JERUSALEM — They say Jerusalem can never be divided, but sometimes it feels like the most divided city on earth. Palestinian kids wake up in Palestinian neighborhoods and attend Palestinian schools. At night, they watch Arabic language news programs about the confiscation of Palestinian lands. Meanwhile, Jewish kids wake up in Jewish neighborhoods and attend Jewish schools. At night, they watch Hebrew language news programs about terrorist attacks against Jews.
There’s one inspiring exception: the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Bilingual School, built on the seam between a Jewish and Palestinian neighborhood. Funded by an American nonprofit and Israel’s ministry of education, it’s a laboratory of coexistence. Each class has two teachers, one Jewish and one Palestinian. There are two principals, two secretaries, two librarians. Students learn both Arabic and Hebrew. They study two versions of history: the struggle for a Jewish homeland and the struggle for Palestinian rights.
The school motto is: “We refuse to be enemies.”
Hand in Hand, which operates three schools and two kindergartens in Israel, has always run against the grain. Only 1,200 students get this education, out of more than a million Israeli children.
But never has this optimistic effort been so necessary — and so at risk. Last weekend, vandals set fire to the school in Jerusalem. Spray paint on the wall read: “There’s no coexisting with cancer” and “Kahane was right,” a reference to Meir Kahane, an extremist rabbi who advocated expelling Arabs from Israel and the West Bank.
A flurry of Israeli politicians condemned the arson. But parents at Hand in Hand say the fire is a symptom of a toxic atmosphere that’s been tolerated — even fueled — by mainstream figures.
Since June, when Palestinian terrorists murdered three Israeli teenagers, “a wave of racism took to the streets of Israel,” Quique Kierszenbaum, a Jewish parent at Hand in Hand, told me. “The language people use in the streets is much more violent. The things they are able to say, much more racist. The Knesset members, openly egging on the violence . . . It’s not only against Arabs. We, the liberals, are called ‘Arab lovers’ and traitors.”
Kierszenbaum, a freelance photojournalist, has seen the conflict from both sides. He’s photographed Palestinian refugee camps, Israelis murdered by suicide bombers. His son was born during the second intifada. The joy of a new baby mixed with the sorrow of a society torn apart. Before that intifada, Jews and Arabs mingled more freely. Afterward, Israel began to wall itself off from Palestinians. Separation was supposed to be Israel’s savior.
But Kierszenbaum and his wife didn’t want their son to grow up hating Arabs. They sent him to Hand in Hand, where he learned, “from the first day of school to study, to play, to live with Palestinian partners,” Kierszenbaum told me.
Yet sometimes it feels like the Kierszenbaums are preparing their son for a world that doesn’t exist.
This summer, Kierszenbaum took his son to get ice cream and new soccer cleats, to celebrate the beginning of school vacation. But Zion Square felt strange. It was the day of the funeral for the three kidnapped Israeli teens. There were too many people milling around. Too many cops. Suddenly a crowd of young men engulfed them, shouting “Death to the Arabs.” Kierszenbaum recognized the leader of a far-right group called Lehava. He grabbed his son’s hand and ran.
“I was trying to think of how I’m going to explain to my son what he saw,” he recalled.
That night, a Palestinian boy was burned alive.
Just when the Kierszenbaums felt things could not get worse, Hamas began shooting rockets from Gaza. Israel responded with a major military campaign. Air raid sirens went off. Kierszenbaum took his son to a bomb shelter, where they worried about Palestinians friends who don’t have shelters in their neighborhoods.
As the war dragged on, Palestinian parents felt increasingly isolated. One mother couldn’t drive her kid to a tennis match because police had sealed off her neighborhood. Another feared vigilante violence, so she forced her children to stay indoors in the dark.
“The Arab parents were afraid. I never saw them in all my life so afraid,” Kierszenbaum said. “If we weren’t there for them during this difficult hour, the school could collapse.”
They called a meeting, even though school had closed.
“People were crying,” recalled Fadi Suidan, whose daughter attends the second grade. “Some had sons, Israeli soldiers, who were being sent to Gaza. The Arabs were saying, ‘We hope that your son is going to come back safe.’ And the Jews were saying, ‘We hope that your family is not going to get hurt.’”
Suidan, an Arab Israeli lawyer from Haifa, had just moved to Jerusalem so his wife, a doctor, could work at a hospital here.
The couple worried about enrolling their daughter in a poorly-funded Palestinian school, especially since they knew she’d have to be fluent in Hebrew to get a good job in Israel. But Suidan also worried about enrolling her in a Jewish school, where she might be the only Palestinian.
Hand in Hand was the perfect solution. After their daughter was accepted, families met and took turns telling their personal histories. Jews talked of loved ones lost in the Holocaust. Suidan talked of relatives who fled or were expelled from Haifa in 1948. It was the first time he’d ever discussed such painful things with a Jewish person.
“Everybody felt for the other side,” Suidan recalled. “For a moment, we were all on the same side.”
The trust they built helped them through this long, difficult summer. Together, they held silent marches for peaceful coexistence. Sometimes, strangers peacefully joined their march. Other times, passersby screamed at them: “Go live in Gaza.”
In September, it was a relief to return to school, a fortress — or perhaps a bubble — of mutual respect. But their school is increasingly at odds with the polarized city around them.
Before Rosh Hashana, kids from Hand in Hand were invited to paint “Happy New Year” in Arabic and Hebrew near the city’s old train station.
“We were told, ‘You have to write it bigger in Hebrew than Arabic, and the Arabic cannot be above the Hebrew,’” Suidan recalled. The instructions annoyed him, but they complied. The next day, the Arabic had been erased. They assumed it to be the work of vandals, so they came back to repaint the words. “This guy came with an Arab worker, and he ordered the Arab worker to erase the Arabic, in front of the kids, as we were painting it,” Suidan said. “It was stupid and humiliating.”
Months later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted on passing a “nation-state” bill that would remove Arabic as an official language. The bill proved so controversial that it helped to destroy his political coalition.
A spate of terrorist attacks have also deepened the animosity. After four rabbis were hacked to death while praying, Suidan struggled to explain the news to his young daughter. How can you explain something so terrible that you can’t understand it yourself? He briefly considered moving his family abroad.
“When you see something like this happen, you think ‘What the hell am I doing here? Maybe this is not the place for us,’” Suidan recalled. “People going to pray are being slaughtered? It’s a holy war, and we don’t know what will happen.”
The school beefed up security. They even wrote to Israeli president Reuven Rivlin, warning of trouble on the horizon. But none of it stopped last week’s fire.
“Something broke in the Israeli society this summer,” Kierszenbaum said. “My fear is there is no way back.”
But if there is hope — and there must be hope — it lies in Kierszenbaum’s son and Suidan’s daughter, who refuse to be enemies.
“The answer to this conflict is not more guns and police,” Kierszenbaum said. “But more schools like this one.”