Jewish and Arab Children Attending the Same School
In early 2004, three and a half years after the start of the "Al-Aqsa Intifada", Arab and Israeli parents in Wadi Ara, in the village of Kfar Kara near Katzir, started an unusual dialogue project. They set up a primary school at which 50 Jewish-Israeli and 50 Arab-Israeli children are taught in Arabic and Hebrew, by a team of dedicated staff. The school is in the Arab part of the village, called the Wadi Valley, and is named "Gesher al ha wadi" ("Bridge over the Wadi").
A symbolic name for an educational initiative founded to build bridges between Arabs and Jews. Parents, teachers and organisations such as Yad-be-Yad ("Hand in Hand") working towards mixed schools in the Middle East are keeping a close eye on its development; it is the first time a bilingual school has been set up in a village mainly inhabited by Israeli Arabs.
Jewish children reading the Qur'an
But the ambitious project faced challenges from the very outset, as the documentary "Bridge over the Wadi" made by the brothers Barak and Tomer Heymann shows. Some Jewish Israeli parents were upset to find out that their children were learning to read not only the Bible but also the Qur'an.
Other parents were sceptical about the how their Arab-Israeli children should be taught about both the Holocaust and the consequences of the foundation of the state of Israel. A fundamental question arises: who are the oppressors and who the oppressed, who are the victors and who the losers?
The school project walks a fine line, revealing the adults' dilemma: although they do not want to project their own painful family histories, their reservations, doubts and fears onto their children, the school's curriculum raises questions about their own identities.
Untainted by prejudice
When the filmmakers Barak and Tomer Heymann found out about the unusual school's foundation, they decided to accompany the project with their camera from the very beginning. They follow parents, pupils and teachers into the school, the classroom, on excursions to the mosque or the synagogue and in their private lives – for four long years.
The camera always remains in the background, becoming a familiar observer and enabling intimate and authentic insights. Without comment, the film "Bridge over the Wadi" shows how the children shake off the fears and doubts of the adult world, politics and everyday reality, to create their very own community. They ask each other natural and open questions, not excluding anyone. The children don't care if their school friends are Israelis or Arabs – they are untainted by prejudice.
And the adults too learn to cope with their doubts. The young Arab teacher Sabrine has to find her way and stand her ground against her own colleagues and the parents. But everyone learns that discussions are a necessary part of the project, even though they exert enormous stress on all those involved.
"It's important for us to argue – that's part of our school. That's the only way for us to learn. The painful and unpleasant aspects are always there, it's an ongoing process," says Sabrine.
These are processes that are usually neglected by the state education authorities, according to Barak Heyman: "It's crazy. The Israeli Arab schools, which have only Arab teachers, are not allowed to tell the solely Arab pupils anything about the Palestinians' disaster, the 'Nakba'". "Everyone, regardless of their origin, should express their own truth, their understanding, and they shouldn't hold back because it might be disturbing or painful for others," comments Sabrine.
"We did it like this with the children last year, for example: every child had to find out about this day at home, from their parents or on the Internet. They didn't have to listen to their teachers on the subject, but they listened to each other. They decided for themselves. The idea of this school project is not only to teach the children, but also to show the world that it is possible, that there can be a peaceful coexistence, despite all the conflicts and problems, and to realise this coexistence in a positive form, all over the world."
By the end of the documentary it emerges that the peaceful bridge to understanding for one another through education is a success. Registrations for the "Bridge over the Wadi" primary school doubled in number in 2005.
The film was presented to a European audience for the first time at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam in 2006. Viewers were deeply impressed by the film's depiction of the difficult dialogue between Arabs and Israelis, which the children have long since mastered, bestowing the film with an Audience Award.
© Qantara.de 2007
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire