Last month, children were attacked while riding the public bus home from school in Jerusalem. They were 6th graders, students of the Max Ryne Hand in Hand bilingual school for Jewish and Arab students. Some of the bus riders were disturbed that these children were speaking Arabic among themselves.
A pair of older teens verbally abused the 6th graders, swearing at them, calling them monkeys, and telling them “you should be thankful that we allow you to live here”. A middle-aged woman told them they were not human beings. She physically attacked a girl, pulling her hair and slapping her. In response to protest of this behavior by another bus rider, one of the teens stated: “I’m not embarrassed to be racist; I hate Arabs; so what?”
A week later, in a conversation at the Hand in Hand school with a supportive official from the Jerusalem education department, one of the attacked students stated: “I know that I must control myself, but at that moment I wanted to punch the guy in the face; instead I just cried”. Another student said: “I think that when that woman on the bus swore at me, and my friends and I were laughing, maybe she felt alone”.
These children know well the differences between themselves, they come to have civic intuition from an early age, and they teach us that it is important to include those who are different and to be tolerant of them. But it is just as important to learn how to be ‘the other’ for people who are different than themselves.
All of us are ‘the other’ for others, but a major question is how do we live this difference. Arab citizens are not the only ones who suffer from this Israeli alienation towards those who “don’t belong”. On the question of “who is a Jew”, which preoccupies world Jewry, the predominant historical position of Diaspora Jews has been inclusive: Jews are those who feel a social and cultural sense of belonging. By contrast, in Israel, the exclusive Halachic interpretations have become the rule. The same is true for the realm of relations between Jews and non-Jews.
In the large American Jewish community, Jews engage in respectful and positive relations with a great number of ethnic and religious groups in the wider society tactfully termed the “general community”. In Israel, it is hard to imagine the creation of committees whose purpose it is to engage in positive relationships between Jews and the wider community, like the Jewish community relations councils (JCRC) which virtually exists in every Jewish community.
Meanwhile, here in Jerusalem, the Betar soccer team is confronting the monster of racism that violently opposes the inclusion of Muslim players. At recent games, hundreds of Betar Jerusalem fans shouted racist chants in protest of the recent inclusion of new Muslim players from Chetchniya. Less than a mile away from this stadium, 560 Jewish and Arab children learn together on a daily basis at the Hand in Hand integrated school. While these students do have to confront racism and political attacks, the students, teachers and parents do not desist from their activities and program and the school, together with the growing shared community of Jews and Arabs, is even consolidating and strengthening its joint work. Member of this shared community distribute flyers against racism on the number 22 bus line in Jerusalem, the integrated Jewish-Arab basketball team stands in first place in the Jerusalem league, and a myriad of other joint, integrated activities take place on a regular basis.
There are four other integrated Jewish-Arab schools in Israel, and in the next ten years we intend to establish at least ten more schools. It is imperative to open new integrated schools and to create permanent, sustainable integrated frameworks in arenas of economic development, cultural activities and cooperative relations between Arab and Jewish municipal government; all this to help guarantee the existence of social and public frameworks that can strengthen a stable society in Israel.
The government in Israel does not as of yet initiate such programs on its own, and neither does the Israeli philanthropic world understand the importance of this kind of work for Israel’s future. Fortunately, foundations and other institutions in Jewish communities in the U.S. and Britain do understand the clear necessity of this work and are becoming more engaged in supporting these kinds of initiatives and programs.
Jews around the world have accumulated over 2,000 years of wisdom stemming from their experiences in the Diaspora that for some reason has been forgotten in the land of our forefathers. Perhaps it is not too late to learn from them and from the students at the bilingual Hand in Hand schools, how to live with others who are different, and how to be “the other” for others.
Shalom (Shuli) Dichter is the CEO of Hand in Hand Center for bilingual education in Israel