In the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat, Aya Abu Sirrieh, a local teacher, hosts a group of Jewish and Arab fellow educators in her family’s home for a long lighthearted chat on wide-ranging topics.
Just days earlier, Abu Sirrieh’s mother was hesitant, afraid of the neighbors’ reaction, and asked her: “Do the Jews look like Jews? Can the fact that we’re having Jews over be concealed somehow?”
Several months earlier, when she began participating in “Teacher’s Lounge,” a coexistence project that brings together groups of Jewish and Arab teachers, Abu Sirrieh had refused to participate in a task in which participants brought photos from home, since she didn’t want to expose herself. But after the group met several times, something changed. She ended up inviting the entire group to her home.
Her skeptical mother ended up as the center of attention, telling story after story with everyone huddled around her. Abu Sirrieh, a former professional soccer player, later said: “I saw my mother was so happy, I didn’t want to send the group home.”
As 2.3 million schoolkids head back to Israeli classrooms, the unique initiative entering its fourth year aims to create bonds between different communities in Israel’s embattled capital and stoke future coexistence by making use of the special role teachers hold in educating children and shaping the worldview of the country’s next generation.
“The session made me more sensitive to the situation here,” said a Jewish teacher who participated in the program. “I notice manifestations of hatred and violence [at school] and stand up to them. It sharpened my sensitivity in identifying racism and discrimination.”
Worood Othman, an Arab participant, said: “Once we talked in the program about ‘racism’ in the widest sense of the term and the ramifications of racist actions, I suddenly remembered all kinds of incidents at school when I witnessed ‘racism’ and closed my eyes to it. Now a red light goes on whenever I even suspect something like that. I’ve learned that you have to react quickly and stop it.”
Teachers’ Lounge brings together Jewish and Arab kindergarten, primary school and high school teachers for ten three-hour sessions once every two or three weeks during the school year, between November and April. For many participants, it is their first in-depth conversation with members of a community often viewed as an enemy, and that experience often changes the way they teach the complex reality in Israel to their pupils.
“We usually hear about Jerusalem in the context of conflict,” Prof. Michal Muszkat-Barkan of the Hebrew Union College, founder and academic head of the program, told The Times of Israel in a recent interview. “The city is divided into three [Arabs, ultra-Orthodox and the rest — secular, traditional and liberal religious Jews], and you can live your whole life without encountering the other populations. Teachers are supposed to teach tolerance, acceptance and openness, but if they haven’t encountered the ‘other’ in a genuine, deep way, they might do so insincerely.”
The activists behind the initiative say the program has been growing steadily since its pilot began in Jerusalem in 2013 with about a dozen teachers, until last year when there were 60 participants in three groups.
The program is named for Shira Banki, a 16-year-old girl stabbed to death by an ultra-Orthodox extremist at the 2015 Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem, whose family has since been seeking to promote tolerance in the city through various initiatives.
A charity founded by the family is one of the main sponsors of Teachers’ Lounge, along with the Hebrew Union College campus in Jerusalem, where many of its meetings are hosted. Shira’s parents participate in some of the teachers’ meetings, and are involved in the program’s promotion and content.
“Shira was murdered because of incitement, intolerance and hate,” a spokesman for Shira Banki’s Way, a public-benefit corporation established by the family, told The Times of Israel. “Teachers’ Lounge deals with all those and pours cold water on the flames of incitement and hate. Every teacher who finishes the seminar is an educator of dozens, hundreds, and over the years even thousands of students, and we hope all those students will be less hateful and prejudiced, more tolerant, and less prone to incitement.”
“As liberal Jews, it is our duty to reach out to the ‘other’ and figure out how we live together in this crazy place, in Jerusalem and then in this region,” said Rabbi Naamah Kelman, dean of the HUC’s Taube Family Campus in Jerusalem. “This whole effort grew from our sense that Jerusalem Day was becoming a xenophobic, nationalistic takeover by one sector of the Jewish people, and from our frustration that we don’t celebrate Jerusalem in a way that embraces all the communities.”
For years, Jerusalem Day — marking Israel’s capture of the eastern part of the city in the 1967 Six Day War — has been punctuated by a right-wing march through the city. Thousands of mostly Orthodox Jews parade with Israeli flags through downtown Jerusalem and into the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, where some taunt and fling insults at Arab residents who are forced indoors by the marching crowds.
Teachers’ Lounge recently hung posters about the initiative in Jerusalem Light Rail stations. Earlier in August, a gallery featuring photos taken during its activities was shown at Jerusalem’s First Station culture compound, and organizers hope the gallery will soon make its way to President Reuven Rivlin’s official residence.
The program is seeking to expand to more cities with significant Arab and Jewish populations, such as Haifa and Tel Aviv-Jaffa, but it suffers from funding shortfalls since not all foundations supporting peace projects are willing to support it.
For example, the organizers say the European Union views them as “perpetuating the conflict” because it is is officially recognized as a seminar by Israel’s Education Ministry — a body, the EU believes, that shouldn’t be dealing with residents of East Jerusalem, many of whom aren’t Israeli citizens.
“So we are battling for the very existence of the project,” Cheftzy Uzan-Nachmani, the project’s manager, said.
There are other sensitivities, both among Arabs and among Jews.
The fact that the project is officially defined as a teachers’ seminar enables people whose environment in East Jerusalem opposes normalization with Israel to participate, by passing it off as a professional rather than a coexistence activity. But it becomes much more complicated when it comes to meetings between the students or to home visits, many of which have had to be cancelled.
On the Jewish side, Muszkat-Barkan said, “a lot of teachers view any meeting with Arabs as inherently left-wing, and in the current environment that has a connotation of being disloyal to the state. We don’t see this project as left-wing. We have participants from settlements. One teacher met Arab colleagues, but a day before we published her photo in a gallery she called and asked us not to, since she has relatives who are very right-wing. People have to overcome stereotypes to come here.”
Organizers have sought to recruit ultra-Orthodox teachers, who have been hesitant to participate since the program is sponsored and hosted at a Reform institution, and since meetings are mixed-gender.
Last year, however, they managed to recruit a Haredi teacher for the first time, who even invited a group to his home in the Ramot neighborhood.
Following that visit, an Arab teacher who grew up in the Old City said he saw a striking parallel between the two populations: “The Palestinian Authority is restricting us, not letting us develop and have contact with the Israeli leadership, so that they can keep saying we are poor and miserable, and it’s the same with the ultra-Orthodox — their leadership doesn’t let them develop, study and work, in order to keep them dependent.”
Organizers held a pilot in 2013 with an exhibition at the city’s First Station compound dedicated to teachers who teach tolerance, which included their portraits and vision.
“It was very hard at first to find Arab teachers willing to participate in the exhibition,” Muszkat-Barkan said. “In the end we found three brave teachers from the same school in the Mount of Olives.”
When the exhibition was over, however, the teachers said they wanted to get to know each other. “So we organized a few meetings, and eventually decided to turn it into a professional teachers’ seminar which began in 2015,” Muszkat-Barkan recounted. “Since then it became much easier to recruit Arab teachers, since participants recommended it to their colleagues after seeing they were being respected.”
In the program, the teachers first get to know each other. “We need to use creative tools such as theater exercises to soften the atmosphere because we have a lot of barriers to break down,” Uzan-Nachmani said.
They then talk about Jerusalem and tell their colleagues where they feel safe walking around in the city and where they are afraid, and learn some often surprising facts.
“It really surprises Jews that Arabs fear to walk on Jaffa Road [Jerusalem’s main street] and the Mahane Yehuda market,” Uzan-Nachmani said, referring to the city’s most popular bazaar. “Arabs are similarly very surprised to learn Jews are afraid to go to places like the Old City and Damascus Gate.”
Many groups have decided to go together to places some of them would never go otherwise. Some go to the Mahane Yehuda market, others to Damascus Gate, and some even go to the Western Wall, where groups frequently have to wait outside until they receive permission to enter.
Lots of teachers have said the program left its mark in their classroom. Some tell their students about the activities, lots of them adapt the exercizes used in the program to get to know each other and implement them with the children, and one group even held a meeting between Jewish and Arab students.
“I always share what happens in the sessions with my students,” Aya Abu Sirrieh said. “My students come from a difficult environment, including stone-throwing, parents in Israeli prisons, and even martyrs. Speaking about the other isn’t something that’s taken for granted. And they are even more worried about ‘normalization.’ So I emphasize to them that this isn’t about abandoning their own identity, religion, or society. But we need to open up, to get to know more people and to let them get to know us.”
“Our dream is that all teachers in Jerusalem undergo such a program,” Muszkat-Barkan concluded. “It breaks stereotypes and walls between different communities who never normally meet each other. It is so important that we focus on teachers because they educate the next generation, and largely determine what it ends up thinking about the ‘other.’ We want teachers to grow a generation of activist children, who go out to the street, battle violence and racism.”