When I visited Israel a few years ago, I had the opportunity to spend time in a high school and was surprised to find that its entire student body was Jewish. I was likewise surprised to learn that, although the Jewish teens there lived in close proximity to Arab teens, they had very little experience with issues that affect the Arab community, as opportunities for interethnic relationship building and outreach have been so limited. In fact, in Israel, Jewish and Arab children generally study in separate schools. Although there is no legally codified policy of segregation, there are geographic and linguistic barriers that have created a troubling reality on the ground.
Last week, I spoke with Lee Gordon*, who is committed to bridging this gap between Jewish and Arab Israeli students. Mr. Gordon co-founded an amazing Jerusalem-based non-profit called Hand in Hand and now serves as the Executive Director of the group’s American fundraising arm. The founders of Hand in Hand, in Mr. Gordon’s words, took it upon themselves to, “create a model that was more integrated, bilingual and multicultural.” At each of Hand in Hand’s five schools (located in Jerusalem, the Galilee, Wadi Ara, Jaffa, and Haifa), classes are taught by teams of Arab and Jewish teachers, and the material is delivered in both Hebrew and Arabic. The curriculum includes such subjects at leadership development and conflict resolution in an effort to educate the next generation of pro-peace Israeli decision-makers. The Israeli Ministry of Education and Hand in Hand are working together now, along with local governments, in support of this effort. To date, three Israeli Ministers of Education have visited Hand in Hand communities to demonstrate their approval, including Yossi Sarid, Yuli Tamir, and Shai Piron.
I asked Mr. Gordon why he and his co-founders had chosen to approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a lens of education, and he replied that, “Everyone wants their kids to have a good education. It’s a common denominator between Arabs and Jews.” The high quality of education that Hand in Hand schools offer has drawn broad interest from both Jewish and Arab families, providing Hand in Hand staff with the opportunity to educate thousands of future leaders and to establish integrated schooling as a very real option for Israeli parents, crossing a deeply problematic cultural divide.
I also asked Mr. Gordon for his opinion on certain activities of the anti-Israel movement in the United States and Europe. Many anti-Israel activists “come from a place of good values,” he said, but also of “naivety and ignorance.” The “anti-normalization movement” and attacks on the Israeli economy (click here for more information and for my own views on these issues), he added, operate indiscriminately, often harming genuinely productive pro-peace work on American college campuses and in Israel and undermining the efforts of Israeli (including Arab Israeli) politicians and political parties to end the occupation in a way that ensures both Israeli security and Palestinian sovereignty.
“There’s a little bit of a lack of understanding amongst some people in the most strident anti-Israel groups,” he said.
Much of the anti-Israel work on college campuses very clearly opposes a peaceable resolution to the conflict. Mr. Gordon described the idea of an academic boycott, for example, as “counterproductive,” and suggested that if anti-Israel groups are serious about ending the occupation, they should be interested in more, not less, dialogue with Israel and Israelis in the effort to find a realistic solution.
Finally, Mr. Gordon and I discussed ways in which Israelis and Americans alike can help Hand in Hand in its important work toward a more just and peaceful future. Supporters can donate online here; can explore volunteering options at Hand in Hand’s English-language summer programs or Hebrew- and Arabic-language yearlong activities here; and can spread the word about Hand in Hand’s efforts by sharing this article or “liking” the Hand in Hand Facebook page. Students who attend Brown University and nearby schools are welcome to contact me at Benjamin_Gladstone@brown.edu for information about next month’s opportunity to meet Mr. Gordon himself.
*Mr. Gordon will be speaking at Brown University next month. I hope Brown and Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) students who read this article will attend.