Teaching Arabs, Jews together - teaching peace

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By Kelly LeVan

The Galilee school is so close to the explosions that the walls shake. But Hand in Hand’s students – half Jewish and half Arabic – keep going to class because they and their parents believe in the message the school teaches, mainly that Jews and Arabs can and already do live together in peace.

Lee Gordon, who co-founded Hand in Hand with Amin Khalaf, will speak twice in the coming week – once at 7 p.m. Friday at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church and again at 4:30 p.m. the following day at a peace gathering at Ashley Pond organized by students at Los Alamos High School.

Although it started small, Hand in Hand now has more than 800 students and operates four schools, including one in Jerusalem, despite strong racial tensions throughout Israel. Each school is run by an Arab and a Jewish principal, and class is taught by an Arab and a Jewish teacher. Students attending Hand in Hand, from age 3 through their teens, learn in both Hebrew and Arabic.

In an interview with the Monitor, Gordon said teachers encourage students to explore their own and each other’s cultural heritage – the idea is not to pretend Arabs and Jews are the same, but rather to learn they can be different and still compatible.

“Arabs and Jews form two very distinct communities in Israel,” he said. “Our goal is not an assimilation model, but a multicultural one.”

He also emphasized the importance of involvement of parents, who support the schools in countless ways, including what they teach their children at home.

Everything about Hand in Hand, from its inception in 1997 through its current expansion to offer high school classes, has been the result of collaboration, Gordon said, and support from wide-ranging sources.

The schools receive funding from several European foundations as well as the U.S. State Department, which provided grants for both curriculum development and the founding of the Beersheva site, Hand in Hand’s newest school, in 2007.

The organization relies on private funding to meet approximately half its needs, Gordon said, and Gordon spends a great deal of his time fundraising from his home in Portland, Ore., traveling to Israel a few times each year as well.

Beyond just raising money, Gordon said, “I want to inspire people. This project is worthy of support. A lot of people see what we’re doing and they say, ‘This is so wonderful.’ They see a good project taking place in the Middle East. They see a lot of violence ee but there’s more going on.”

He said that one of the keys to the schools’ success is that they offer a chance for Arabs and Jews to meet and get to know each other in a meaningful way.

“One thing that perpetuates the conflict is the lack of opportunities for people to engage with each other, to learn about each other’s culture,” Gordon said. “Children especially have almost no opportunity.”

In addition to what he called “broader social conflict resolution reasons,” Gordon said the school benefits students simply by being a place where they get a bilingual education from a very early age. And starting in third grade, he said, Hand in Hand students learn three language: Arabic, Hebrew and English.

Gordon, originally from the United States, lived in Israel from 1981-1999, when, he said, “I was very involved in the Israeli peace movement. Starting the school was a natural progression for me.”

Along the way, he earned his master’s degree in social work from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and graduated from the Mandel Institute’s prestigious School for Educational Leadership. He has worked and volunteered for numerous organizations and projects in Israel. He currently serves as executive director of American Friends of Hand in Hand, which works to raise support and awareness throughout the United States.

He has traveled to Los Alamos twice previous to this trip at the bequest of his friend Andy Kron, a Los Alamos resident, and this time comes at the invitation of local veterinarian and IHM member Bob Fuselier.

Visit www.handinhandk12.org for more information.