Monday, December 21, 2009

What Did You Learn In School Today?

The thing about a social experiment, no matter how successful, is that it tells you only what might be. In a way, this only increases the pathos of what is.

A few days ago, I paid a visit to an experimental school in Jerusalem called 'Hand In Hand.' The school now has over 500 students, in a beautifully appointed building, supported partly by the Ministry of Education here, but also by donors and NGOs from abroad. It has classes for every year from kindergarten through high school; it will matriculate its first class at the end of next year. You walk around the school and see children of all ages scurrying around with one another, sharing lunches and gossip, rushing to finish homework before classes, eyeing strangers with that eager-to-please-and-what-are-you-doing-here look. In short, you see nothing remarkable. Which is just what makes it so very remarkable.

For this is Jerusalem's only integrated school, Jews and Arabs together, in a curriculum that is half Hebrew and half Arabic. Things like this school are not supposed to happen in a place where Arabs are "colonialized" and Jews "have no partner." History and social studies courses are taught in both languages and the virtues of the Zionist movement are taught alongside the Naqba, the disastrous displacement of Arab villages, especially after the cease-fire of 1949. The curriculum emphasizes empathy, not a conclusive understanding of justice. You get the sense from watching the students that this is enough.

TWO FEATURES OF of this experiment deserve particular attention. First, the curriculum really is taught half in Arabic and half in Hebrew (the fifth grade science class I visited was in Arabic), which means half by Arab teachers, half by Jews. Jerusalem is, after all, a bilingual city, and Israel is a country with a large and growing Arab population; Israel is also in the heart of a very large Arabic speaking region, so it makes sense, even for English saturated Israelis, to have a working knowledge of Arabic in any conceivable condition of peace.

At the same time, it is the pluralist ethos of the curriculum, not the relative proportion of Arabic to Hebrew, that should scale; in this sense, the curriculum is an experiment for the whole country. (Not every public school in America will teach Spanish alongside of English in anything like this proportion, but every school should be teaching the importance of multicultural empathy. In the 1950s, very few did. Today, after the civil rights movement, almost every school does.)

Second, and related to the first, the bilingual nature of the school does not portend a binational state in which the Hebrew language, and Jewish culture more generally, are slowly effaced, giving way, presumably, to some force created by the larger number of Arabs in the region as a whole. On the contrary, it is clear in the higher grades that students naturally default to Hebrew, since this is the language of higher education: the language of business and science and information technology.

This is entirely consistent with what has been happening, not in Greater Israel, but in greater Tel-Aviv, for the past 40 years. For most Arab children in the school, the Hebrew language, supported by a corresponding international English, is the language of "modernization," much as German was the language for Jews in the Austro-Hungarian empire. It is the language, as my friend Sayed Kashua (whose children attend this school) has told me, in which one can speak about parents and sex without blushing, or speak about liberty and democracy without cringing. For the Jewish children in the school, the Arabic language is the language of cosmopolitan openness. It does not threaten, or beckon--at least not much. It gives Jewish kids the chance to get a head start on breaking the little idols of the household, much as our father Abraham did when he went searching for the promised land--much as Israeli youth do, when they finish their army service and go off to Nepal or Machu Picchu.

SOME JEWS, EVEN secular Jews, will look at the school and see the natural affections of the children as ominous. Without quite acknowledging this, they've implicitly bought into the old orthodox Jewish fear that the only way (what may vaguely be called) "Judaism" can survive is through indoctrination: protecting children from outside influences, exposing them to ritual after ritual, attaching to them with loving strings. Deep down, such attitudes reflect the truly pathetic idea that Jewish civilization--the texts, the poetry, the legal exegesis, the music--cannot compete over the long haul. One taste of shrimp and you're a goner.

All of which feeds into the second fear, that the school's atmosphere will engender intermarriage. When Jewish parents pull their older children from the school--and a good many have, the school's head of development, Ira Kerem, told me--it is mostly because they are afraid their children will fall in love with Arabs. (Arab parents often betray a corresponding fear, but leave their children where they are because few Arab schools in greater Jerusalem are of this high quality.)

Anyway, this fear of intermarriage is actually just the first fear, of cultural competition, in microcosm: if both parents are not Jews, so the argument goes, then how can you be sure you will have "a Jewish home"? How can you be sure that Jewish ways of talking about the divine, or celebrating life cycle events, or looking at the past, will not be subject to any kind of challenge?

IT MAKES NO sense to point out, I suppose, that mixed marriages, like mixed schools, like mixed countries, produce the most resilient cultural strains--in this case, values drawn from Jewish history or philosophical reflection that stand the test of skepticism; Jewish rituals whose beauty can appeal even to those coming to them fresh. (As the father or step-father to three couples in such marriages, I can say it is often a privilege to be the beneficiary of the negotiations).

Besides, such attitudes not only fail to come to grips with the cultural competitions of globalization, in which Israel is inevitably embedded, but are anti-Zionist in the most original meaning of the word: the meaning given depth by the cultural Zionist pioneers who welcomed the idea that Jewish life would, given a language and land, freely breathe in what was best in the world, and breathe out what was best about the Jews.

And as for the long haul, a story. Yesterday, driving back to Jerusalem from Tel-Aviv, I put on Mahler's Second Symphony, the "Resurrection" (not my usual driving music, I confess, but my Gordon Lightfoot CDs were in the trunk). As I was cruising along, it suddenly occurred to me what Mahler of all people might have thought of someone listening to his monumental work, digitized and fed through crisp speakers, in a German car going 75 miles an hour between two cities in the Jewish state: about the hubris of anyone back then assuming he or she could predict what the 20th century had in store. The only thing about this that would not have surprised Mahler, I think, is that the driver's understanding of simple human rights was pretty much the same as his--the only thing that hadn't changed.

"With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!"

Mahler might have added, hand in hand.