From west to east (Jerusalem): A tale of two elementary schools

The stop at the Beit Safafa Elementary school had an ominous tone from the start.

Peres kids smile 224 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Peres kids smile 224 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As they made their way into the Efrata Elementary School in Jerusalem's Baka neighborhood on Monday, President Shimon Peres and Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski - who were touring local schools on the first day of classes - were greeted by a band of youngsters, whose drums, flutes and recorders picked up in a royal accompaniment as the two guests of honor made their way down the long, crowded walkway and into the school's auditorium. Their reception in Baka was a grand one - students sat attentively through their speeches, cheering and participating when the president asked them if they loved their hometown. "Do you love Jerusalem?" Peres asked the starry-eyed crowd. "Yes!" they responded unanimously. "Do you love Israel?" he asked again, and the same positive response came back, as the kids teemed with excitement, and teachers beamed. As the ceremony continued, the first-grade students ran into the auditorium to roaring applause, passing under a huppa that had been set up for them, talit and all. "This is really cool," said Yael Kornitzer, one of the pupils in the crowd. But the attentive glamor bestowed upon both Peres and Lupolianski was contrasted by their next stop - the Beit Safafa Elementary school in the Arab village of the same name - a 10-minute drive from Baka, positioned neatly along the Green Line, which effectively separates Beit Safafa from the neighboring Arab villages in the nearby West Bank. The stop in the village had an ominous tone from the start, as reporters following Peres and Lupolianski began murmuring about the burning of an Israeli flag that had taken place at the entrance to the school, only hours before the president and mayor were scheduled to appear there. Upon their arrival, the differences between the duo's first reception and that along the seam line began to mount. While standard security had been present in Baka, the bomb-sniffing dogs and plain-clothes security personnel with wires running from their ears in Beit Safafa gave off the impression that a diplomatic exchange was under way - hardly standard for a visit to a local elementary school. The two made their way inside, passing through the entrance that had been set ablaze earlier, which was wet from the cleaning process undertaken to rid it of ashes and burn marks. Posters of the Dome of the Rock, photographs showing examples of "Traditional Palestinian Dress" and Arabic instructional signs lined the walls. Security tightened as Lupolianski and Peres took their seats. But their entrance was not applauded as it had been in Baka. Arabic music was playing, in lieu of a band, before a sweet-eyed girl doled out a soulful tune on her electric keyboard. The uniformed kids were restless, and both the mayor and president struggled over their chatter as they gave speeches that spoke of unity and the need for peace between Jerusalem's diverse body of residents. The school's administrators looked on sheepishly, quieting the kids down whenever their conversations challenged those of the esteemed visitors. One man approached reporters and said that the president and mayor's visit meant nothing to him. "They don't want to be here," he said. "This doesn't mean anything." But other men, who called the man "crazy," pulled him away before he could say any more. Others attempted to explain the mood in Beit Safafa, telling The Jerusalem Post that neglect of the east Jerusalem school system was to blame. "We need many changes," said Mai Abu-Shama, a teacher at the school and mother of three. "We need more schoolbooks and our classrooms are overcrowded. I hope, God willing, that this visit will bring much-needed benefits to ours schools." But as Lupolianski and Peres left, their security details behind them, quiet descended on Beit Safafa, and as the first day of school commenced, things returned to normal.