This week I had the opportunity to visit a bi-lingual (Hebrew and Arabic) elementary school in Beer Sheva (approximately an hour and a half south of Jerusalem) on account of the school’s interest in the Peace Heroes program. The school, called Hagar, is a truly amazing enterprise – I was completely blown away by how they have managed to create an environment of equality, mutual respect, and shared living for all of their 250 Jewish and Arab students. The school was started ten years ago by Jewish and Arab parents who were unhappy with the way the education system separates the two peoples. So they decided to start their own mixed school, beginning with kindergarten and gradually increasing their capacity so that today they have classes all the way to 6th grade. The school is completely bi-lingual and each class is co-taught by two teachers, one who speaks Hebrew and once who speaks Arabic. There is a strong emphasis on identity at the school, and students are encouraged to learn about their own heritage and culture as well as that of their peers. As part of this journey toward a deeper understanding of self and others, the school celebrates all the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian holidays. The environment they have created at Hagar is a remarkable manifestation of what shared life between Jews and Arabs in Israel can look like.
One of the things about the school that really struck me is their emphasis on commemorating both the Jewish and Palestinian memorial days in an effort not only to learn about the different narratives that inform these various communities, but also as a way of showing respect for the pain and suffering of both sides. To have a school that marks Holocaust Day, Israeli Memorial Day, Nakba Day and Land Day is as extraordinary as it gets in this conflicted region of the world! I could barely wrap my mind around what that would look like within an educational framework; instead, I kept thinking how unbelievably controversial and beautiful it is, all at the same time. Because the fact of the matter is that real shared living (of any kind) requires this kind of give and take – the willingness to listen to the other side’s point of view and empathize with their pain in the same way we want them to empathize with ours.
Hagar seems like a perfect school to take on the Peace Heroes program, and they are very keen to partner with us and join the pilot program next year. But before they bring the material into their classrooms, they want to expose the teachers to it in a way that both challenges and inspires them. (After all, getting the teachers on board is key to a successful implementation of the program – in any school.) With this in mind, the school principal asked if there was any peace hero whose story might help them better commemorate the various memorial days (which mostly happen in April and May). After a quick mental run-through of our local heroes, I realized that there is, in fact, one person whose story encompasses the various histories of the people of this land in a way that recognizes the suffering of both communities while upholding the dignity of each.
This is Dalia Eshkenazi Landau, a Bulgarian-born Jewish Israeli, the daughter of Holocaust survivors who made their way to the newly created State of Israel in 1948 in an effort to rebuild the life that had been decimated by the atrocities of World War II. After being put in a refugee camp for a few weeks, Dalia’s parents were sent to a small town called Ramle, where, they were told, there were empty houses ready for the immigrants to move into. Once they arrived in the town, they were given the freedom to choose whichever house they wanted. They quickly found one to their liking, and settled there with little one-year-old Dalia.
But, like the many buildings lining the streets of Ramle, the house they chose was not a new house. In fact, the house had been built in 1936 by the Khairi family, Palestinians who had lived in al-Ramle for generations, and who had fled their home during the 1948 war, when Israeli troops took over the town. It was not until 1967, after the Six Day War, that Dalia first encountered the sad truth of her childhood home. On a hot summer day in mid-July, when Dalia was alone at home, three young Arab men rang the doorbell and quietly asked if they might look inside the house, which had once belonged to their family. Bashir Khairi, who was just six years old when his family was forced to leave al-Ramle, was now a young man of twenty-five; it was the first time in nineteen years he was seeing his childhood home again. Dalia had a split second to decide what to do, and without a moment’s hesitation, she opened wide the door and let the three young men in. She could not have known then how her decision to welcome them into the house would profoundly impact both her life as well as the Khairis.
The encounter between Dalia and Bashir set in motion a series of extraordinary events, which culminated in the most unlikely friendship between Dalia and the Khairi family, who now live in Ramallah. (It is possible to read more about this relationship in Sandy Tolan’s excellent book, The Lemon Tree.) It was many years later, only after Dalia had married and her parents had both passed away, that she decided that the house should be used in some way to heal the wounds of the past. In 1985, Dalia travelled again to Ramallah, and told Bashir that “she had not been able to stop thinking about the house and its history . . . She had been thinking, too, about the endless cycle of pain, retaliation, pain, retaliation. She wondered if there was something she could do to address that and to honor the families’ two histories” (Tolan 191). It was not possible for Dalia to transfer ownership of the house to the Khairi family (who now had no status in Israel proper). Instead, Bashir suggested that the house be turned into a preschool for Arab children. Dalia was thrilled with Bashir’s suggestion, and in the fall of 1991, the house that the Khairis and the Eshkenazis called home officially opened its doors as a pre-school for the Arab children of al-Ramla. In addition, the house became a center for coexistence between Arabs and Jews. Dalia named the new center Open House.
Dalia’s story is a remarkable one, as it illustrates the various complications that arise from the tragic unfolding of both the Jewish and Palestinian histories. It is often said that the parallel worlds of victimization that these two people live in makes it virtually impossible for each side to comprehend, let alone accept, the other’s pain. But when attempts to cross over that divide do happen, they are deeply moving – as is illustrated in Dalia’s life-story, or in the community that is being created at Hagar. Dalia has said that she chose to be part of the solution, because she loves. The community at Hagar makes the same choice every day. Being part of the solution is not easy, because it requires us to ask the hard questions, to be intentional, and to take action. But most of all, it requires us to love. And this, I believe, is the hardest and most rewarding choice of all.
Tolan, Sandy. The Lemon Tree. New York: Bloomsbury, 2006. Print.