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Last Updated: Friday, 24 December, 2004, 14:33 GMT
School breaks down Israeli barriers
Nyier Abdou
The Galilee, Israel

Nestled in the lush, mountainous Galilee region of northern Israel, a school working to a radical and experimental curriculum is quietly changing the dynamic between Arab and Jewish neighbours.

Teachers at a Hand in Hand school
Children are taught in both Arabic and Hebrew at the school.
At the Galil elementary school, past the chain-link fences and security guard, about 170 students from the Jewish area of Misgav and the neighbouring Arab towns of Sakhnin and Shaab share everything during their school day.

Established in 1997, it was the first mixed school in Israel to host fully integrated classrooms teaching in both Arabic and Hebrew.

The Hand-in-Hand enterprise, of which the Galil school is a part, runs three schools. Other branches are in Jerusalem and in the Arab village of Kfar Kara, in Wadi Ara.

Arab citizens of Israel make up 20% of the population, but the schooling system has traditionally remained rigorously segregated, with separate languages and curricula for Jewish and Arab students.


The theme of integration is scrupulously reflected in the school's staff. The school has two co-principals, one Arab and one Jewish, and the same is true of the classes, each of which is "team-taught" by an Arab and Jewish teacher.

Children learn together at a Hand in Hand school.
The theme of the schools is integration

"We're a very ideological school," says Noa Zuk, a compact and tenacious woman who is one of the principals at the Galil school.

But she adds that they try to stay as down-to-earth as possible - even if, as her Arab counterpart Kamal Abul Younis stresses, working with an Israeli co-principal is highly unusual.

Seated in her office, tucked away among a network of trailers on the school grounds, Ms Zuk is realistic.

"We're not going to fix the world's problems," she says.

"We're not here to judge the world. We are just trying to show that it's possible to live together, even if you think a little differently."

Two narratives

The school has to navigate virgin waters in Israeli education, addressing delicate issues such as drastically different views of the same historical events.

"The situation here is very complicated," concedes Amin Khalaf who co-founded the Hand-in-Hand project. "There are two narratives."

Israel's Independence Day, celebrated by Jews as a joyous occasion, is known among Palestinians as al-Naqba, or, "the catastrophe".

Mr Khalaf says that rather than sidestep controversial topics, teachers, parents and students address them head on.

"Our belief is to put everything on the table and deal with it," he says.

Last month, following the death of veteran Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, every class devoted an hour of discussion to the event.

"You can imagine it was difficult," explains Mr Khalaf. "While Arab children have grown up with the image of Arafat as a leader, for many Jews he was a terrorist."

Shaky Arabic

On parent-teacher day at the Galil school and the children huddle in nervous, giggling bunches while their parents lounge in the school's brightly decorated common area waiting to meet with teachers.

When they get out of here, they will realise that the world is much more complicated
Rania Khalil
As they flit by, it's impossible to tell the Arab from the Jewish students.

On the walls, colourful charts of the Hebrew and Arabic alphabet are posted alongside drawings of doves and stick-figure children holding hands.

Shaky Arabic lettering may betray a Jewish hand, but the works are painstakingly bilingual and multicultural.

Sahar Kasoum, a smartly-dressed young mother from Sakhnin, says that it's important that her children are fluent in Hebrew.

"We want them to be able to speak in Hebrew and not be ashamed that they don't speak the language," she says.

Leaning against the door casually, Tsafrir Pikes is waiting for his younger brother. He attended the school until the fourth grade, but moved to another school this year because of special requirements. He remembers his old school fondly.

"It's different in every way," he says. "Here the teachers know Arabic. We talked in Arabic and we met Arabs.

"If you don't know Arabic, it's like you don't know the love of the world," he adds thoughtfully.

Ms Zuk, standing nearby, smiles. "I didn't even prep him to say that," she says.

Language Barrier

"Only when you really live with someone, day after day, can you leave aside the stigmas," says Kahal Bin Osri, who teaches the sixth grade.

The bilingual mission of the school, she says, is crucial to mutual understanding. "Language is so much more than just language," she says. "It's your culture, your emotions, your home."

Lessons regularly switch from Hebrew to Arabic, with reading materials and discussions fluctuating unpredictably between languages. The children are enthusiastic, though the Jewish students are more clumsy with Arabic, for lack of practice.

Rania Khalil, Bin Osri's Arab counterpart, admits that the children are unusually cloistered.

"When they get out of here, they will realise that the world is much more complicated," she says.

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