It is a Friday afternoon in November, and two sixth-grade boys sit together completing their work on a small art project. As they finish up, another group of boys and girls calls out to them from the grass. A spontaneous game of soccer is about to begin. Several other girls sit together on a nearby bench, observing the action, talking quietly among themselves. Not an altogether unusual scene here in Israel, except, maybe, for this: some of these kids are speaking Hebrew, some are speaking English, and some are speaking Arabic. They are Jewish and Arab children, together, and they are all experimenting with something that is most certainly out of the ordinary in this place and in these times: friendship.
Approximately 20 percent of Israelis are Arab, yet such interactions between and among Jews and Arabs in Israel are exceedingly rare. Indeed, there are few shared spaces for children from local Jewish and Arab communities to have meaningful encounters with each other at all. Although we exist closely side-by-side, our communities, mass media, and school systems are separate and our languages distinct, reinforcing an environment in which opportunities for social interaction and communication, especially among children, largely do not exist. In the absence of such opportunities, our perceptions of each other are often driven instead by stereotypes and media images that feed intolerance and mistrust, which in turn deeply undermine the foundations of civic identity and mutual acceptance needed in a shared society.
We call our group ACHLA — an Arabic word used commonly in Hebrew slang to mean “excellent” or “cool.” It was born when two Jewish families in Ra’anana went looking for a local program to introduce their children to basic Arabic words and phrases. There was none. So two years ago, four Jewish students from Ra’anana began meeting each month in my basement with a language teacher we enlisted from the nearby Arab city of Tayibe. As word spread, curiosity was piqued. The group soon grew to include several Arab students from interested families in Tayibe, and then again to accommodate more Jewish students. And as ACHLA grew, its original focus as an Arabic language class began to shift to something even bolder: within a year, ACHLA became a place — in fact, one of the only places — for Jewish and Arab children living in this part of Israel to meet each other, sit and learn together, and explore positive ways to interact.
Today, ACHLA is made up of more than twenty Jewish and Arab children who come together to meet twice a month at a space provided by a college campus between Ra’anana and Tayibe. Each 90 minute meeting is co-facilitated by both a Jewish and Arab instructor. The first part of each meeting is reserved for focused Arabic and English language learning in subgroups using classroom activities, art, songs, and projects. After sharing a small snack together, the second half of each meeting involves a joint discussion, game, project, or cooperative activity, co-facilitated by our Jewish and Arab instructors.
Exposure to a new language is valuable in its own right, and especially vital here, where societal fractures run so deeply and a significant majority of Jews has neither knowledge nor understanding of the primary language in which our Arab neighbors live and interact. In fact, it is interesting to observe that most of the Arab students in ACHLA are also fluent not only in Hebrew, but advanced in English, as well. That aspect aside, however, ACHLA is fundamentally a space for Jewish and Arab kids to encounter each other as peers, learn together, and, in the process, challenge themselves and each other to overcome the mistrust and fear so frequently reinforced in our otherwise separate worlds.
The response has been remarkable, and inspiring. Even over these past few months, as we have been rocked by waves of terror, fear, and hopelessness, the families and children in ACHLA have been determined to meet, brought together by a desire to create and share in positive experiences, and an equally strong belief that these experiences are necessary if we want to build a better future here for all of us together. What we often don’t see, what we usually have no opportunity to see, is that this is what so many of us — Jews and Arabs — want. ACHLA is certainly not an antidote to the very real conflicts that surround us. But it is, we believe, a necessary step in a positive direction. Because if our children can begin to learn to see each other as individuals, and relate to each other as partners and friends, then the hard work that lies ahead perhaps becomes just a little less daunting.