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Our year together: the holidays at the NSWAS Primary School

Saturday 11 August 2007, by Joanna Steinhardt

Based on an article in Hebrew by Ety Edlund, a
co-founder of the NSWAS Primary School.

At Neve Shalom - Wahat al-Salam, holiday celebrations offer a window into the unique challenges and encouraging successes we experience as a binational community. For each one of us, holidays are tied to memories from the past - the food and song to the teachings and values that we bring with us from home. At the NSWAS Primary School, the holidays are given a prominent place in the curriculum; as an opportunity to create fun educational activities that deepen the children’s knowledge of the holidays, both their own and those of their peers. As they are taught the symbols, customs, and stories of different holidays, they also learn the history and perspective of other groups and how to respect the differences between peoples. More importantly, they learn these values through engaging and stimulating methods, such as costumes, plays, cookies, and parties. This creates memorable experiences that stay with the children long after they leave the school.

One of our main teaching strategies at the primary school is to highlight the values and themes that are common to all holidays from the three religions. This way, the curriculum is accessible to the students, making the material easy and pleasant to learn. By becoming aware of each holiday in this manner, we are able to emphasize universal values that transcend the particular doctrine of one religion or another. Such common values light our way through the personal and social reality that each one of us must face in this country and region. It is a way to create a shared identity for a shared future.

The interfaith encounter in Israel comes with many challenges. For one thing, there is the practical issue of accommodating the holidays of three religions and still having enough class time to cover the material necessary to finish the school year. At the same time, we try to reduce the amount of days during the school year in which only one group, national or religious, is learning in the school. In general, the uni-national school day has some advantages, such as strengthening internal group identity in the context of the binational encounter, yet it also disrupts the daily rhythm of the school. Such uni-national days are inevitable at certain times during the year because of the three religious calendars and their various holidays. Each year involves managing this complicated balancing act in order to include as much binational encounter time into the curriculum as possible, while at the same time accommodating each group and its needs.

Another issue, deeper but just as complex, is the relationship between religion and ethnicity. Although the Jewish children are united in both religion and ethnicity, the Palestinian children are “divided” between Christians and Muslims. For the Jewish children, their ethnic and religious identity is intertwined. The biblical story of the Jews is evoked throughout the year and emphasizes their common ethnic identity through holidays, religious rituals, and customs. In contrast, the division among the Palestinian group into Christians and Muslims tends to undermine the shared identity they feel at most other times of the year. In order to promote binational dialogue, we aim to minimize this division among the Palestinian children. Therefore, we emphasize common elements between the Muslim and Christian calendars that relate to Palestinian customs. Over the many centuries that they’ve shared the same land and language, a common culture has developed between the two religious groups. At the primary school, we emphasize the aspects of the Palestinian culture that transcend religion, such as those relating to nature and renewal. In addition, the administration ensures that the Palestinian children, Christian and Muslim, have their holiday breaks together.

Holiday activities are organized by our two social coordinators, one Jewish and one Arab, and aided by the student councils and the additional help of the classroom teachers. During the school year, there are always a few holidays that promise to be highlights of the school year. Two of these in particular are Tu B’Shvat / Eid Ghars Ul-Asjar and Purim.

Tu B’Shvat / Eid Ghars Ul-Asjar
is a special holiday in that it is the only one to be shared by both Jews and Palestinians. This holiday, which takes place during the rainy season, is a new year’s celebration that honors trees and vegetation. It is a time to give thanks to the Earth and enjoy everything it offers to humankind. Every year, the children go out to plant trees and plants, taking special pleasure in the natural world. During this holiday, we take advantage of our advantageous location. Only a few steps away lies a expansive forest where a shaded interior provides an inviting setting for learning and creative activities. Recently for Tu B’Shvat / Eid Ghars Ul-Asjar, the students created houses from natural materials; prepared zaatar (hyssop) in pita bread while learning about local herbs; and made signs for the trees at the school grounds in both languages.

Although Tu B’Shvat / Eid Ghars Ul-Asjar is a joy for both children and teachers, there is no doubt that Purim is the “coolest” holiday. This holiday commemorates the rescue of the Jews from the plotting of an evil bureaucrat in ancient Persia. It is celebrated by dressing up, feasting, and having parties. For the children, it is a time of creativity and innovation. Already by the start of the week, their inhibitions are forgotten. The lawn of the school is filled with children in costume and pajamas feeling right at home. Such is the day when everything is imagination, color, fun, and games.

These holidays are a time for the children to express their ingenuity and learn about each other traditions. There are other days, though, in which the Jewish and Palestinian calendars represent the challenges that come with binational education in Israel. These include Land Day, Holocaust Memorial Day, the Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers, Independence Day, and the commemoration of the Nakba.

At Neve Shalom - Wahat al-Salam, Jews and Palestinian children come with two different narratives and two different points of view; along with these differing perspectives comes many negative feelings, such as suspicion, anger, frustration, and fear. The task of teachers and administrators is to find a way to relate to both sides in a to work through these negative associations and works towards a more tolerant and understanding relationship between Palestinians and Jews.

Land Day marks the death of six Arab citizens in 1976 at the hand of the Israeli army and police during protests over government expropriation of land. The academic session on Land Day begins at the end of March. The children learn about the events that marked the fateful day, as well as basic ideas about land and value. The school commemorates the actual day with special activities. First, we make a point of dividing the children between younger and older age levels (first to third grade, fourth to sixth grade) to differentiate between levels of maturity as they explore these complex topics. Each classroom hosts the other classes to learn about a particular topic connected to land and Land Day. One year, the second grade built homes and villages; the fourth grade created land and trees; and the fifth grade worked on an “identity puzzle.”

After Land Day comes the most challenging period of the school year: the dates surrounding the Israeli Independence Day. This course of study begins with the Holocaust Memorial Day, followed by (two weeks later with) the Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers, then Independence Day and finally the Nakba Memorial Day. For Jewish Israelis, the founding of the state of Israel is celebrated as Israeli Independence Day; but for Palestinians, the same day is marked as a day of mourning. On this day, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were uprooted from their homes during the war and were later barred from returning home. Instead, they became refugees, exiled from their homeland and torn from their ancestral villages. For Palestinians, the events of 1948 are referred to as the Nakba (the “Disaster” in Arabic).

Besides the difficulty of navigating the two contrasting experiences, there is the presence of two Israeli days of mourning just before Independence Day: the Holocaust Memorial Day, followed two weeks later by the Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers, which is the day before Independence Day. The placement of these memorials highlights the Jewish story of suffering and survival that ends in the founding of the state. It is important that the school balances this dominant narrative with the minority narrative that represents the Palestinian side of the story. These two points of view testify to two different experiences of history that shapes the identities of both national groups today. For this reason, we proceed with great caution. The succession of national holidays brings into focus the roots of the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Israel/Palestine. At the same time, these complicated topics offer a rare opportunity to address the most challenging issues that face Jews and Arabs in Israel, offering each child a new perspective on the events of the past in light of the possibilities for the future.

The dissonance between the two points of view is impossible to avoid during these national days of mourning and celebration. For that reason, we deal with it head-on, addressing these issues from many angles; also by balancing the time each group spends with the other group and how much time they spend amongst themselves. This way, the Arab and Jewish children can have time to address these issues from both perspectives as well as in a safe space with members from the same group. Most importantly, we bring the children back together at the end of these days to emphasize their shared role in creating a new future.

Due to the fact that all schools must be closed on Independence Day, we use the Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers as a time to address Independence Day and the many associations that come with it. Therefore, we have developed three special curricula at the primary school: one dealing with Holocaust Memorial Day, another with the Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers, and the final with the Nakba Memorial Day.

During Holocaust Memorial Day, the children are taught about the horrible events of the Holocaust (according to their age and maturity level) followed by a discussion on the history of pogroms/holocausts among the Jews and other peoples. One year, Tzipi, the art teacher, worked with the children to decorate paper butterflies. The butterflies were sent to a museum in Germany where the names of children who were killed in the Holocaust were added to each individual butterfly. On the day of the memorial, there was a ceremony that was prepared by the fifth grade, in which all of the children took part.

Immediately after comes the Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers. On this day, we open each homeroom class with a binational encounter. The teacher initiates a conversation on what it means to be independent as a child, as a human being, and as a people. This leads to a discussion on rights and obligations at home, in the school, and in society. Also, they discuss the right to define him or herself and the responsibility of each one of us to protect the rights of one other. In the end, the teachers and students talk about the experience of feeling “at home” and with it, comes the joy of having a homeland, but also the sadness of not having one.

Finally, the children retire to uni-national groups where they learn about the stories and symbols of their people in relation to the particular events of the war of 1948. The Jewish children take part in a ceremony during the siren that marks the national holiday. This uni-national period is important at this time as it allows for a relaxed atmosphere during this highly complex and potentially uncomfortable day. At the end of the day, all of the children assemble for a joint creative activity that requires cooperation and innovation. Together, the children draw maps and flags that incorporate Jewish and Palestinian symbols.

Nakba Memorial Day similarly begins with a binational discussion in the homeroom class led by the teacher. Subsequently, all the children take part in an activity divided between appropriate age groups. In recent years, activities included a mosaic of pictures of abandoned villages, a Palestinian embroidery, the story of the key to a home that had been lost, learning the map of Palestine, listening to a personal story of the Nakba, and poems about pain and loss. During the last lesson of the day, the children are divided into uni-national groups and the Palestinian children observe a ceremony in commemoration of the Nakba. Thereafter, all of the children meet for a short activity at “the wish tree” in the courtyard of the school.

Learning and teaching in a binational, interfaith, and bilingual environment is an experience that has its ups and downs; but ultimately, it is a unique opportunity to plant the seeds of a shared culture and identity that does not erase or ignore the past. Rather, it looks towards the future where mutual respect and recognition are at the foundation for equality and inclusiveness. At the Neve Shalom - Wahat al-Salam Primary School, we must be sensitive to each and every child and teach the truth of each side. At the same time, we must try to shield the children from both the unbearable burdens of guilt and the self-righteous claims of victim hood that are so commonly heard. We must remind ourselves that these children accomplish daily what we adults have failed in doing for so long: living side by side in acceptance; recognizing and respecting the other story; and cooperating to achieve their goals.

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