Jewish, Arab educators to St. Louis supporters: “We know ultra-nationalist Israelis deeply oppose what we do”

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Hand in Hand is building inclusion and equality between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel through a growing network of bilingual, integrated schools and communities.

ERIC BERGER , SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Leah Beinhaker, a leader of a Jewish-Arab bilingual education organization in Israel, recently offered an optimistic take on how the country’s new right-wing governing coalition could impact relations between Israelis and Palestinians. That’s even though the new person overseeing border police in Palestinian territories used to chant “Death to Arabs” and once defended three men that set fire to empty classrooms at one of the organization’s schools in Jerusalem.

“I think the new government will impact relations between Jews and Palestinians very negatively,” Beinhaker said during a visit to St. Louis. “Although within those who are already more to the center, as opposed to those who are on the extremes, I think it might give some momentum to people understanding that this isn’t the way forward, that we actually need to work together.”

Beinhaker and supporters of Hand in Hand, which includes six schools in Israel and educates more 2,000 students, hope that the organization can help improve relations between Jews and Arabs, despite the possibility of increased tensions and violence.

And she and Shada Mansour, a Palestinian woman who directs the organization’s communities department, also hope that St. Louis Jews can bolster that cause.

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Leah Beinhaker and Shada Edris Mansour

During a visit to raise awareness and funds last week, the women spoke at local Jewish organizations, including Congregation Shaare Emeth and MaTovu, and at a Central Reform Congregation couple’s home.

“We invested into Hand in Hand partially because we think it’s obviously very good for 2,000 students, partially because it’s a symbol of excellence and social cohesion in Israel,” Hank Webber, a Hand in Hand donor, said in introducing the speakers Thursday night at his Central West End residence. “But I think really because our hope is that over time it leads to a cadre who will be committed to social cohesion and be committed to a world where everybody wins.”

Beinhaker grew up in a “very strong Zionist” home in Toronto, she said.

“My parents used to take us pretty much every winter break to Israel,” Beinhaker, the organization’s director of resource development, recalled.

She moved to Israel shortly after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 and soon realized that she had grown up with an idealized Israel.

“I knew there were Arabs there, and I thought of them as a minority that was really just incidentally there, and if they weren’t incidentally there, they were there as a threat, enemies,” Beinhaker, 51, who lives outside of Jerusalem, said. “It never occurred to me that it was a people with the same legitimate striving for a homeland that my people had for years.”

Two years ago, Beinhaker joined Hand in Hand after two decades working for nonprofits such as the New Israel Fund, which aims to increase equality in Israel.

Meanwhile, Mansour joined the organization six years ago. A 35-year-old, Mansour grew up in Tayibe, an Arab city in central Israel. Like Beinhaker, Mansour’s views of the country changed when she interacted with people on the other side of the conflict.

“I actually never thought about myself as an Arab, about my identity, until I left my town and interacted with others, with Jews,” said Mansour, who is Muslim and worked as an optometrist before joining the organization. “I started to develop the feeling that I’m not wanted, that I’m different in a bad way.”

Mansour wanted her daughter, Nai, to have a different experience. About six years ago, she and her husband learned that a group of parents were starting a Hand in Hand school in her area. They became involved in the founding effort and decided to send Nai, then 3, to the school. Around the same time, Mansour started working for the organization.

“She’s grown up in a place that really gets her to understand her culture and her scripture and understand her identity and feel proud about it, but also to get to know how to accept the Jewish kids that study with her,” said Mansour.

The organization provides education from preschool through 12th grade. It receives funding from the Israeli government, donors and tuition. Each classroom features one Jewish and one Arab teacher, and students learn in both Hebrew and Arabic.

During the talk at Webber’s home, Beinhaker shared a school calendar, which featured Jewish, Muslim and Christian holidays.

“Students get lots of holidays. They celebrate all three religions’ holidays and learn about the different festivals,” Beinhaker said.

During Nai’s first year at the school, she was asked to name her favorite holiday.

“In a very confident and open way, she would answer: ‘Purim.’” Mansouri said. “She doesn’t feel that she’s losing anything from her culture or identity by saying that, and I remember myself at her age or even older, I wasn’t able to say that because you’re forbidden to like the other side.”

Despite that positive outcome, plenty of people in Israel and the Palestinian territories still hate the other side. And former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to return to power as part of a coalition that features Itamar Ben-Gvir as the head of the police. Ben-Gvir has been compared to David Duke, the leader of Ku Klux Clan in the United States. Weeks before the assassination of Rabin, who had signed a peace agreement with Palestinian leadership, Ben-Gvir stole an emblem from his car and said during a TV interview, “Just like we got to this emblem, we can get to him too.”

(Ben-Gvir said earlier this year said he was wrong to have chanted “Death to Arabs.”)

“We know that these ultra-nationalists are deeply opposed to what we are doing,” Beinhaker said of Ben-Gvir and others.

Still, she thinks the impact of the new coalition on Hand in Hand will be minimal.

“They are public schools; they are going to continue to function as public schools,” she said.

Bob Olshan, a Kol Rinah member who lived in Israel for 11 years, attended the talk at Webber’s home and described the organization as “a beacon of light” amidst his concerns about the right-wing government.

“It’s just really wonderful to see young Israelis and Palestinians being close friends and understanding each other,” said Olshan, a retired engineer. “If that could spread, that would be wonderful.”