September 17, 2006, Updated September 14, 2012

Through its bilingual educational model, Hand in Hand is working to change the populations’ alienation from one another.On the lawn in a large courtyard surrounded by arches, 2nd and 3rd graders play during recess. The kids boisterously running about could be any Israeli elementary school children, except their vigorous shouting is in a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic.

The Gesher al Hawadi school in the Arab town of Kafr Kara in Wadi Ara south-east of Haifa is the newest of three bilingual schools in the country set up by the Jerusalem-based non-profit group Hand in Hand, the Center for Jewish-Arab Education organization. In Israel, while Arab pupils must know Hebrew, the dominant language of the state, Jewish pupils rarely learn Arabic. So this happy playground fluency is unusual.

The Hand in Hand schools – in Jerusalem, Galilee and Wadi Ara – are attended by Jewish and Arab pupils in equal numbers. Each class has two teachers: one Jew and one Arab, one speaking only Hebrew, the other only Arabic. The teachers team-teach the same subjects.

The children become fluent in both languages, but it’s clear they are learning much more. The name of this school – “Gesher al Hawadi” – combines the Hebrew word for bridge and the Arabic word for valley, “bridge over the valley”.

More than a bridge over the wide divide between Israeli Jews and Arabs, this school represents more of an enormous leap. More than 20% of Israel’s citizens are Arab. Although Jews and Arabs often live in communities that are geographically close, they rarely mix.

Elementary and secondary schools are almost entirely segregated, and meaningful interactions are rare. Through its bilingual educational model, Hand in Hand is working to change the populations’ alienation from one another.

Two of the third-graders playing tag are Haitab abu Asal, from the Arab village of Ara and Yuval Cohen from the Jewish town of Katzir. The two are best friends and take turns spending the night at each other’s homes. What makes the relationship between these nine-year-old girls particularly remarkable is that the school is located in Wadi Ara, where, six years ago, a demonstration by Arab residents turned violent and resulted in the Israel Police killing 13 and wounding hundreds.

That traumatic event left deep scars and bitterness. Yet a small group of Jewish and Arab parents living in the area got together to talk about changing the situation. They had an idea for a bilingual multicultural school, and turned for help to Hand in Hand, whose broad aim is promoting equality in education between Jews and Arabs in Israel through multi-cultural schools.

“Most of us involved in the organization came from years of experiences with Arab-Jewish relations in the country, says Amin Khalaf, co-director of Hand in Hand and one of the organization’s founders.

“Meetings are fine, but we wanted to do something that would really change attitudes and the situation. If you want to change attitudes, you have to tackle the educational system, and to begin at a young age.”

The question, recalls Khalaf, was how we could do this, “because there is segregation here in the country where we have the barrier of two languages, Hebrew and Arabic.”

The founders developed their bilingual educational model, and within a year had managed to establish two schools. When Hand in Hand was set up in 1997, many doubted the experiment could work. At first, the Israeli Education Ministry vigorously opposed the schools, but today the government recognizes them as tuition-free public schools and points to them as models.

But even people committed to the idea of co-existence admit it’s not easy, says Hand In Hand co-director Josie Mendelson, speaking in the organizations Jerusalem’s offices.

“You have to work at understanding each other, you have to work at accepting each other, and you have to work at recognizing the differences and recognizing the similarities and learning to live with it. So we do a tremendous amount of work with the children, the teachers and parents, and the surrounding communities. They will help us, implement the change that we want to make in Israeli society,” she told ISRAEL21c.

Hand in Hand follows the Ministry of Education curriculum, but adapts it, not only to be suitable for bilingual instruction, but also so that it teaches the organization’s values of tolerance and cultural understanding. Mendelson believe this unique educational model can be adapted in other parts of the world.

One of the organization’s guiding principles is that the parents get together in each other’s homes. Carmi Rephen, whose son Ori is in the 2nd grade at the Kafr Kara school, lives in Pardes Chana, an hour away by bus. Rephen admits that meetings between parents are awkward at first. “In our last get-together there were three Arab families and three Jewish families having lunch and dinner together in one of the Arab villages near here. It eases a lot of tensions I think, getting to know your neighbors first-hand. You really learn what’s going on and how to communicate.”

Hand in Hand’s board consists of Jewish and Arab educators and business people, many in the high tech sector.

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of school children enrolled in the three Hand-in-Hand schools. This year some 800 children are registered – but there are far more applications than places. Construction is underway for expanded campuses for the Jerusalem and Galilee schools. Recently additional municipalities and groups of parents have asked Hand in Hand for help in creating bilingual, multicultural schools in their communities, including Tel Aviv and Haifa.

Director of development Bob Fenton relates that his interest in the Hand In Hand program was born out of the despair he felt five years ago during the second intifada.

“Buses were blowing up, people I knew had died, I saw no future in the country. My feeling was that if there was something I could do to make a change in this country I’d do it.”

Fenton says that after he started working with Hand in Hand, “I felt like this was it, Arabs and Jews living together in a normal manner, in the way that most of us would like to live, sharing the present and also the future for our children.”

More on Life

Fighting for Israel's truth

We cover what makes life in Israel so special — it's people. A non-profit organization, ISRAEL21c's team of journalists are committed to telling stories that humanize Israelis and show their positive impact on our world. You can bring these stories to life by making a donation of $6/month. 

Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

Read more: