On Nov. 4, 1995, Portland native Lee Gordon stood in Kings of Israel Square in Tel Aviv, where Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was addressing a peace rally in support of the Oslo Accords. At the end of the rally, Gordon, along with thousands of other Israelis, watched in horror as Rabin was assassinated by a fellow Israeli, Yigal Amir, who opposed Rabin’s endorsement of the peace process.
Gordon’s response to the assassination grew out of his decades-long efforts to build positive relationships between Jews and Arabs. During Gordon’s graduate school days at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he studied social work in the early 1980s, he actively sought out opportunities to interact with Arabs. Gordon has since returned to Portland where he serves on the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland governing board. Last month he returned to Israel on a trip with Havurah Shalom.
“In school, I participated in a weekly Arab-Jewish dialogue,” remembers Gordon. “It was a way to bring representatives of those communities together. The following year, I became a facilitator of that group. Over the next few years, I spent a lot of time getting to know Arab students.”
Gordon was also active in Peace Now, an NGO activist group in Israel, which has promoted peace between Jews and Arabs since the late 1970s. “In early 1990s, after the First Intifada, the official peace process began,” says Gordon. “There was the Madrid conference; Rabin was elected; Clinton was elected. I arranged meetings for Peace Now between Israeli teenagers from Jerusalem and Arab teenagers from Ramallah.”
From 1995-97, Gordon created new initiatives in Israeli education through study at the Mandel School for Educational Leadership in Jerusalem. “I hadn’t had any experience with schools before,” he says, “but we began building a model of integrated schooling.” In 1997, Gordon met Amin Khalaf, an Israeli Arab teacher who had experience teaching in both Israeli and Arab schools. Together the two men, one Jewish, one Arab, cofounded Hand in Hand, the Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel.
Hand in Hand is a network of four schools, located in Jerusalem, the Galilee, Wadi Ara and Haifa. These integrated, bilingual schools combine the teaching of peace education and top academic standards.
Since its first two schools opened 15 years ago, Hand in Hand has expanded to four schools with approximately 1,000 students, just a small percentage of the approximately 1.7 million school-age children in Israel. Gordon is realistic about Hand In Hand’s impact on Israeli education and societal at- titudes, but he also believes students educated in the Hand In Hand model can make a substantial difference.
“We’re intentionally integrating our schools, hoping to create a precedent that will spread around the country,” he explains. “Our goal is to eventually have 10 to 15 schools in Israel, with 5,000 to 7,000 students. We may not become a majority model, but through our example, we prove that Jews and Arabs can study, work, learn and live together. In any place where Jews and Arabs live close to one another, there’s potential for creating a Hand In Hand school.”
All Hand in Hand schools are accredited and public, with most school costs paid by the Israeli government. Private philanthropy covers other expenses. “We pay for extra teach- ers,” Gordon explains. “We have two teachers per class in the younger grades – one Jewish, one Arabic – and they teach bilingually. We also need to pay for curriculum development, teacher training and all the community work we do outside school – after school programs, evening programs for parents, evening programs for recent graduates and the administrative costs of running our national office.” Philanthropic donations come from individuals and private foundations in the United States, Canada, Europe and Israel.
By and large, the Israeli Ministry of Education has supported Hand in Hand’s efforts, but that support waxes and wanes, depending on the priorities of the minister of education. “In the past, when there was a more liberal minister of education, she publicly endorsed our project,” says Gordon. “Today’s education minister, Gideon Sa’ar, is not taking up the banner of integrated Jewish/Arab education. The larger problem is that Israeli society isn’t, by and large, waving the flag of coexistence.”
Gordon knows that Hand in Hand is fighting an uphill battle for minds and hearts. “A lot of Jews and Arabs would never send their kids to our schools because they want more separation, and this kind of thing scares them.” He adds, “It’s been really hard to get people to step out of their comfort zone and overcoming the inertia that keeps people separate and in conflict.” Gordon sees the distance separating Jews and Arabs as a socially constructed and reinforced barrier, not the result of innate hostility between the two groups. “The average middle-of-the-road person in Israel, whether Jewish or Arab, is not a racist, but too many people in Israel don’t feel the need to change the status quo, which is to maintain their separate existences. To make peace, you have to take chances.”
Hand in Hand’s students have inspired Gordon. “These kids are pioneers; they are phenomenal human beings,” says Gordon, recalling two years ago, when someone spray painted “Death to Arabs” on a wall at Hand in Hand’s Jerusalem campus. “A fifth- grader from the school said he wanted to invite the person who tagged the wall to come to the school, see how it works and see that it’s about love, not hate.”
It may be too soon to say definitively what lasting impact this bilingual, bicultural education will have on Hand in Hand’s graduates, but Gordon sees them as the vanguard of change. “I believe they’ll be motivated to be more involved in Jewish-Arab co-existence. We also work with the students’ parents, because we don’t think the burden of changing the world should rest solely on the shoulders of children. We want kids to just be kids and live their lives, but I do believe Hand in Hand is giving them a strong foundation for partnership in Israeli society and peacemaking.”
HAVURAHNIKS MEET PEOPLE MAKING A DIFFERENCE IN ISRAEL
Last month, 25 members of Havurah Shalom spent 10 days in Israel with their Rabbi, Joey Wolf, who led the “multi-vocal journey” focused on human rights issues, some unique to israel, others more universal.
“We met people in israel who are involved in radical work, advocating for marginalized or underrepresented segments of the population,” says Wolf. “i think everyone who came with us will become more engaged in what it means to be Jewish in the world.”
People they met included:
• Three Jewish women who run a rape crisis center in Kiryat Shmona, on the Lebanese border: “this is an area of former Moshavim and Kibbutzim, which until recently, were closed, insular communities,” Wolf explains, adding the women also work with Arab druze communities of the upper golan. “if women are endangered in these isolated places, it’s often difficult for them to find help.”
• Community activists aiding refugees: In recent years more than 60,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees have fled to Israel in search of political asylum and economic opportunity. “the sheer number of people coming in across the porous egyptian border at Sinai creates enormous stresses for a country as small as israel,” says Wolf. “these refugees live in terribly overcrowded apartments. they try to find work, but can usually only get the lowest-paid jobs. … they have no rights,” says Wolf. “there are too many refugees to know what to do with, but there’s also a lot of internal social critique in israel, that we should harbor these people and give them safety.”
• Meir Margalit, a member of Jerusalem’s City Council, whose district encompasses Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem: “these areas don’t get enough attention,” says Wolf. “they’re being squeezed by the israeli government.” Wolf calls Margalit “an indefatigable representative of justice,” who advocates for Palestinian control of areas of east Jerusalem where they live.
• Rachel Korazim, an Israeli educator and the daughter of Holocaust survivors: “She met with us before we toured the newly rebuilt Yad vashem,” says Wolf. “She’s a dynamic teacher who helped us explore the evolving relationship of israel to the Holocaust.”
• Members of Tamuz, an urban Kibbutz at Beit Shemesh: Tamuz members share cooperative housing about 20 miles west of Jerusalem, where they live, study and celebrate Shabbat and holidays together. Members work in nearby cities to provide childcare, run a school and help unemployed Ethiopians. Wolf notes, “the agrarian Kibbutz model is dead, but people who still have a Kibbutz impulse are making communities in urban areas attached to cities.”
elizabeth Schwartz is a freelance writer in Portland.