Yulia Karra
January 22

In the wake of the events of the past three months it has been challenging to have an open discourse on coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Israel. Some have been wondering if it will even be possible to coexist in peace in the wake of the Hamas attack and the subsequent war in Gaza.

Givat Haviva International School (GHIS) in northern Israel offers hope that the concept of coexistence didn’t turn to ash on October 7 along with the burned-down homes in the Gaza border region

“I think we were the only school in Israel that on October 9 went back to full academic studies,” Nurit Gery, cofounder and managing director of GHIS, tells ISRAEL21c.  

Raising the leaders of tomorrow  

The school was established in 2018 as part of the Center for a Shared Society at Givat Haviva. Founded in 1949, the center is the oldest institution in Israel promoting reconciliation between Jews and Arabs. It was even awarded a UNESCO Prize for Peace Education.

The boarding high school incorporates Jews, Arabs and students from around the world. At least 150 students enroll each academic year, roughly 50-50 girls and boys. 

Students play instruments at the school. Photo by Tal Bardak
Students play instruments at the school. Photo by Tal Bardak

“Twenty five percent of the students are Jews from Israel, 25% are Arabs from Israel and the other 50% come from international communities around the world,” explains Gery.

“All the students are carefully picked, one by one, based on our assessment that they can be future leaders who will bring people together, care for human rights and will make a change in their communities going forward.”

Gery says they make sure to pick candidates from diverse backgrounds. The students generally live on campus in mixed dorm rooms. “A Jewish American girl from Washington DC can find herself sharing a room with an Arab Muslim girl from Israel and a Christian girl from Liberia,” she notes.

“After all, the school’s mission is to foster leaders who will work towards a shared society in Israel and across the world, and fight against antisemitism and anti-racism.” 

Widening the perspective 

Gery says that when the war broke out, the international students were really frightened because they had never experienced anything like this. Only around 10 international students remained in Israel immediately after the war.

International students at Givat Haviva. Photo courtesy of Givat Haviva International School
International students at Givat Haviva. Photo courtesy of Givat Haviva International School

Since then, however, the majority of the students have returned. “We were surprised. We were sure we were going to lose some students. It was a hard choice for them to come back and take our mission forward.” 

The domestic students also came back after two weeks of studying on Zoom. 

“They said being back widens their understanding of the situation,” she says, adding that all the students stand against violence and want the hostages to be released. 

“We have both Jewish and Arab students that lost relatives [in the October 7 attack], and we have students who have relatives in the Gaza Strip as well.”

The school also took in evacuees from the south.

Gery emphasizes the school is not there to change the minds or identities of the students, but rather teach them to share their opinion in a way that the other side might listen.

“The war has fragmented Israeli society even more, and the students are responsible for leading the people in Israel to see each other as human beings no matter their background.” 

The students intentionally don’t talk about politics on campus, which has allowed for a tension-free environment to flourish. “One of the students told me, ‘We don’t talk about politics, we talk about feelings.’”

A job with a soul

Gery worked in the pharmaceutical industry for many years, and ultimately left, feeling that her job didn’t have a “soul.” 

“I started to look for something to do that would make a difference,” she says.

Gery and Yuval Dvir, the GHIS cofounder and its current principal, had an idea to do something that would deepen connections between Jews and Arabs. 

Local and international students hugging each other. Photo courtesy of Givat Haviva International School
Local and international students hugging each other. Photo courtesy of Givat Haviva International School

Together with the former CEO of the Center for a Shared Society, they came up with the idea of an international school. Gery and Dvir managed to raise $2 million for the project. 

“Within months we opened a school with 55 students. It started with the 11th grade, a year later expanded to 12th grade and two years later to 10th grade as well.” 

The school currently employs 35 people, including teachers and boarding staff, such as counselors and therapists. 

The distribution of teachers at the school reflects that of the student body. “One third of the teachers are Jews from Israel, one third are Arabs from Israel, and the rest are teachers who came from around the world.”

Because the GHIS is part of the center, it is subsidized by the government. Students pay partial tuition and in some cases are also offered scholarships.

“We select students based on their academic and leadership ability, not on their ability to pay,” Gery says. 

“We look for well-rounded people. If a student only cares about grades and not about humans, that’s a problem. On the other hand, if a student cares only about the society but not about the studies, that is also a problem,” she laughs. 

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