Joint Jewish-Arab school teaches coexistence

Barak Heymann's documentary film "Gesher al HaWadi" is about a joint Jewish-Arab school in Wadi Ara.

barak heymann 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
barak heymann 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
In a Netanya pub in the late 1980s, 16-year-old Tomer Heymann befriended a local waiter by the name of Yigal, who gradually became a close friend of the Heymann family. Several years went by before Yigal was comfortable enough with his Jewish friends to reveal that he was actually Feisal Heichal, from the Arab village of Kafr Kara. "It was a period in my life when all I wanted was to belong, to speak Hebrew, to absorb Israeli culture," Heichal told The Jerusalem Post in an interview on Wednesday. "And so I changed my name and became someone completely different. But, in the end, the constant switching between different hats became a nightmare." Eventually, after spending several years abroad, Heichal returned home to Kafr Kara, where he married and had two children. Fast-forward to 2002, when Heichal joined a group of Arab and Jewish parents living in the Wadi Ara area who decided to found a Jewish-Arab school. Heichal soon invited Heymann and his brother Barak - the producers of several award-winning documentaries - to turn their cameras on the nascent school project. Their film, a four-chapter documentary named Gesher al HaWadi, or Bridge Across the Wadi, will be broadcast on the Yes Doco channel beginning next Tuesday. Established in September 2004, Gesher al HaWadi is the third Arab-Israeli school to be founded in Israel. The school is entirely bilingual, and an Arab and Jewish teacher partner up to teach each class. Part of Heichal's involvement in founding the school, he said, stemmed from his desire to give his eldest daughter, Amina, an education that would spare her the kind of identity crisis he had suffered through. Like some of the other parents interviewed in the film, Heichal said he believed that the experience of coexistence actually strengthened each group's collective identity and connection to its own heritage and culture. The film, however, is far from painting the kind of rosy, naive picture of coexistence that at least some of the parents and teachers initially held. On Israeli Independence day, the Jewish children celebrate the holiday, while the Arab children attend a somber ceremony in memory of the "Nakba" - the Arabic term by which Palestinians refer to Israeli War of Independence, which literally means "catastrophe" in Arabic. "In the beginning, I said I would make sure that my children wouldn't develop guilt feelings and feel apologetic about being Jewish," Tali Gaon, one of the Jewish mothers, said in the course of the film. "We are here to stay - we have no other country, and that's that." Meanwhile, Sabrine Ankar, one of the Arab teachers in the school, told the filmmakers, "I have no problem with them (the Jews) being happy, but I want them to know they are being happy at the expense of another people." At another moment during the film Marwat Omri, a social worker from Kafr Kara, speaks of her disenchantment with the school. "What is bilingual and binational about things when there is an oppressor and an oppressed?" she asked. "I'm not interested in being dazzled by all this togetherness." When Ankar taught one class about the confiscation of Arab lands by the Israeli government, her Jewish colleague asked which of the Jewish children feels guilty about what she is describing, and several hands go up in the room. "You have no reason to feel guilty," the teacher said. "That is how things are in a war situation. We are here to respect the pain of other people, but not to feel guilty." "This school is definitely not about the coexistence industry, which amounts to eating humous and having a cup of coffee together," Heichal said. While the documentary was being screened to the school community earlier this week, he added, his daughter asked him what the "October Events" were. "When I tried to given her a quick explanation," he said, "Her response was 'Daddy, it can't be that Arabs and Jews fight with one another.' It's just not part of her day-to-day experience." "The film is really about the problems and schisms between the adults," said Asnat Riffkin, who has three children at the school. "I think it tells us grown-ups that we can live together, if we could only be more innocent, hate each other less and understand each other more."