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Side by Side, Hand in Hand

Tala Jbara, Noga Shachar, and Noa Yammer

Public schools in Israel are divided into four separate systems: Secular/Public, National Religious, Ultra-Orthodox, and Arab. Unfortunately, this division doesn’t leave a lot of room for person-to-person interaction or shared dialogue between the many groups of students that go to school in the country. This lack of contact leads to broader social issues and contributes to the deep divisions between populations.

Last Friday, I got to meet the people behind a groundbreaking solution to this issue. Hand in Hand is a network of integrated schools between Arab and Jewish students with over 1,850 students in six schools from Jerusalem to the Galilee. Their model of shared education features Arab and Jewish students taught side-by-side daily, learning Hebrew and Arabic, celebrating Jewish, Muslim, and Christian holidays, and learning both Israeli and Palestinian historical narratives. It’s a model of what a shared society and a diverse, integrated Israel can look like.

Boston Partners for Peace was lucky enough to meet two Hand in Hand alums: Tala Jbarah, an Arab graduate of Hand in Hand’s high school in Jerusalem, and Noga Shachar, a Jewish high school senior and graduate of the Hand in Hand school in Wadi Ara. I was blown away by their eloquence as they shared how deeply Hand in Hand had shaped their worldviews, prepared them for the future, and exposed them to new cultures.

As an Arab citizen, Tala had tried to hide her culture as she moved through her daily life in Israel. She was told by her mother to not call her while on the bus because someone might hear her speaking Arabic. When we met her, she named Hand in Hand as one of the only places where she felt seen and did not have to hide her identity in any way. She even had the opportunity to recite from the Qur’an at a Jewish friend’s Bar Mitzvah. Now, at Tel Aviv University, she feels very comfortable interacting with not only Jewish students, but students from all over the world. This is uncommon for Israel’s Arab citizens, and Tala credits Hand in Hand with giving her the necessary social integration skills.

Hand-in-Hand’s influence reaches beyond their schools to the greater community, as the students themselves learn a theory of change that they then share with everyone around them. Noga’s great-grandmother was killed in a terror attack, and because of this, her grandmother held a strong bias against Arabs. However, Noga was able to introduce her grandmother to her Arab teacher, and they are still friends to this day. When Noga switched to a public Israeli high school, her Jewish friends were angry that she was friends with Arabs. Her solution was to bring one of her Arab friends to school and introduce him to her other friends.

Noa Yammer, a Hand in Hand staff member, said that instead of ignoring current events, the students and teachers confront them in discussions, which can be incredibly difficult. Noa, who attended a Jewish day school in the States, said that she was taught one narrative about Israel and it was very challenging for her when she eventually learned the Palestinian narrative. She initially believed that if the Palestinian narrative was true, she would have to let go of her own deeply help beliefs. She said she eventually realized that she would have to be okay with holding both, and this started her journey to Hand in Hand.

According to Tala, the dual narrative concept is a common misconception. In fact, she said, there are many, many narratives on both sides. We don’t have to agree on everything. We can disagree strongly about our shared past, and still work together toward a shared future.

Get involved and learn more about Hand in Hand here.

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