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How a Jewish-Arab School in Israel Copes With War in Gaza

12:00 Feb 4 2024 Max Rayne Hand in Hand school (مدرسة ماكس راين يدًا بيد، القدس)

How a Jewish-Arab School in Israel Copes With War in Gaza How a Jewish-Arab School in Israel Copes With War in Gaza How a Jewish-Arab School in Israel Copes With War in Gaza How a Jewish-Arab School in Israel Copes With War in Gaza
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Photos: Published by Haaretz
"Together"logo. Credit: ND700/Shutterstock. Design: Masha Zur-Glozman

Children playing at recess at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem in 2017. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Palestinians inspect the site of an Israeli strike amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Monday. Credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

Students at Max Rayne Hand in Hand Bilingual School in Jerusalem, in a photo from June 2013. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
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by Rebecca Bardach for Haaretz
Feb 4, 2024

We sat quietly in the dark, my 12-year old daughter and I, as I put her to bed. Normally we plug in her fairy lights, which shed a soft colorful glow. But not that night. It had been over 100 days since October 7; since the war began; and most of all, since the hostages were taken, including our 23-year old cousin Hersh Goldberg-Polin. The dark enveloped us.

"How are you?" I asked her.

"I'm not doing so well," she said in a small voice.

I put my arm around her and held her tight and close.

"How are you?" she asked me.

"Yeah," I responded, "I'm not doing so well either."

She curled into my embrace and in an almost-whisper said, "I don't think anyone is doing so well right now."

Indeed.

Everyone is traumatized. And as it all drags on – the hostages; the evacuees; the attacks from Gaza, Hezbollah and the Houthis; the loved ones who have been called up as soldiers; the funerals; the death and destruction in Gaza; the uncertainty about what "the day after" even means and when or how we'll even get there – the trauma morphs, spreads, grows and deepens.

How can we hold such deep and relentless pain?

When, in the first days of the war, schools resumed in Jerusalem, my daughter's teacher and I agreed that she should meet with the school psychologist, given the fact of our cousin being hostage to Gaza. Except that perhaps it's less straightforward than that, because she goes to Hand in Hand, a Jewish-Arab school that is part of a network of such schools in the country. They are an exception to the norm, as schools in Israel are tracked by communal lines such that Jews and Arabs, and religious and secular Jews study separately.

And the school psychologist happens to be Arab. Would this make it harder for my daughter to talk about October 7 and what had happened to our cousin? Having grown up at the school that did not occur to her. When she came home from school that day she reported that they had met, the woman was kind, and their talk helpful.

That evening the psychologist, whom I had not met previously, reached out to me:

"My heart is with you.

Today I talked with your daughter.

I want to share that I am with you.

If you would like to speak I am available."

My heart is with you.

These words filled me with tears for days afterwards.

Nor was she the exception. Other Arab colleagues, fellow-parents and friends also reached out to convey their horror and sorrow about our cousin. I know there are those who felt that their inter-faith and inter-communal allies turned away in this moment of crisis, but this was not my experience. I felt profoundly seen. Their empathy was an embrace offering genuine comfort.

This is the power of empathy. Seeing the pain of others; feeling that your pain is seen. And yet empathy is what it seems to be achingly absent everywhere. So many people – Israeli, Palestinians, the outsiders screaming from the sidelines - seem incapable of recognizing that there are multiple experiences of this war, and with them multiple traumas. Each are real; each relevant; each needs to be addressed.

In the midst of this, Israel's Palestinian Arab citizens face a uniquely complicated position, as they are part of both Israeli society and the Palestinian people. Many have family, friends and colleagues – both Arab and Jewish - who were among both the victims and heroes of October 7, and who are Gazan or live in the West Bank. They are more likely to hear the news from both Israeli media and Palestinian and Arab social media and news sources like Al Jazeera.

They are among the few experiencing the suffering of both sides.

With this, Arab friends and colleagues both in Jerusalem and across the country often tell me of the impossible bind they find themselves in. Horrified by Hamas' deeds, but under constant pressure to repeatedly condemn them by Jewish Israelis; horrified by the death and destruction in Gaza, but pressured into silence for fear they will be perceived and penalized as supporters of Hamas. This combination of empathy forbidden with empathy demanded can only embitter and alienate.

This challenge to Jewish-Arab relations within Israeli society is most acutely felt within those spaces which are integrated, whether by design or default. And it is in such spaces that people work hardest to find their way through this, because the daily business of life pushes you forward - together.

People often ask my daughter, with a furrowed brow and certain tone, "How is it at school?" That is, at her school where Jews and Arabs study together. Living in terrible violent conflict makes many unable to imagine an inter-communal relationship motivated by partnership.

But she's accustomed to that kind of question, with its spoken and unspoken aspects. For her a good day is determined by two things: laughing a lot with her friends; and learning something interesting. And, for her, that's most days - both before the war and since.

One tough day, when her sadness about our cousin held hostage in Gaza was too much to contain, she began to cry quietly in the middle of a class. Afterwards, her friends, Jewish and Arab, rushed up to her, hugged her and scooped her up to join them in a game. I am acutely aware of how precious this is.

Of course the war affects things. Some of the Jewish teachers, parents and alumni have been called up to the army. A Jewish teacher has family held hostage in Gaza; an Arab teacher has a former Jewish student among those released from Hamas captivity. A Jewish parent has loved ones who were massacred on October 7; an Arab parent has loved ones who were killed in air strikes in Gaza. Everyone walks around with their personal throbbing pain. Open discussion about everything isn't always easy or entirely feasible in all circumstances.

Everyone worries about what our kids are being exposed to and what kind of future awaits. How do you build towards a shared society based on ideas of mutual acceptance, equality and dialogue when this tsunami of war, violence, and hatred threatens to sweep us all away? But every morning kids and teachers show up at school. They learn math and literature, and have gym class. As always, they learn Hebrew and Arabic, and about Jewish, Muslim and Christian holidays. Sometimes they talk about the war or about how they're coping. Each age group, I know, is dealt with, and deals differently, and most of all they focus on making it a place that nurtures kids. But every day the Hand-in-Hand school community finds ways to face, or share, and sometimes fumble through the incomprehensible thing happening around us.

Here, coming to school is an existential daily re-commitment to figuring out how to live together.

As we all try to manage in this hell we now find ourselves, empathy feels like a paltry tool with which to work. How can it possibly fend off the horrifying violence engulfing us?

Yet, when I talk with Arab friends and colleagues, the experience of connecting, sharing, seeing, listening keeps us grounded in understanding each other's lived experiences.

This is not sufficient to fix anything by itself - none of us delude ourselves. But it is an essential first step to leverage the other things desperately needed.

My heart is with you. These words were not only a comfort, but a gift of faith – faith in our shared humanity. Empathy matters. The acts of Arab-Jewish solidarity that are in such extraordinary evidence in the shared school and community my family is part of and the broader Shared Society circles I was introduced to through it, is the effect of empathy at work.

It is both the anchor needed to stay grounded in the storm, and the light we need to keep working towards something better.

Rebecca Bardach is a writer and activist in the field of Jewish-Arab shared society, and is an expert on refugees and international migration and development. Originally American, she lives in Jerusalem with her family.
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