Israelis, the program is still relatively unknown outside the country, said Bassewitch-Ginzburg.

"Tony Blair should come over here, too," she said, nodding toward the King David Hotel across the street, where the British leader was meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Sharon.

Spreading the word is a difficult task, said Najjar, who hopes none of his four children will return to settle in Neve Shalom.

"They should do something else in the direction of Arab-Jewish work," he said. "They are the seeds going out from this fruit and flower."

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.