School Climate & Safety

Arabs and Israelis Take Part In Coexistence Education

By Catherine Gewertz — October 25, 2000 4 min read
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In an elementary school in Jerusalem, Orthodox Jewish students are learning Arabic so they can connect with their Arab peers. To the north in Galilee, young Arabs are guiding their fellows through a Holocaust museum to build empathy for their Jewish countrymen.

Even as the recent flare-up of bloody conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has drawn the world’s attention, scattered groups of young people in Israel are devoting energy to the opposite: They are participating in coexistence education programs.

Batya Kallus, the senior field coordinator in Jerusalem for the New York City-based Abraham Fund, said the violence that began late last month and has left more than 100 dead has “stirred up a broader awareness of the urgent need for coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Israel. We have to learn to live together and coexist. We can’t be enemies.”

Wall Street financier Alan B. Slifka started the Abraham Fund to help Arabs and Jews live in respectful peace. In the 11 years since its founding, the philanthropy has spent $6 million subsidizing more than 450 such coexistence programs, work for which the Israeli parliament awarded Mr. Slifka a medal of honor last spring.

“We think that in the same way children have polio shots, they should have coexistence shots,” said the 70-year-old philanthropist, the founder of the Big Apple Circus. “They are inoculations against fear and prejudice. When a child receives these inoculations, they are not as quick to stereotype and demonize.”

U.S. Tensions

The Abraham Fund, named for the biblical patriarch revered by both Jews and Muslims, underwrites a training program for teachers in coexistence education at David Yellin Teachers College in Jerusalem.

Among the programs it has financed are the creation of a school in Jaffa, where Jewish and Arab children study Hebrew and Arabic together; a program in Jerusalem in which Arab and Jewish kindergartners sing and tell stories together; and an intensive “encounter” program, where Jewish and Arab high schoolers meet to explore cultural differences and conflict resolution.

Other favorite projects of Mr. Slifka’s are the Holocaust museum that reached out to its Arab community by training local Arab docents and encouraging nearby Arab schools to send busloads of students, and the grade school in Jerusalem’s Old City where Orthodox Jewish children learned the language and customs of their Arab neighbors.

Programs that emphasize cross-cultural understanding and acceptance are crucial in a land torn by violent hatred, experts say, but also have much to offer young people in a country such as the United States, with its own brand of racial and ethnic tensions.

Elaine M. Scarry, a Harvard University English professor who has written about overcoming the obstacle of “otherness” between people, said programs that bring people of varying cultures into contact with one another enhance respect for people’s differences. They generate humility and an understanding that each person occupies only a very small place in a complicated world, she argues.

Louise Derman-Sparks, a faculty member at Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena, Calif., trains early-childhood teachers in an anti-bias curriculum that helps children develop a sense of fairness and empathy and accept others unlike themselves. Teaching children to accept diversity not only benefits the children, by helping them hold themselves and others in higher esteem, but society at large, she says.

“When we accept that differences are OK, everyone develops to their fullest, and we thrive together in the richness of a diverse society,” she said.

Forsan Hussein might say he is the poster boy for coexistence education. Growing up in a small Arab village in northern Israel, he took on his community’s practice of having little contact with Jews in neighboring villages and absorbed its negative view of Jews. But when he was 10, his teacher took the unusual step of organizing a visit to a neighboring Jewish village in honor of Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish Arbor Day. “I was carrying a little pine tree to plant,” Mr. Hussein, now 22, recalled. “I was curious but terrified. Then a guy welcomed us with chocolate-chip cookies and smiles when I was expecting guns.”

Friendships Born

From that trip, friendships were born, and a summer-camp program grew in which Jewish and Arab children shared sleep-away experiences and meals at each other’s homes. For 12 years, Mr. Hussein was a camper and then a counselor in the program. Its impact stays with him today.

“It was such an eye-opening experience for me,” said Mr. Hussein, who recently graduated from Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., with a self-styled degree in peace-building. “I came to see Jews as human beings just like me. So today, when I watch the news of back home, I hold the frustration.

“Before, I would have wanted to go and show my anger. Today, instead, I am organizing a peace demonstration.”

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