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Arab, Jewish Children Share their Cultures at Jerusalem Bilingual School

In the Middle East, a region marked with considerable hatred and distrust, there are still some places where lessons in harmony and respect are lived every day. One of them is a school in Jerusalem where Arab and Israeli children learn together.

These children sing a song made popular by the world famous Lebanese singer Fayrouz. This might seem an ordinary event at a school in Beirut or any other Arab capital, but this nursery is in Jerusalem, and the children are both Arabs and Israelis. This is the youngest group of students enrolled in the Bilingual School, one of two such primary schools founded by the organization Hand-in-Hand, which aims to promote peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews. It opened during a more hopeful time in 1998.

Here, unlike almost every other school in Israel, Arab and Jewish students learn side by side. In each class, there are two teachers, one Arab and one Israeli. Instruction is in both Hebrew and Arabic and the aim is to make the students equally fluent in both languages. And through this process, they are also learning about each other's culture, with the objective of greater understanding and respect between the two peoples. The music teacher, Hanna Shehadeh Habib, an Arab, is excited about the prospects for the project, offering hope for a brighter future, despite the current violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

"It is a very hard situation now, but after [each child] knowing the other from inside, the feelings of the other, I think that it will help solve this problem [of the violence] over here [in the Middle East]," she said. Other teachers at the school share his view.

Waffa Shira Grossberg, a Jew who immigrated to Israel from New York eight years ago, also sees the school as a bastion of hope in a time of despair.

A teacher for 10 years, she is enthusiastic about her first year at this school.

"I am more than hopeful. This school is definitely making a difference in the lives of the students, in the lives of the teachers and people who are in contact with it," she explained. One of the key people who has worked hard to promote the project is Paul Leventhal, who immigrated to Israel from Sydney, Australia. He carries with him not only a passion for Hebrew and a dedication to Israel but also university degrees in Arabic and Islamic studies.

Mr. Leventhal, who has worked as an associate director of Hand-in-Hand, believes that the challenge ahead is for Arabs and Jews in Israel to fully understand and respect one another's languages and traditions.

"What we want to achieve is full integration, Jewish, Arab education, fully bilingual and a full acceptance of the other," he said. But applying this theory can be uncomfortable, and Mr. Leventhal is the first to acknowledge that the task is not easy. Take for example, the problem of national holidays. Each year, Israelis celebrate the founding of their state on Independence Day. But at this school the Jewish students learn that their Arab counterparts commemorate the same occasion as the Nakbah, meaning the catastrophe. But Mr. Leventhal insists that both sides must know the truth about each other's beliefs from an early age.

"We don't see a threat by marking the Nakbah day," he said. "We don't encourage hatred, we encourage listening. It was very difficult for both sides of course."

Reflecting its unique character, the school has two principals. The Arab principal, Ali Khatib, says the goal should be to encourage other schools to adopt the same innovative approach.

"If we succeed with this and many parents want to register their children at the school, it will be a model for other schools in Israel," Mr. Khatib said. So far, the school has 123 children and there are classes to the 4th grade. Mr. Khatib says the dream is to enroll more students and expand the project into secondary education. He works along side Dalia Peretz, who is the Jewish principal. She believes the school is promoting positive changes by bringing Arabs and Jews together from an early age.

"I didn't meet Arab friends until I was in university, and this is the common case," she said. "And when you meet Arabs as a Jew in Israel, you meet them as your waiter, as your worker, it is very seldom on an equal level. And here [at the school] it is a totally different case because the children grow up together. Reality is complex. There are Arabs and there are Jews and the conflict does not have only one side, it has at least two sides." The ability of the students to see both dimensions is evident.

Ten-year-old Arab student Basil Eid answers in fluent Hebrew and comments that he counts some of his Jewish classmates as his best friends. And even at their young ages, students here seem to realize they're involved in something potentially bigger than just going to school. Eight- year-old-Jewish student Jaime Einstein said, "I think it's good because if Arabs and Jews will be together, so maybe the people in the world will be together."

Keeping such hopes alive with the clouds of war gathering once again over the Middle East is not easy. But at this school at least, the students and teachers are doing their best.