To mark Family Day, which is the Israeli version of Valentine’s Day (don’t ask me why), my husband and I were invited to visit the kindergarten which our granddaughter attends.
The kindergarten is rather special. It is situated in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Abu Tor, which was once divided into Arab and Jewish parts by the border with Jordan. After the Six-Day War the two neighbourhoods were no longer separated and people could move freely between them, as was the case when I lived there some thirty years ago.
The building that contains the kindergarten is set in what was once a park on the edge of the two neighbourhoods. With the help of the Jerusalem Foundation and various donors, the building was erected by the Micha Organisation which extends aid and education to deaf and hearing-impaired children in Israel. On the ground floor of the building is a kindergarten for those children, as well as offices housing speech therapists and other professionals whose task it is to help these children.
But on the second floor is the Harmony Kindergarten, where Arab and Jewish children learn and play together, and where the ethnic composition is made up of equal numbers from each population. Three times a week the two kindergartens get together for joint activities, so that what happens in that environment is a three-fold mingling of children from two different cultures as well as those who can hear and those whose hearing is impaired. The activities of the Harmony Kindergarten are conducted in two languages, Arabic and Hebrew, with attendants drawn from both segments of the population.
The activities on the Family Day which I attended started with an introduction and welcome proffered by the two main teachers, Dafna, who spoke in Hebrew, and Randa, who spoke in Arabic. The idea of the bilingual kindergarten had been incubating for a long time, and it was emphasized that its existence represents the fulfillment of a vision for all those involved. Then we watched as our grandchildren all sang songs in both Arabic and Hebrew, banging time by means of little plastic spoons. A light breakfast was served and together with our grandchildren we all partook of the delicacies that had been prepared.
For the rest of the morning we were divided into small groups and were directed to several stations where, together with our grandchildren, we painted, made sock-puppets and baked biscuits (wearing special hats). As was only to be expected, the Israeli and Arab grandparents all displayed equal pride in the achievements of their offspring, and it was heartening to sit side-by-side with our fellow-grandparents and work together to help and encourage the little ones. Although we were not always able to communicate verbally with one another, our smiles and gestures spoke volumes. Two of the stations were situated in the spacious and airy library, where children are able to sit and enjoy looking at books from the well-stocked shelves.
Children’s songs in both languages were played in the background as we worked at our various tasks and the atmosphere of genial cooperation was palpable. A great deal of thought and preparation had evidently been invested by the staff, and I think they were pleased with the result of their efforts. They certainly deserve a lot of credit for what they have achieved. As we left, after a period of free play in the open-air where a variety of toys and games were available, we were handed a little bag of toys for each child which we were were told was ‘a gift from Moussa’s grandmother.’
Children do not hate. That is something that they are taught by their elders and ‘betters’ somewhere along the way. If only the atmosphere of mutual cooperation that a small group of people experienced last week could prevail more widely, the world – and Israel – would be a better place. But it’s encouraging to find that there are some young parents out there who are doing their bit to overcome prejudice and encourage coexistence and cooperation between Jews and Arabs in Israel.