As upbeat music plays, a pair of young women who grew up on opposite ends of Jerusalem but became schoolmates in the city’s only bi-lingual school joke, slipping seamlessly between Hebrew and Arabic. They’re introducing “Mish Mish,” a new web seriesabout two topics rarely explored together: Israeli and Palestinian culture.
Referring to her Jewish Israeli co-host, Juman Daragmeh, 24, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem says, “So you are probably wondering how Noa speaks Arabic so well.”
Daragmeh and Noa Posen, 20, exchange a knowing glance with a laugh and tell their local viewers - who are probably asking themselves that very question — that they are both graduates of Hand in Hand, a network of six schools around Israel where students are taught in both Hebrew and Arabic. Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education was established in 1997 by two educators: Lee Gordon and Amin Khalaf, Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel respectively. There are currently some 2,000 students at their schools, some of which run from nursery school through elementary school and some of which include middle and high schools. They are funded through a mix of tuition, philanthropic donations and state funding.
Their schools are trying to forge a new model of education in Israel and they are growing in popularity, with bulging waitlists to attend, school officials say. But they remain an anomaly. Israel has separate education systems for Jewish and Arab children and in general both communities often live much of their lives in parallel, with limited points of intersection.
Mike Prashker, founder of MERCHAVIM, The Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel, believes the separate education systems in Israel pose the greatest educational challenge to building a more cohesive society.
“Hand in Hand schools are life-changing for the students and families involved, but I believe they are also important as symbols because they allow Jews and Arabs to imagine a different, better shared future,” he says.
Although most Arab citizens, or Palestinian citizens of Israel as they increasingly identify themselves, speak Hebrew, most Jewish Israelis do not. Those who do study Arabic in school usually are taught to read and write classical Arabic, but not how to speak colloquial Arabic. Only 8.6 percent of Jewish Israelis describe themselves as having knowledge of Arabic, according to government data. But there appears to be a growing hunger to learn spoken Arabic as more Jewish Israelis sign up for classes at language schools, online and in small groups.
“We want to invite you into our world where we speak Hebrew and Arabic,” Posen says at the beginning of the first episode of “Mish Mish,” which launched in January.
The series was created by over a dozen alumni of the schools. They chose to call it “Mish Mish” for the playful sound of the word which means apricot in both Hebrew and Arabic.
“The goal in ‘Mish Mish’ is not to just talk about why Shared Society is important but to show how shared society and shared space plays out in cultural settings. Because there are lots of places they live together, but not in equality,” says Ofer Matan, 38, director of communications for Hand-in-Hand and a former reporter for the Israeli newspapers Haaretz and Maariv, who is directing the series. “We wanted a show that shows what living together in equality looks like in practice.”
Shared Society is the term in Israel used to describe efforts to build an inclusive and equal country for all citizens.
“In the U.S. people are used to diversity, but I think in Israel, where there is so much tension it’s especially important to show inspiring examples of local culture. You expand for people the idea of what ‘local’ means,” says Matan.
The first episode, which has been viewed over 46,000 times, focuses on central Israel. It tells the stories of an unusually politically minded band called “White Sheet,” an observant Muslim artist named Suha Furruja who uses the devil as a motif in her paintings, and a Hasidic sect known as “Nachmans” who drive around the country blasting techno music and dancing amid traffic to show their religious devotion.
CULTURE AS A BRIDGE
Osaid Jammal, 20, a musician and music producer, helped produce the piece on White Sheet. He said he was surprised by the title of the band’s new album, “Sex, Drugs, and Palestine” which expresses their left-wing views — something many musicians shy away from, fearing their music won’t be played on Israeli radio stations. Most popular music in Israel is not political.
“It’s definitely grabs your attention. And I thought ‘Wow, this is from a Jewish band from Tel Aviv?’ My Palestinian friends who watched the segment never imagined a Jewish band would have an album like this. It was eye-opening.”. Like Furruja, the artist profiled in the episode, Jammal grew up in “The Triangle” area (a cluster of Arab towns and villages south of Haifa). His hometown is known for being quite socially and politically conservative and he says he knows how hard it can be to go against convention.
He studied at the Hand-in-Hand school in Kafr Qara, in the Triangle area, and says he sees his time there as having been a “long-term investment.”
“Now that I’m older I realize how much being fluent in Hebrew makes my life easier living here as does the experiences I had studying with Jewish classmates,” says Jammal.
A quote by Gandhi written in large black letters on the wall at the school’s entrance has stuck with him: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
“Everything I am do is trying to live up to that idea and ‘Mish Mish’ is part of that — by trying to influence people mind’s through art — showcasing art from both Palestine and Israel will help people from both sides see that we are more alike than we are different. I hope that it will help bring solutions and change.”
He and others who work on the project see culture as an ideal bridge to expose people to each other.
“_Mish Mis_h is bringing new stuff for people to see that they don’t normally get to see on TV or in social media and they are seeing hosts speak in the language they are most comfortable in which is also part of the point,” he says.
Posen, who grew up in Jerusalem and attended Hand in Hand’s flagship school along with her co-host Daragmeh, agrees. “It helps spark curiosity and desire to learn – like when they hear my Arabic and they start thinking about wanting to learn Arabic,” she said.
“Art is another way to look at life,” she added. “I think when we choose the subject we are focusing on – we are looking at how people use art to respond to reality and helps you see in other ways. There are things someone might not accept when they are hearing it from a politician, but when they hear a message through art, they might be more responsive.”
Posen says her identity was profoundly informed by her years as a student in Hand-in-Hand. “It helps me look at reality in a broader way … The government has interest in making us think of Arabs as a frightening bloc, but I grew up with them.”
“This is a special initiative to actually create something and take this idea of Hand in Hand which is so deep and educational and to make it go viral – to bring its rich messages and get it to a wider audience,” she said.
Dina Kraft is a Tel Aviv based journalist. She hosts “The Branch,” a Hadassah-sponsored podcast about ties between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians.