One of the highlights of working as an intern at The Abraham Fund Initiatives is being able to go out into the field, to observe the programmes that the organisation runs. On a hot spring morning, I accompanied another member of TAFI on a visit to two schools that participate in the Shared Learning programme. This year a total of ten pairs of schools ran the programme, a number that will double in the coming year.
The Shared Learning concept was developed in Northern Ireland, where it has been implemented with great success to bridge the social divide that still exist in wake of The Troubles. The concept was born out of the realisation that even though there was some contact between Protestants and Catholics, the negative imagines they developed of each other as they grew up stood in the way of real communication. In the case of Israel, Arabs and Jews do meet of course, but most cities are either Arab or Jewish, so people grow up within their own community with little contact to their Jewish or Arab compatriots. Encounters generally happen later on in life, when opinions and stereotypes have already solidified. Most often, these opinions tend to stem from the media, and as the director of the programme, Liron Seginer put it, the information from the media is highly politicised. Shared Learning is based on the simple idea that actually studying the same material together in school years is much more effective in overcoming stereotypes than are other types of meetings. Shared experiences can go a long way in creating common ground, much more so than situations in which there are clearly drawn lines. This is especially true if the lines that are drawn are those of soldier and civilian, as is often the case for young Israelis. In this programme, the kids meet over a period of eight months in different locations and study together. The two schools I visited shared a class in cinematography.
First we visited the Jewish school, Ein Harod, which is nestled near two kibbutzim, with much greenery around and with a view over the hills. We interviewed the kids that took part in the programme. They made short films together with their Arab counterparts, and the pupils spoke about their experiences learning and working together. The aspect of language cropped up frequently, and the teacher also mentioned that language is the main challenge to such a project. The Jewish kids know next to no Arabic, and whilst the Arab kids do know Hebrew, it is not always that good. With an eye on keeping things on an equal footing, using only Hebrew would be an easy but not a very good solution. Sometimes English can be used as a neutral bridge language.
After Ein Harod, we drove through Nazareth and arrived at the Latin Patriarch School in Yafia. This is a much more urban school, with a gate opening onto a courtyard, next to which the building sat in the sun. The courtyard was full, some kids playing football during their break and others sitting in the shade. Again, the children spoke of the challenges they came across in communicating and working together. The teacher of the class told us of the enthusiasm the kids showed in joining the programme – not all the students that wanted to join could, as the classes need to remain at a manageable size. This year was special because in addition to the collaboration between the two schools here in Israel, a third school from Washington DC was included. The students of Ein Harod and Yafia together held a skype meeting with teens in DC.
The teachers spoke enthusiastically, obviously happy with their involvement in the project. When I asked the director of the programme how the teachers were prepared for the course, she told me that they took part in a three day workshop, during which they learn to teach side by side in two languages, and are able to familiarise themselves with their counterpart. I came away from this day with the understanding that the most important aspect of this concept is the creation of time and space for personal contact in which there are no dividing lines, but rather a shared activity. This is true for the kids that work together, as well as for the teachers that have the opportunity to teach in a tandem team and exchange their experiences as teachers from very different environments.
Forming connections with people you don’t understand is difficult, and language is the central barrier in this process. Living in a country whose language I only know superficially makes this clear to me on a daily basis. Language is a culture carrier, and as such has the power to convey much more than the bare meaning of the words themselves. Conquering language barriers goes hand in hand with conquering social divides and stereotypes.
I came away from this day with a lot on my mind, thinking about the nature of encounters. Spending time together isn’t enough when it comes to overcoming solidified images of each other – it is so easy to see stereotypes be confirmed. Actually doing something together, working toward a shared goal together is a powerful tool in overcoming social divides. It would be amazing to see this programme be taken on by the Ministry of Education as part of the regular curriculum.