One town where Arabs and Jews make it work

Recently at their elementary school here, Tzuri Baharir and Ibrahim Hajiyaha horsed around in the yard and said that when they argued, it was over things that most boys fight about: sports teams, and who was first in line.

"We're equal now," said Ibrahim, a Palestinian student from Jerusalem. "Even if we fight, it's not over things about Arabs and Jews."

"Yeah," said his friend Tzuri, who is Jewish. "It's, 'It's my spot! I was here first!' "

If only more Jews and Arabs thought more like the children in this tiny village between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, President Clinton's job might be a little easier.

While the president began an arduous three-day visit to the Middle East in attempt to stabilize the peace process, Hillary Rodham Clinton visited the kindergarten and primary school at the one-of-a-kind village whose two names in Hebrew and Arabic mean "Oasis of Peace."

With Mrs. Clinton, the children lit a Hanukah menorah, then a Christmas tree, and then a lantern for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

"Peace actually begins in our homes, in communities like this, and in our hearts," she said. "It has to be nurtured within and among human beings and then passed on to our children, and that is precisely what you are doing here."

The village was founded in 1972 by a group of Israeli Jews and Arabs - citizens of Israel who also consider themselves Palestinians - who decided to build the country's first community where the two peoples would live as equals. When the founders opened a school in the early 1980s with 15 of the village's own children, they hoped that the idea would catch on elsewhere in the country.

They remained, however, the exception rather than the rule. The school grew, eventually taking in more than 100 students from outside the village, but the concept stayed within the village limits, save one preschool program in Jerusalem.

Though there was interest in running bilingual, binational schools like it elsewhere in the country, opposition remained formidable. Israel has long maintained a segregated educational system, which is easily reinforced by popular preferences and geographical separation.

In wake of the Oslo peace accords in 1993, interest in teaching Arabs and Jews in the same classroom resurfaced. A full five years later, parents who spearheaded the movement to open more schools modeled on Neveh Shalom finally inaugurated two pilot classes this September - one in Jerusalem and one in the Galilee.

"There's a lot of inertia against this thing," says Lee Gordon, a founder of the movement for Arab-Jewish coeducation. "We're not saying it's for everyone, but we hope that in five years, we'll have five schools like this all over Israel."

Though Neveh Shalom seems on first inspection to be an idyllic utopia removed from the realities of conflict, the conflict reflects itself on life at the school. Hardly following an American "melting pot" model, the students are taught separately in several subjects, including religion and mathematics.

Christians, Jews, and Muslims study religious texts separately because Israel has no tradition of private Sunday-school education outside of regular classes. At the same time, children learn much more about the other religions that they would in most schools here, and are charged with organizing holiday plays and parties each time the major festivals of the three faiths come around, as they do during this month for Christmas, Hanukah, and Ramadan.

As simple a subject as math, however, cannot be taught together because the traditional Arabic numerals - rather than internationally recognized numbers - are still used throughout the Arab world. Teachers have also found it a challenge to run language and literature classes. While the Arab children usually speak fluent Hebrew by virtue of living in the Jewish state, the Jewish students - and teachers - often struggle to learn Arabic.

Even if they are still at work on perfecting the system, parents say it's far superior to the one in which they grew up. Resident Daoud Boulous says his four children have a different perspective than he did when he grew up in an all-Arab village in the Galilee.

"It's the values that they're growing up with, the acceptance of the other, that is so important, and that's the real problem in the Middle East. They started with each other from nursery school, so for them it's natural to be together, and they'll have a much better chance. We're not really trying to solve the conflict, we're trying to live with it."

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