A bilingual school near Jerusalem has brought Arab and Jewish children together under one roof, in an attempt to help the two communities deal with their differences. Rachel Shabi reports on a brave project that offers a tiny beacon of hope. Every November, ceremonies to honour the assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin take place in schools all over Israel. But at one particular school, events to mark the anniversary of his death take a slightly different approach. A class of nine- and ten-year olds stands in front of a wall covered in children's drawings of peace signs. Pairs of children - one Arab; one Jewish - come forward to explain, in both Arabic and Hebrew, that Rabin was killed because he was a man of peace, and then each lay a single rose before a flickering memorial candle.
But then, breaking with standard practice, they talk about other world leaders who were killed while fighting for a cause: the black American civil rights leader Martin Luther King is honoured as is Mahatma Gandhi, the guru of non-violent resistance. "We hope there will be other leaders like these," conclude the children. "We hope that they will bring us to a better place." This is the unconventional ceremony at the Israeli institution defined as bi-cultural, bi-national and bilingual, the school at Neve Shalom - Wahat al-Salam. Named the Oasis of Peace in both Arabic and Hebrew, the village is located in Latrun, on a hilltop near Jerusalem. It was set up in the early 1970s as a co-operative of Jews and Arabs in Israel. Then the school was founded about a decade later, teaching children from nursery to junior high school - the first bilingual school in Israel. Today, about 300 children are taught at this school, although most of them are now bussed in from Jewish and Palestinian towns and villages nearby. The school in the village of Neve educates a tiny sliver of the Israeli population, but its achievements are nonetheless significant, and not least of those is the fact of its existence, when years of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have constantly threatened to derail the project.
"As the headmaster of this school, I want to preserve the narratives of both sides, even when I don't agree," says Anwar Daoud. We meet immediately after a classical Arabic lesson he has given to first-graders. As an example, he relates how the school dealt with Israel's three-week assault on the Palestinian Gaza strip in 2008, which killed about 1,400 people and left thousands more injured and homeless. "It was the first time I told my staff, 'Do not discuss your opinion about this with the kids,'" he recalls. This was not a manifestation of the headmaster's view of the assault. "The war was a very bad thing," he says. "It was the worst decision the government took, perhaps since the establishment of Israel, but I do not want teachers to tell the children that..."
Throughout the three-week assault, staff kept opinions about it firmly out of the classroom. It was not a popular decision and was taken at a time when some of the staff had relatives under attack in Gaza, while others wanted to give aid to Israeli towns next to the strip. "But we survived," says Daoud. "We didn't choose the easy way, but we couldn't have survived any other way." For this school, co-existence is not about melding narratives or pretending that differences do not exist. "We cannot write the story of both of us. We are working with two narratives, Palestinian and Jewish," says Daoud. The Jewish and Palestinian pupils of the school do learn each others' histories, but when things are emotionally charged, the classes separate. "We cannot be together, for example, on the day of remembrance for [fallen] Israeli soldiers. I cannot feel solidarity with that," explains Daoud. The same may also be true for Jewish teachers and children, who might not feel able to commemorate Naqba Day, which mourns the plight that befell the Palestinian people in the course of Israel's creation. If it sounds odd to keep things so separate, the school's headmaster counters that the children are used to it: Muslim pupils do not take Jewish religious holidays and their Jewish classmates are present on Muslim holidays.
The schoolchildren, says Daoud, "know that sometimes there are some things that you cannot change. We have to deal with the differences between us." That is a view echoed by the current mayor of Neve Shalom - Wahat al-Salam Dorit Shippin, the first Jewish mayor in several years, and the first female mayor since the village was founded. "We have a long waiting list of families who want to join the village," she says. "People see the idea of a peace village in a childish way; they imagine a place with no conflict, no competition. People are exhausted by the conflict and see this as a nice, quiet place." The reality, she says, is very different. "You wake up each morning to the Jewish-Palestinian conflict. It is not as though you have to turn on the radio or read it in the newspaper. It is right here."
There is no pretence that power dynamics do not exist. "In what language should we say 'Good morning' to each other each day?" asks Abdessalam Najjar, one of the first members of the village, pointing out that imbalances exist even on the most basic level. While the stated aim is a bilingual community, the current reality is far from that: Hebrew dominates in this society just as it does beyond the village parameters. Even if children do learn both languages at this school, the default language is still Hebrew outside the classroom. "The most dominant relations between people, in any group, are power relations," says Najjar. "Can we create equality? I don't know, but I want to try. Language is part of our identity - I want to be free to express my thoughts and feelings in my own language." Najjar believes that there are "psychological complexities that prevent Jews from getting acquainted with Arabic language and culture" - the subconscious belief that the Arab world is the enemy, and also has an inferior culture, he says.
But this desire to overcome such obstacles is clear when you enter the classrooms of the school Neve Shalom - Wahat-al-Salam. On the walls of the primary school classrooms, three faiths are depicted in colourful drawings and two alphabets are on display. Six-year-old Palestinian and Jewish children sit together and learn, in both languages, about each other's customs and traditions. One day, the children are making birthday cards, writing birthday greetings in both Arabic and Hebrew. In the practice of giving birthday gifts and greetings, they all wish for the same things.
And a week before the commemoration of Yitzhak Rabin's death, the school discussed another important aspect of Israel's history, one not usually aired within Israeli schools. A group of nine-year old girls at the school recount what they learnt about October 29 1956, when 48 Palestinians were shot to death by Israeli border police at an Arab-Israeli village in the north. "We had a remembrance day for Kfar Kassem," says Ayala, using the Hebraised name of the village.
"Kufr Qasim!" corrects one of her Palestinian classmates. In 1956, this Palestinian village was under Israeli military control - as were all Palestinian villages within Israel, between its creation in 1948 and 1967. On the first day of the Suez war, the Israeli military commander of this village brought the nightly curfew forward by a few hours - a decision that could not have reached many of the villagers in time - and ordered his soldiers to "shoot on sight" anyone found out in the streets beyond the curfew.
"It's a terrible, terrible story," recalls another Jewish classmate, Maya. "I could hardly bear to listen to it." As the girls narrate details of this story, they touch on one of the main consequences of the atrocity: that the Israeli supreme court considered the issue of refusing illegal military orders for the first time. Some of the soldiers involved in the incident were given prison sentences. "I think the person who should have gone to prison is the commander," says Maya. "Because in the end, all those people died because of him."
Aliya, one of the girls recounting the story of Kufr Qasim, ended up attending this school for practical rather than political reasons, initially at least. "It is close to us," her mother, Karni, says. "I admit I wasn't looking for a bi-national school, it's just that this was the closest one. But, she explains, the decision comes with certain strings attached. "When you choose this school, you are agreeing to be a partner in this school, and a partner in this effort," she says. "I followed the decision all the way through."
Maya and her younger sister have been attending the school for the past four years - like the other children. They are bussed to and from school each day, which is one of the village's largest operational costs in running the school. It is mostly lack of funding that is preventing the school from being able to teach beyond the junior high school level. It relies on charitable donations, while the village itself is built on non-state land sold to it by the nearby Cremisan monastery. The Israeli government has persistently refused to grant the village additional state land; the former prime minister Ariel Sharon reportedly once said that the project represented an attempt to build an "Arab village in disguise".
But it is clear that the impact of their experiences at the school stay with these children after they have left. Omer Shuster, now 18, left the school six years ago and explains one of the consequences of having studied there. "I discharged myself from the army," he says of the compulsory military service required of all Jewish Israelis. "I'm going to do civil duty instead, because I do want to serve my country in some way - just not the army way."
Neve Shalom - Wahat al-Salam, he says, taught him about "patience and acceptance - education, I think, is the answer for everything". Another former student, 21-year-old Hisham Abed al-Halim, describes the village as "one of the top places to live in, not just as an Arab but as an Israeli - the place gives you a feeling that everyone is equal, which is not something you find in a lot of places inside Israel."
The school is striving to make this experience of equality seem everyday, rather than exceptional. And in the day-to-day, it is in so many ways just an ordinary school. "It's tough but you learn to deal with it," shrugs one nine-year-old girl, before adding what could easily be a universal caveat: "You know, some of the boys can be a bit annoying."