“You should be the ones with rockets falling on your heads” one twenty-something year old shouted at us in Hebrew. “Go to Gaza, you might as well be killed” his friend added as we tried our best to hurry all of the children forward. We had hoped no one would bother us as we walked peacefully along Jerusalem’s old train tracks, but as one 11-year-old boy remarked when he saw the expression on my face, “don’t act so surprised…this is Israel.”
The Hand in Hand community participates in a peace walk each week in which they walk along the old Jerusalem train tracks side by side. During the walk, community members, many of whom are young children, wear shirts that read walking together, hand in hand in both Hebrew and Arabic. It is not a march, however, but a peaceful stroll. It is a quiet statement of unity, yet it still necessitates a police escort for safety measures.
This Hand in Hand community is made up of the Jewish and Arab families who send their children to the only Jewish-Arab school in Jerusalem – a revolutionary notion to most. The Israeli school system is otherwise separated into a Hebrew and Arabic branch. It is an issue of language at heart, but it is an issue that paves the way for de-facto segregation in Israel. Jewish Israelis attend Hebrew schools, are taught by Jewish teachers, and learn their national history via Hebrew textbooks, while Arab Israelis attend Arabic schools, are taught by Arab teachers, and learn their national history via Arabic textbooks. It is an institution in which stereotypes and in-group/out-group identity formations are almost destined to thrive. Add to the picture separate media-outlets – both for entertainment and for news – and separate neighborhoods in which people live, and what transpires is a society in which Arab-Israelis and Jewish-Israelis are left with little to no common ground. Both are citizens of the State of Israel, yet have no apparent point of connection except their passports. It is a reality that the Hand in Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education is working to mend, along with several other grassroots initiatives. Yet, these initiatives are quiet in comparison to the voices we met on the train tracks that night: voices of hate, voices of blindness, voices that ring with fear of the unknown.
Did the Israeli-Jews who denounced our declaration of coexistence have any Arab friends? Probably not. If these Jewish-Israelis went to school side-by-side with Arabs, coming into contact with the other side as individuals on a daily basis, would that answer change? Would they still have told us, a group in which half was below the age of 14, to go fuck ourselves? Maybe. I sincerely hope not. All I ask is this: Let’s talk about it.