Israelis are rarely shy to say what they think, hear or see. Like many British olim (immigrants), I often find that those born and bred in Israel are quick to joke at my British politeness, tease my British accent and of course inquire whether I do in fact drink tea at 4 o’clock every afternoon. However, at a recent school parents’ meeting I began to realise that the value of my British upbringing is more than a joking matter.
In Israeli terms, this was no ordinary school parents’ meeting. My children are privileged to attend one of only six Hand in Hand schools in Israel, where Jewish and Arab children study and play alongside one another. The Hand in Hand organisation is dedicated to creating a vibrant and inclusive shared society in Israel through a network of integrated bilingual schools. This is supplemented by community activities bringing together Jewish and Arab citizens.
My Jewish Israeli children learn in a class with Arab Israeli children. Those Arab Israeli children play in the playground with my Jewish Israeli children. My six year old son set up a lemonade stand with a six year old girl from the neighboring Arab town. To him, she is simply his friend. To her, he is simply her friend.
Yet, even in this diverse context, I was the only immigrant at said parents’ meeting – a dialogue group facilitated by Hand in Hand for parents to foster cross communal relationships. While I fully understand the complexities of Israeli society, I commented that part of me still doesn’t understand why our school is so abnormal. I related how growing up in London, I shared my school days with children from Iranian, Pakistani, Saudi, and Bangladeshi heritage. To me, this type of cross-cultural learning environment appeared thoroughly ordinary, entirely normal. As children we were all interested in the same things: socializing, sport, music, getting to the front of the lunch queue, and occasionally good grades. My choice of friends was not influenced by whether my class mates followed the teaching of Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, the Bab or Richard Dawkins.
When Israelis hear where my children study their responses range from surprise, to gushing praise, to deep skepticism. Yet what’s interesting is the emotional intensity of these responses, a reaction to my ‘abnormal’ decision to place my children in a perceived bubble. After all, Israel boasts only six Hand in Hand schools throughout the country. Many Israelis haven’t heard of this inclusive type of education. Many haven’t even considered the possibility. This is a country where not only are separate Jewish and Arab schools the norm, but so too are separate ultra-Orthodox, modern-Orthodox and secular Jewish schools. The societal impact of this separation hardly needs spelling out.
However, change is afoot and Hand in Hand is growing. There is demand for 600 new places this coming autumn, but sadly the funds only exist for an additional 200 pupils. There is a target to build an additional 10 Hand in Hand schools over the coming decade, touching the lives of tens of thousands of Israelis. Accomplishing this goal would have an immense grass-roots social impact on Israel – the ripples of each ‘lemonade stand’ akin to a small pebble in a pool of water.
Listening to my own children and their friends, I know that cross-communal schooling, like the British model, also works in Israel. I know it is working when my children understand the spiritual importance of the Hajj pilgrimage to Muslims. I know it is working when an Israeli Muslim parent is inspired by our discussion on the Jewish philosophy of Rabbi J B Soloveitchik. I see how these everyday encounters not only break down barriers, but generate a healthy curiosity and respect for our different lifestyles and communities. Just as a child learns his or her mother tongue through immersion – not through rules – we can learn respect and civility through immersion. This is how we in Israel can indeed learn what former-Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks terms the dignity of difference.
As Hand in Hand’s inclusive shared society continues to grow, hopefully it will become more apparent that those who remain in Israel’s segregated education networks are the ones living in a bubble. The time has come to challenge the status quo and there is perhaps no better model than bringing the culturally diverse experience of British Jews to Israel.