The Choices We Make

It is often said that the parallel worlds of victimization that these two people live in makes it virtually impossible for each side to comprehend, let alone accept, the other’s pain. But when attempts to cross over that divide do happen, they are deeply moving – as is illustrated in Dalia’s life-story, or in the community that is being created at Hagar

This week I had the opportunity to visit a bi-lingual (Hebrew and Arabic) elementary school in Beer Sheva (approximately an hour and a half south of Jerusalem) on account of the school’s interest in the Peace Heroes Curriculum. The school, called Hagar, is a truly amazing enterprise – I was completely blown away by how they have managed to create an environment of equality, mutual respect, and shared living for all of their 250 Jewish and Arab students. The school was started ten years ago by Jewish and Arab parents who were unhappy with the way the education system separates the two peoples. So they decided to start their own mixed school, beginning with kindergarten and gradually increasing their capacity so that today they have classes all the way to 6th grade. The school is completely bi-lingual and each class is co-taught by two teachers, one who speaks Hebrew and once who speaks Arabic. There is a strong emphasis on identity at the school, and students are encouraged to learn about their own heritage and culture as well as that of their peers. As part of this journey toward a deeper understanding of self and others, the school celebrates all the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian holidays. The environment they have created at Hagar is a remarkable manifestation of what shared life between Jews and Arabs in Israel can look like.

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Girl Against All Odds

Malala knew she was putting her life at risk, but being denied her basic human right to education was not something she was willing to accept quietly, without a fight. Silence was what the Taliban wanted of her. Silence was what she refused to give them

Several weeks ago I had the honor of visiting one of our Israeli pilot schools, where the 8th graders were giving presentations on the first peace hero they had studied. The teachers were quick to point out that this was a special event (“8th graders don’t do presentations!”), and the school even opened up its auditorium for the occasion. In total, six groups presented on Malala Yousafzai, each of them focusing on a different aspect of her life and work. Two of the teams did presentations that looked at Malala and children’s rights (the right to education) and Malala and women’s rights, and the various issues that arise from a violation of these rights and freedoms. It was fascinating watching Israeli students talk about their Muslim counterpart (Malala was a student just like them). The discussion that followed the presentations was also quite remarkable, as the teacher deliberately guided the students into an examination of these issues as they are manifested here in Israel. For many of the students, it was an exercise in awareness – suddenly they were able to transfer what they had learned about Malala into their own personal context, which, in turn, raised some very poignant questions and led to a very passionate/heated debate. I was pleased to see how interacting with this peace hero was making the students grapple with their own reality. That, I thought, is exactly the point of the Curriculum.

Inspired by this school visit and in honor of International Women’s Day, I thought I’d share an abridged version of my write-up on Malala from the Peace Heroes Curriculum. May her life story inspire each and every one of us to look at our own contexts with new awareness of and sensitivity for the rights and freedoms of those within our sphere of influence.

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Sites of Encounter

For the Jewish and Arab children at Sataf, the joint experience was accidental. But I couldn’t help but wonder: what if this convergence of lives extended beyond the day’s hike down to the springs – what if they were given the opportunity to carry on through shared learning, through intentional encounters?

There is a beautiful hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem, a nature reserve that is well known and very popular among those who enjoy the outdoors. It is especially stunning in the springtime, when the almond trees, anemones, and cyclamen – which grow there in abundance – begin to bloom and blossom, dappling the landscape with a burst of bright colors, tantalizing the senses with scents of every kind. I’ve walked there often, and have, on many occasions, felt that here is a little piece of paradise – an oasis of beauty, peace, and tranquility in the midst of what can only be described as a chronically frenetic, tense, and potentially explosive city.

But Sataf is not as pristine as it might seem. Its history is as sad and tangled as any landscape in this country, with only the remnants of long-abandoned buildings left to tell stories from a long forgotten past. Scattered over the hill, mostly on the eastern and southern slopes, are the skeletal remains of what was once a thriving Arab village – agricultural in nature, as attested to by the many man-made terraces that scale the hillsides. Like so many, this village was abandoned in 1948, in the wake of the creation of the State of Israel. But the crumbling structures (built during the Ottoman era) are joined by a good number of more modern looking buildings – or shacks, rather – square, thin-walled, with asbestos cement ceilings (that have long-since caved in), broken down metal gates, crumbling asphalt roads – the remains of an old Israeli army base, also abandoned many years ago. These deserted spaces, now very much part of a much more natural and overgrown landscape, are silent reminders that even behind all the natural beauty there are hidden secrets, a jumble of histories, the unknown joys and sorrows of a multitude of people who, at some point or other, lived in this place and made it their own. Continue reading “Sites of Encounter”

Radical Welcome

Love – in its essence – is boundless. It has no borders; no stop signs; no inherent law that says “thus far and no further.” On the contrary: the nature of love is to grow, not diminish. Peace heroes are those who understand the worth and value of all life, and who are propelled to action by the desire to restore dignity to a broken world

In March 2016, Muslim extremists carried out a terrible attack in Brussels, Belgium, killing 32 innocent people and injuring more than 300. Two days later, on Holy Thursday, while Europe was still reeling from the bombing and anti-immigrant/Muslim sentiments were on the rise, Pope Francis washed the feet of twelve asylum seekers, including Muslims from Syria and Pakistan. “Today, at this time,” said the Pope, “let us all make a gesture of brotherhood, and let us all say: ‘We are different, we are different, we have different cultures and religions, but we are brothers and we want to live in peace.’” It was a powerful expression of what can only be described as radical welcome.

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Where There is Hope

“True change begins with the strong, beautiful, broken individuals in a nation”

These days it is easy to fall prey to a growing sense of despair – I’m almost afraid to read the news, afraid to hear of the latest development, be it locally or abroad, that is guaranteed to increase the rift between peoples, obscuring the inviolability of our shared humanity. While I was feeling increasingly helpless and hopeless, it was the students participating in our pilot program who reminded me that despair is, in itself, a kind of illusion – a willed forgetfulness. For isn’t it fundamentally true that so long as there is even one person working to heal the wounds of his or her fellow human beings, there is still hope – a light shining in the darkness, robbing the darkness of its killing power? Continue reading “Where There is Hope”

The Children’s March

One little boy said to his father: “Daddy, I don’t want to disobey you, but I have made my pledge. If you try to keep me home, I will sneak off. If you think I deserve to be punished for that, I’ll just have to take the punishment. I’m not doing this only because I want to be free. I’m also doing it because I want freedom for you and Mama, and I want it to come before you die”

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, which was celebrated on January 16, I am posting an excerpt from the Peace Heroes Curriculum that tells the story of the Children’s March, which was one of the more unusual campaigns led by Dr. King in his fight for justice and freedom for all.


In the early 1960s, Birmingham, Alabama was known as the most segregated city in the South. Even though Federal Law had rendered Jim Crow illegal, Birmingham found ways to continue practicing segregation. But when civil rights activists challenged the city’s segregation laws, violence against blacks became a matter of course. Between 1957 and 1963, 18 bombs were set off against black targets, earning the city the nickname of “Bombingham.” And though some of the bombs were lethal, no one was ever arrested in connection with them, or for any of the other acts of violence committed against black people during those years.

As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum across the South, the black community in Birmingham decided that it, too, had had enough; the people were simply “tired of the assaults on their dignity and their freedom, and ready to demand justice” (Hunter-Gault). Continue reading “The Children’s March”

Starved for Dignity

The beggar in downtown Jerusalem taught me that the greatest gift we can give each other is the gift of acceptance. It might seem like a small step, but in choosing to affirm human dignity – to accept people because they are people – we inadvertently declare war on one of the most consistent violators of human freedom

Many years ago I was walking in downtown Jerusalem and came to a major intersection where I had to wait for the pedestrian light to turn green. In that short minute, an old, hunchbacked beggar shuffled up to the crowd of delayed pedestrians and began shaking his little coin-filled plastic cup in our faces – something all of us tried very hard to ignore. I was relieved when the light turned green and I could hurriedly walk away from this awkward encounter. But as I reached the other side, the sudden blaring of car horns made me turn my head, and I was horrified to see the old man slowly limping his way across the busy street. Muttering under my breath, I ran into the street, grabbed the beggar by his elbow, and led him to safety. Feeling a touch of guilt, I grabbed a few coins from my pocket and tossed them into the beggar’s hand. But before I quite understood what was happening, he gently placed the coins back into my hand, leaned forward and whispered, “Thank you – for touching me,” before slowly making his way to another group of delayed pedestrians.

I stood there, in the midst of all the city’s chaos, completely stunned.

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Only Love Can Do That

There is a certain irony to the fact that the very first fire to break out when the high winds began was at the Jewish-Arab village of Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam – the only place in Israel where Jews and Palestinians live together in an intentionally shared community

When our 5th/6th grade teacher asked the students to rewrite Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote that “Hate cannot drive out hate – only love can do that,” one of them offered this alternative: “Fire cannot put out fire, only water can do that.”

For the past few days, countries in this region of the Middle East have experienced unusually high winds that have caused an unprecedented outbreak of fires [1]. The strong winds are coming from the east – from the desert – meaning that the air is almost completely devoid of moisture. The combination of wind, dry air, and a parched landscape still waiting for the winter rains to arrive has turned any outbreak of fire into a potential disaster, on both the environmental and humanitarian levels. Forests and houses have simply gone up in flames.

In Israel, negligence and arson have both been cited as the causes behind these fires [2]. In the current political climate, it didn’t take long for politicians to start throwing accusations in the direction of the local Palestinian population as a whole, which, helped along by the media, only added fuel to the emotional fires that have been burning out of control for quite some time. Meanwhile, on the Palestinian side, there were those who did not attempt to hide their delight at Israel’s misfortune, with some even calling on people to deliberately start more fires.  Continue reading “Only Love Can Do That”

Communities of Inclusivity

To be included –to belong–to be part of–to share life with– these are the experiences that will leave their indelible mark on the students. So it is no small thing to stop and ask ourselves: What kind of communities are we building in our schools?

The other day I tried to remember what I learned in 3rd grade, and I couldn’t think of a single thing. What I did remember, however, was how my friends and I formed a little “pack” (we called it) and did everything together – in school and out – so that I never felt friendless or alone; I remembered how my teacher would give each of us a big bear hug each morning, squeezing the living daylights out of us in an embrace we wouldn’t have exchanged for anything in the world; and I remembered how another teacher cried when the class was so out of control, we missed the siren that commemorated victims of the Holocaust (and how, for the first time, I felt the full impact of what it means to bear communal responsibility for less-than-ideal behavior). If I were to take time to think through 4th, 5th, and 6th grade, I suspect the pattern would be the same: I would remember random events involving friends, students, and teachers; I would remember that I generally enjoyed the whole experience; but I wouldn’t remember anything at all about what I learned in Math, Language Arts, or PE.

I think that, as kids, we are much more shaped by the social environment at our school than by any information we learn in class. Continue reading “Communities of Inclusivity”

When Lives Collide

I couldn’t help thinking, as she held me tight, that what goes around comes around, often in the most beautiful and unexpected ways

A week ago, Liberian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee arrived in Israel for a whirlwind two-day visit. She was invited to attend the grand finale of an event organized by Women Wage Peace, which had begun on October 4 with a group of Israeli and Palestinian women who were slowly marching from the north of the country down to Jerusalem, where they planned to hand the Prime Minister a letter demanding an end to the conflict. Their inspiration was the women’s peace movement in Liberia that had brought down that country’s dictator in 2003.  It was, therefore, in her capacity as a woman, a peace activist, and a Nobel laureate that Leymah was invited to attend this event and give the keynote addresses in a variety of settings on the final days of the march. Continue reading “When Lives Collide”