Thursday, December 5, 2013

Think Palestinian schools preach violence? Visit this one

Think Palestinian schools preach violence? Visit this one Most of the students at the Jerusalem School of Beit Hanina are Muslims, but Israelis are among their favorite teachers. By Ilene Prusher | Dec. 4, 2013 | 4:16 PM | 5 It’s mid-morning at The Jerusalem School of Beit Hanina, not far from the Qalandia checkpoint on the road leading to points further north in Jerusalem, and then on to Ramallah. Qalandia is a place that is occasionally the scene of violent clashes between Palestinian youth and Israelis soldiers, and about 1,500 students cross the checkpoint each day – sometimes spending up to two hours to get to class – and these include some of the students at the Jerusalem School. It’s time for peace studies class, a requirement for tenth graders, and the students sit in rapt attention. The day's guest speaker is introduced by their teacher, Lisa Talesnick, a Jewish woman who immigrated to Israel from Canada in 1980, and the school’s superintendent and founder, Ross Byars, a Pentecostal Christian from Georgia who came to the Middle East around the same time to work for the Assemblies of God. The speaker's name is Fesel Kateeb, from nearby Hizme, who spent 12 years in prison for stabbing an Israeli. Talesnick, who was a journalist at the time, remembers covering it. While in prison, Kateeb tells the students, he started reading about non-violent revolutionaries: Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi. Today a married father of four, he’s sworn off violence completely, and likes to tell his story to any young Palestinian who will listen. “When I was a kid, no one gave me an alternative to violence; they said everything was the fault of the occupation, so we went to throw stones at Qalandia,” he says. A tall teenager named Omar, wearing the school’s polo shirt-as-uniform with the “Peace Starts with Me" logo, has a question: “Once you decided to take the path of peace, did you ever think about going back to resistance?” Kateeb lifts his chin, a Middle Eastern way of saying no. “No, once I made my decision, that was it. No going back.” The students chew on this, and time is nearly up. Byars gives them a mini-assignment. “Write me a two-line reaction,” he instructs. “How you feel about what he said? Send it to Miss Lisa’s school e-mail.” To be sure, this isn’t a school of deprivation. Not only do these students not lack easy Internet access, but most of them take notes on their iPads – paper seems almost passé. It’s a K-12 private school, with 860 students and another 450 at a branch school in Beit Jala. Many of them are from families that can manage the tuition; others get some financial aid and there are a few scholarships. Although it’s officially a Christian school, it takes an ecumenical approach because the majority of its students are Muslim. But that doesn’t mean the school avoids religion; Talesnick teaches not just peace studies, but Chemistry and Judaism as well, the latter as part of the “religion and ethics” curriculum. Today, in fact, she’s trying to introduce the students to a mystical teaching from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi in British Mandatory Palestine. The big idea is his concept of the “inner eye,” and Talesnick wants to suggest that if you can see with it, you’re color blind. It’s a good lesson against racism, but some of the kids, particularly the boys, are a bit unruly. She may be a peacenik, but she’s no pushover with the troublemakers, The students are given a writing assignment based on the lesson, making the disruptive ones pipe down. “Can I send it you from my iPad?” one calls out. Not all of the parents were pleased when, about three years ago, Byars decided to start bringing in Jewish Israeli teachers. It began with the fact that he wanted the students, native Arabic speakers who are already learning in a second language – English – to learn Hebrew as well. Israel may consider this part of its united capital, but most students in East Jerusalem schools don’t learn Hebrew. A few of the parents who were most outraged by the introduction of Israeli teachers decided to withdraw their children from the school. Now, seven Israelis teach various subjects at the 27-year-old school, where most of the faculty is international, primarily American. The parents seem to have accepted the situation as the norm - or have even embraces it, driving to the school from the other side of the separation barrier. Talesnick, who drives here each day from a moshav outside of Jerusalem, feels that she actually earned her “cred” with some of the teenage Palestinian boys, not just in the peace studies class, but in the chemistry lab. Going back to school after years working in journalism, she says, made perfect sense. “I got really turned off by the story,” she says. “I felt this demand for more violent stories to sell more fear and get people to buy more weapons – I just got disgusted with it.” She also takes the kids on field trips – to liberal synagogues in West Jerusalem, on outings to meet Israeli students their age and trips elsewhere in the country. The students also visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum and read books, such as “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. Recently they were visited by Mohammed Dajani Daoudi, an Al-Quds University academic who argues that Palestinians should study the Holocaust. Students in the peace track have to study nonviolent revolutions around the world – 41 countries have had them, Byars explains. A more advanced research class will require students to write a paper about people who have made peace – a change, he says, because standard history classes tend to focus on people who made war. “We teach them that there is injustice in the world, but we choose how to respond to it. You can choose to respond violently or nonviolently, or you could choose not to respond at all,” he adds. Issues of Palestinian identity are touched on, naturally, but much of that is left to what the students get at home and in the neighborhood. “We used to do a Palestinian Heritage Day, but we wound up cutting it out,” Byars says. “We found it worked against us.”

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