From Belfast to Jerusalem

8 June 2017

Partnering Across Sides

Both Tomer Oshry and Hitham Slama were born after the Six Day War. Both grew up – one in a West Bank Settlement, the other in an Israeli-Arab town – before the first Intifada and still fondly remember enjoying good relations with their Jewish and Arab neighbors.

Slama and Oshry want to bring those times back. As principals of high schools, one in Jewish West Jerusalem, in Armon Hanatziv, and the other in the Palestinian East Jerusalem, in Sur Baher, they have the opportunity to do so.

“From my office window [in Armon Hanatziv], I can see the houses of Sur Baher and when I visit Sur Baher, I can see our school,” says Oshry, principal of the Seligsberg High School. “It’s not far but nobody crosses the line…and that’s awful. We learn about people from the other side of the road only from the press, which gives us one dimension. The fear leads to hate. As an educator, I didn’t want my students to fear our neighbors. I wanted to find a way to get to know them.

“I was fortunate because on the other side there was Hitham.”

Inspiration from Ireland

Slama, principal of the Ibn Rushd School, Oshry, and their colleagues spent a week in Northern Ireland in a trip sponsored by Shatil’s partner in the Education for Shared Living Forum, The Center for Educational Technology, and the Jerusalem Education Authority. They studied joint learning programs between former Protestant and Catholic enemies and also shared their own pain and sorrow as well as laughter and song. In the process, they forged a friendship.

Even when principals initiate joint learning, it’s ultimately up to teachers to make it happen. After Ireland, Oshry and Slama brought teachers together to get to know one another and to plan and think together. The result was joint classes in English, robotics, and judo martial arts for the two schools.

They were able to plan this initiative due to resources from the Shatil-led Education for Shared Living Forum. It provides teachers and other educators with an online toolkit also inspired by advances in Northern Ireland.

The pupils who participated are unanimously enthusiastic about the new joint classes.

“At first, I was nervous and a little bit afraid,” says Amir, a polite, soft-spoken 15-year-old from Ibn Rushd. “I mean we are Muslims and they are Jews and there were a lot of troubles at that time. But I found we are the same.”

A fifteen-year-old Seligsberg pupil, Shachar, says: “I was stressed out at first. I had a lot of worries. But now it’s different because I got to know this society from up close and not from preconceptions.”

Is it working?

The principals are certain they’re on the right track. “Both of us wanted to stop the hate,” says Slama. “Everyone is sick of it. As educators, this is where we can influence. And we took some brave steps.”

“You have to understand that we are talking about Armon Hanatziv and Sur Baher – we had troubles in our area,” says Oshry. “But it’s working. We see them together, learning, having lunch, enjoying the sun, playing.”

There are people on both sides who oppose “this beautiful process” as Slama calls it. Both principals have been threatened by area residents.

But both feel hopeful.

“In Ireland, we saw a mirror image of a blood-soaked conflict,” says Slama. “But through their joint lessons, the antagonism is fading away. We said, wow. It’s possible.”

“There will be years of struggle if the extremists on both sides continue to broadcast nationalism but if we give the center a chance, we can change things. Connections like the one between Hitham and me and between our teachers and our students will widen and suddenly the extremists will see that they have no followers.”

The kids agree. Asked what they would have liked to have happened differently in their joint lessons, they say:

“More meetings!”