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Inside a rare Jerusalem school where Israelis and Palestinians go to class together

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

We now take you to a school in Jerusalem where teachers try to keep Palestinian and Jewish students focused on their studies and maybe learn to understand each other a little more. They do this despite the intense fear and anger as the war in Gaza and violence in the West Bank continue. It's one of the rare schools where Israeli Jews and Palestinians share the same classrooms. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley made a visit.

(CROSSTALK)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The sound of Hebrew and Arabic being spoken together in a school hallway is not common in Israel, unless you're on the campus of Hand in Hand.

NOOR YOUNIS: So welcome. This is our Jerusalem campus.

BEARDSLEY: That's Noor Younis (ph), donor relations manager for the school. She didn't go here and says she made her first Jewish acquaintance at the age of 19, in college.

YOUNIS: Also, I grew up with stereotypes about the other. You know, this is the enemy. This is that. We don't know anything about each other, and the first confrontation with each other, sometimes we don't know how to even talk to each other, you know, when you get to that certain age.

BEARDSLEY: In 1998, a group of parents in Jerusalem set out to change that.

YOUNIS: This is how the idea of Hand in Hand started, with two preschool classes here in Jerusalem. Twenty-six years later, right now, we have six campuses. We have more than 2,000 students.

BEARDSLEY: The school has branches in several cities.

EFRAT MEYER: Do you want coffee?

BEARDSLEY: Efrat Meyer, who is Jewish Israeli, is the principal. She says Hand in Hand creates a different reality.

MEYER: Kids, our students, are coming here every day, get to know each other from a very young age. In the beginning, it's very basic knowledge of each other. And as they grow up, it's a more deep understanding of the different lives that we live in here, the different narratives that we hold.

BEARDSLEY: The school is like going to the gym, she says. We practice empathy and understanding and develop our identities together. While most Palestinians in Jerusalem and Israel speak Hebrew, Jews, for the most part, don't learn Arabic. But at Hand in Hand, classes are taught in both languages. Everything is given more context, says history teacher Daniel De Shalit (ph).

DANIEL DE SHALIT: They learn about conflicts not just from one point of view, but from multiple ones, to see how the same events can be shaped into different stories and how each side could be absolutely sure they are the just one.

BEARDSLEY: De Shalit says teaching here has made him a more complete person.

DE SHALIT: It changed my entire identity because when you live and work in this way, it somehow changes who you are. It makes you more human in the way that you can see human beings, regardless of their nationality, and have empathy with them no matter what side of a conflict they are in.

ENGI WATTAD: (Laughter).

BEARDSLEY: Engi Wattad is the Palestinian vice principal at Hand in Hand. She shares a joke with Meyer, the principal. Wattad says since October 7, this school has become a rare oasis of real freedom. Many Palestinians say they can be harassed or worse for expressing their anguish over the war. She speaks through an interpreter.

WATTAD: (Through interpreter) For our students, this is a safe place for them, a safe environment. They feel here that they have freedom of speech, that they are not afraid to say how they feel. They're not afraid to share their grief because they've been raised on these values of respecting one another and to hold the grief of the other.

BEARDSLEY: These administrators say things have been hard since the October 7 Hamas attack set off the war. In fact, they asked us not to interview students because things are so sensitive. But education is all about hope, says Meyer.

MEYER: And we're strengthening the shared values, the possibility for different life in here. And this is something that didn't change. We all want to see a different reality here. I want to see an equal society for me and for Engi together.

MORAD MUNA: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Palestinian Morad Muna (ph) is picking up his twin fifth-graders after school. Muna remembers the fear around the first and second intifadas during his youth. He says today is so much worse.

M MUNA: Never we have been in this such situation. I mean, never we have afraid like we are afraid now. Never we see this is - this demolish that happened in Gaza. Never we see this number of victims. I mean, it's totally unbelievable, and we don't know where are we going?

BEARDSLEY: His wife, Raneen Muna (ph), says school is the one safe place for their kids. She says the war is widening the gulf in Israeli society.

RANEEN MUNA: Yeah, all the time, you must to hide your thoughts and - because if you are clear, all the people think about you that you are not correct or not.

BEARDSLEY: Like, you're probably dying inside when you see Gaza.

R MUNA: That's it. Yes.

BEARDSLEY: Israelis are focused on October 7 and their hostages and soldiers. And Israeli media does not fully show the death and destruction in Gaza.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Laughter).

NAAMA HOCHSTEIN: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Naama Hochstein (ph) is picking up her three children. She says they have a different outlook than kids at regular Jewish schools.

HOCHSTEIN: Being able to see that there are maybe different points of view and the fact that they grow up with Arabic from a very young age just makes it a beautiful part of their identity and existence instead of something they're always intimidated by like most Israelis.

BEARDSLEY: Israel, she believes, would be a different place if there were more schools like Hand in Hand.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILLY GONZALES' "VENETIAN BLINDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
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