After Gaza war, a harder coexistence for Jews and Arabs

Israeli groups that focus on Jewish and Arab coexistence are just beginning to wrestle with the fallout from the Gaza war.

Joshua Mitnick
NEW DIVIDE: Parents at Hagar kindergarten says Arab and Jewish children are playing separately at school since the war.

The Hagar bilingual kindergarten was founded as a rare cocoon from ethnic alienation for children and parents in Israel. But even this place of innocence and coexistence isn't immune to the deeper divisions between Jews and Arabs here that has followed the Gaza war.

"When Assin came back from her first day [after the war] she said, 'Mommy, today we played war between Israel and Gaza,' " says Suha Farhat, about her 5-year-old daughter.

The school intended to meet Tuesday, in part to address students' and parents' feelings following the battle between Israel and Hamas, but discussing it may have proved too painful. Few parents came.

Groups that focus on Jewish and Arab coexistence are just beginning to wrestle with the fallout from the war but despite an ideological commitment to living together in peace, the search for political common ground has been largely seen as too controversial.

"I wasn't against the war. I think that we have a right to defend ourselves, but that isn't something I bring up," says Debra Mathias, whose has sent two children to the kindergarten. "I don't expect [the school] will change the world, but I at least hope for my children to be open minded, and to really understand the complexity of living here."

Amid Israel's mostly segregated education system, the kindergarten is part of a network of four schools sponsored by the bilingual educational nonprofit Hand in Hand. At the kindergarten, walls are filled with a rainbow of pictures with captions in Hebrew and Arabic. Since the war, an alarm has been added in case of an unexpected missile strike.

Schools in Beersheva were ordered shut for the duration of the 22-day war, and most families fled the war zone to stay with relatives. Returning after a month-long break, the children suddenly separated according to nationality at recess.

But rather than undoing the fabric of cooperation, Jewish and Arab parents say the war reinforced their sense of purpose.

"The connection has been revived. The Jewish parents have started inviting [over] the Arab parents and the Arab parents started inviting the Jews," Ms. Farhat continued. "In the kindergarten, everything is rosy and beautiful. What is difficult is in the street."

But like Hagar, other exercises in coexistence have proven resilient. A group of Arab and Jewish teenagers from Jaffa and Tel Aviv who have worked together for three years on a joint magazine through the group Windows for Peace convened to discuss the charged issue of war crimes and the Gaza war.

Hanna Wietzman, a project coordinator for Windows, says that one Jewish participant had been offered money from a family member not to come.

"It was a difficult meeting," she says. "They're 14, but they're aware enough of what's going on from parents and in their schools…. But overall they left feeling they were a group and that they can communicate. The long-term process pays dividends."

Dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is more difficult than the Arab citizens of Israel.

Movement restrictions from the Israeli army's strict security measures and the stigma of talking to the enemy severely limit the ability of Palestinians to reach dialogues that usually held inside Israel.

At one multinational program focusing on joint study of natural science, friendships quickly disintegrated during the war because of arguments waged via Facebook.

A joint venture between Israeli, Palestinian, and French documentary producers, a video blog entitled "Gaza Sderot" chronicled the lives of Israeli Jews and Palestinians up until the start of the war. After the guns fell silent, the producers decided to shoot an extra installment dealing with the war.

Gazan coproducer Yousef Atwa says that he was initially reluctant for the episodes from Gaza and Sderot be presented side by side.

"But we are talking about civilians who are paying for their governments' mistakes on both sides. This has nothing to do with politics," he says.

Back at the Hagar kindergarten meeting, parents sat on toddler-sized chairs as they listened to Anwar al-Hajouj recount how he tried to shield his children from the carnage broadcast on Al Jazeera.

"All around us it was like, 'The Jews are sending plans to bomb Gaza,' but there are Jews also in the kindergarten," he says. "This is the worst crisis we have gone through. You have to differentiate between the government and the Jews in the kindergarten."

The month since the end of the war has passed swiftly, says Hagar principal Suha Ibrahim. At school, at least, the conflict has faded into the past. A joint picnic is being planned in the upcoming weeks.

"As a community, it brought us together. It wasn't connected to the political positions of the parents. It didn't matter what side you were on, it was clear that the war was dangerous. It divides us into a binary world," says Ifat Hillel, a founder of the kindergarten. "Everyone agreed the fabric we have built together here is the one possibility to live a normal life in the Middle East," she says.

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