I’m in a bad mood, and it probably shows. A news team shows up to my workplace in Wahat al-Salam – Neve Shalom – Israel’s only intentional mixed Palestinian-Jewish village – a day earlier than planned. Rather than an hour’s talk with my boss, I need to play nanny to an Australian photographer and presenter.
The team is already getting off to a late start due to the fact that they showed up a day earlier than we had planned. Some back and forth ensues, because, when it comes to finding the feel-good story in the middle of this war, nothing speaks (or shrieks if it’s recess time) louder than a school where Palestinian-Israeli and Jewish Israeli children learn together in the classroom.
Filming children is difficult and a bit controversial, but it is also what people off in Sydney and Perth want to see. We try to accommodate these news crews (with parental permission) but, quite honestly, when there are several teams a week – filming kids, talking to those village members who can express themselves well in English – it gets to be tiring and disruptive.
The classroom is a standard room – discolored tile floors, children sitting around scratched tables, lots of educational and crafts materials lining the walls. No one has tablets or even phones; the closest thing to an electronic device is a pull-down screen the teacher uses to point to words in the text sitting before her students in their open workbooks. The teacher asks a question; three little girls wave their hands in the air. She goes around the room, bending down to speak Hebrew to some kids, Arabic to others. Some kids are just learning to read in their native language, others in their new language. That is, the lesson goes slowly, sounding out a few words, a single sentence.
The Australians are impressed. Their thanks would be effusive for a British team. They insist on keeping the teacher in the schoolroom during her break to ask questions. They thank her again – not just for her time, but for letting them be witnesses to the lesson. Time to move on, but they’ve got one more question. And another one.
The pair film the two sixth-grade girls – one Jewish, one Arab – who have been featured in so many pieces on the village they are already celebrities. The girls deliver, but quickly, as they need to get back to their lesson in the computer room. Yes, we will always be best friends, the Jewish one assures the presenter, with the confidence of a sixth-grade BFF.
I’m not great at keeping film teams on schedule (and I don’t actually think it is my job). But I do know I have asked people to be available at certain times for interviews, so I try to point out to the cameraman he might want to heft his equipment back over his shoulder and get inside before it starts raining.
But the kids are outside on a lunchtime play break. The light is good, so the cameraman has the presenter say some opening lines while children swerve around him and balls narrowly miss his knees. They are gradually moving away from the direction I need to take them. Sighing, I make my way down the stairs to the lower play area.
There is real joy here
The presenter has somehow assembled a group of kids, and he’s standing in front of them. I don’t hear his exact words, but I know what he is saying: If Palestinians and Israelis are going to learn to make peace, they could do worse than come to this place where the two live together peacefully and where Jewish and Palestinian children learn together.
As soon as he finishes the sentence, the kids jump up and yell, flashing peace signs.
And then I get it. The presenter, a near-spritely man with a shiny dome, grey sides and orange plastic-rimmed glasses has a huge grin on his face, and the cameraman, who is several decades younger, looks as though he’s toying with the idea of sprinting to the office and registering for first grade in the school.
What’s so exciting here is that the school is absolutely normal, in the way you want a primary school to be normal. The games in the schoolyard are the games kids played when presenter and cameraman were their age. There is a sort of controlled chaos surrounding them, but what the two are feeling is joy. (There is real joy here, they say to me.)
Where does this joy come from? A couple of younger girls answering a standard question about what they like in the school have given them a clue: Playing games together is an important part of the school day. Play and obtaining age-appropriate social skills are crucial to the ability to learn together, and the kids, with the right encouragement, soon build friendships and study teams based not on national or ethnic group, but on love for soccer or gymnastics or books.
That teacher has given them another clue: When the world outside is violent and cruel, sometimes all you can do is create a bubble and nurture the tender shoots of peace within.
The sixth-grade girls always say it best. They wink and smile at the camera in unison, telling every media audience around the world that the two of them are proof that everything “they” say about Jews and Arabs is wrong. Look at us, they say. Not because we are adorable, but because we are showing you, by example, that peace is possible.