Traveling around the United States, Israeli educator Shalom (Shuli) Dichter has encountered enthusiastic support for a vision of Jewish-Arab collaboration that inspires him. It’s the kind of support he finds lacking in his homeland — but believes is growing.
Dichter is the executive director of Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel, an organization that supports integrated, bilingual schools. They are located, according to its website, in Jerusalem, Haifa, and the Arab towns of Sakhnin in the Galilee and Kfar Kara in central Israel’s Wadi Ara Valley.
Founded in 1997, the network is now educating around 900 children. Together with just two other schools, they offer a rare integrated alternative to the country’s segregated classrooms.
“Americans are surprised when they realize that Israel has two separate systems of education,” Dichter told NJ Jewish News in a March 19 interview from Los Angeles. “Jews here have been so much in the forefront of work on diversity and affirmative action, they find it hard to understand.”
Dichter was in North America to raise funds at meetings in New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto. “A decade ago, the attitude here was that if Israel discriminated against its Arab citizens, that was something [American Jews would] go along with, even though here they would fight for minority rights,” he said.
“It was as if Israel was a democracy-free zone. I think that’s changed.”
Among local supporters of Hand in Hand is Warren Eisenberg of Short Hills, who spoke to NJJN earlier this month at the Union headquarters of the company he cofounded, Bed Bath & Beyond.
“I heard about Hand in Hand about five years ago, and I decided to get involved,” he said. “There’s no question, the whole school system in Israel needs to be changed, and if we don’t do something about it, in 20 years’ time Israelis are going to be in a nightmare situation.
“But it can’t be changed overnight,” he continued. “If you start with kids in kindergarten, putting Jewish and Arab kids together, and they start talking to each other, they grow up knowing it’s not necessary to hate one another. And their families get involved through the parent-teacher organizations, and they talk to each other.”
Eisenberg visited the Max Rayne Hand in Hand school in Jerusalem last October. “It’s great,” he said. “You can see that the students are friends. On the other hand, with the kids who have no real contact, Palestinian kids will believe it when they’re told Jews are all bad, and the Jewish kids will think of Arab Israelis as second-class citizens.”
Dichter said Hand in Hand plans to open more schools this fall, bringing enrollment up to 1,100. Though far more Arab students apply because they have far fewer educational options than the Jewish children, the goal is have equal numbers. The schools have also proved successful academically and otherwise; until a few weeks ago, the Jerusalem Hand in Hand school’s basketball team was top in its league.
Parents are involved, too, in things like language lessons and philosophical discussions. Others become part of an expanding circle demonstrating “a viable option of shared communal life,” Dichter said.
When Arab students from the Jerusalem school were attacked on a bus in January, parents and faculty volunteered to serve as escorts, and handed out literature about Hand in Hand to other passengers. “The people on those buses became a community,” Dichter said.
Twenty years ago, Dichter, a father of three and grandfather of two, spent three years as a shaliah in Toronto. “That’s where I first fully grasped the notion of citizenship, with everyone seen as equal shareholders,” he said.
During the 1990s he worked as codirector of Children Teaching Children, a school-based encounter program for Arab and Jewish students. He went on to establish the first Jewish-Arab Mayors Forum in Wadi Ara in 2004, and then to serve as co-executive director of Sikkuy, a Jewish-Arab organization that promotes civic equality.
In a recent article in Ha’aretz, Dichter cited a 2007-10 study published by Sikkuy. According to the survey, “74 percent of Israeli Jews surveyed acknowledged that Arab citizens are discriminated against, with nearly 40 percent saying they were ready to pay a personal price to improve the situation.”
Within a decade, Hand in Hand hopes to establish another 10 schools. Together with parents, teachers, and other supporters, Dichter told NJJN, that could mean a community of over 20,000 people “who have visibly chosen to live important parts of their daily lives through institutions that embody the values of a shared, inclusive, and equal society — the values that were the foundations of the State of Israel.