In many ways, the first weeks of school for my children have been like those of all other Israeli school children.  Seeing their friends again was fun. Getting back into the homework routine was not — to say the least!  They anticipated meeting this year’s teachers with some trepidation, and then came home with the usual reports — this one is good, this one too strict, this one is funny. They slipped right back into the school routine.

Except that their experience is anything but routine in Israel.

That’s because my children attend a school where Jews and Arabs study together, learn each other’s languages, celebrate each other’s holidays, and learn each other’s cultures and histories. Their friends are named Hillel and Mohamad. They have homework in Hebrew and Arabic.  And not only will we, like the rest of Israel, be off school in a few weeks for Rosh Hashana but we were just on vacation a week ago for the Muslim holiday of Eid el Adha. Their school, the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Bilingual School in Jerusalem, is one of eight bilingual integrated schools in all of Israel. This means some 2,000 Jews and Arabs in Israel are studying together in frameworks that are intentionally trying to build cross-communal understanding, ties and shared social fabric.

Meanwhile 99.9% of the other 2.5 million Israeli school children study — and live — separately, with little or no contact.  Most Jews and Arabs live in different cities or neighborhoods, and the school system in Israel is tracked by language — Hebrew and Arabic, and, within the Hebrew-language system, by religious and secular Jewish tracks.  On the one hand, this reflects the major community groups in Israel, and respects their differences and preferences.  However, the separation is also a de facto segregation that helps perpetuate inter-communal divisions.

The fact that Israeli society is complex, with its distinct social groups — Jewish, Arab; religious, secular; Ashkenazi, Sephardic; new immigrant, veteran; left, right — is not news.  But the way we deal with these differences is at the heart of most current events and news.  It underpins the policies and politics of schooling, budgets, public space, residential rights and restrictions, marriage, burial, transportation and security – in other words, the essential matters of living and dying.

Given that these differences have such serious implications, it matters a great deal how we talk and teach about them.  Now we discover that the education system has also been systematically educating the children of Israel away from social cohesion and, in the context in which we live, this means we may be educating towards conflict.  These were the findings that the State Comptroller presented in a report they just issued critiquing the Ministry of Education for consistently failing to build bridges between Israel’s diverse populations. (See Or Kashti’s Sept. 16 article in Ha’aretz, “Israel Failing in Coexistence, Anti-racism Education, State Comptroller Says”, and last night’s Mabat report on Channel 1).

The issue is not just a matter of a few select policies or programs.  The report looks at twenty years of recommended policies, programs and evaluation tools that were not implemented, and the interconnection between tolerance, racism and increase in societal tensions along political and communal lines. This means that a whole generation of children has been educated away from coexistence and towards conflict.  We live as strangers to each other, in ever-growing fear of one another, in the same land and with tragic consequences. And this approach to education continues to shape the daily lives of 99.9% of our children.

This should be a wake-up call that sets all of our alarms, sirens and red alerts blaring.

In a society whose diversity is also a source of divisiveness, educating towards mutual understanding and respect is not “just” a matter of using “politically correct” terms to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.  It is a matter of our most fundamental security.  At a recent press conference former Mossad Chief Tamir Pardo made it clear that Israel’s greatest security threat is not found beyond our border but within our borders, in our internal divisions. “If a divided society goes beyond a certain point, you can end up, in extreme circumstances, with phenomena like civil war. To my regret, the distance [until we reach that point] is shrinking. I fear that we are going in that direction.” In light of the last few years of escalating conflict, violence, and extremism, including Jewish extremism, we ignore the connection between communal separation, education and security at our peril.

I understand the gravity of this issue from my experience at Hand in Hand, where we have intimate knowledge of this trend, not only because we tackle it head-on in an effort to make change, but because there are those who directly attack us for such efforts.  When three right wing extremists broke into the Max Rayne school almost two years ago, piled the children’s books in the middle of a 1stgrade classroom and set them and the room on fire, the message was very clear: there are those would rather see a school that is creating a shared social fabric destroyed rather than succeed. They failed, and since then Hand in Hand’s network of schools has grown, as have our waiting lists. The Jewish and Arab parents wanting to join know that it is only in such efforts – forging mutual understanding and acceptance; creating equality; sustained over years; and with state support — that we will find an antidote to the fear, anger and hatred that leads to endless, devastating societal violence.

Nothing is inevitable about hatred and the violence that often follows.  We can educate to magnify or counter it.  Politicians, employers, educators and every day citizens all have a role to play. The power for change lies in each of us, both individually and collectively.

Picture this scene — a sunlight schoolyard where parents, Jewish and Arab, stop and chat before heading off to work, and their children run off to play a quick soccer game with their friends before the school bell rings. Two kids sit in the corner helping each other with their homework, one in Hebrew, the other in Arabic.  In the teachers’ room, the teachers, Arab and Jewish, secular and religious, down their last sips of coffee before heading into today’s packed lessons schedule — math; music, both Western and Eastern; religion and heritage; communications and dialogue; civics and building a shared society.  It is the daily routine of living and learning together, and working constructively to address our differences.  I know this is possible because I witness it every day at Hand in Hand schools, where we are working to make this an option for more Jewish and Arab families in Israel, and where we have more demand than space for all those who want to be part of this.

Making this routine is doable. The State Comptroller’s pending report on the Ministry of Education makes it clear that policies, programs, benchmarks are well thought out and available, even if they have not yet been fully utilized. Practical expertise exists in the experiences of the bilingual integrated schools, and in other joint programs for Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, religious and secular.  The security argument for this pathway is clear.

So what’s to stop us from pursuing social cohesion over conflict?  Ya’alla, kadima, let’s get to work.