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History’s default setting is tragic: the plague in Athens; slave ships; Passchendaele; the Gulag; Hiroshima. But while the norm is carnage and suffering, it would be equally unhistorical to let the darkness entirely eclipse small points of radiance that manage somehow to remain lit amid the enclosing darkness.
Right now, when catastrophe is engulfing both Israelis and Palestinians, posters of kidnapped children are being torn down by heedless zealots, human remains recovered from beneath the rubble of Gaza and the ashes of kibbutzim where innocents were atrociously slaughtered, it may be no bad thing to learn of places where people reach across the razor wire of mutual hatred to speak and listen to each other, work together and attempt to understand each other’s stories.
This is not Pollyanna history. It is 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement that achieved what generations supposed impossible in Northern Ireland: the disarming of tribally lethal animosity.
Ten years ago, filming the final episode of The Story of the Jews for the BBC and PBS, I visited the Max Rayne school in Jerusalem, run by the inspirational Hand in Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education. Jewish and Arab pupils are taught in Arabic and Hebrew and the governing board and teaching staff are drawn from both communities.
No one pretended the school was a cultural utopia. Sitting with a teenage class, I asked whether they visited each other’s homes. Sure, was the answer, but it’s much harder to walk down the street together and be seen by our respective friends. But for all the difficulties, teachers and parents were committed to a common enterprise: a principle and practice that is visionary in Israel.
There is a price to be paid for this courageous exercise in shared learning, devoted as it is to sowing the seeds of a future free of mutual demonisation. In 2014, the Jerusalem school was set on fire by a gang of Jewish fanatics for whom its very existence was tantamount to treason. Undaunted, the Jerusalem school rose from the ruins like a phoenix.
Today there are six Hand in Hand schools. One of them, founded in 2004 by 10 Jewish and 10 Arab parents as a response to the deadly riots of four years earlier, is located in the Arab town of Kafr Kara. Last week, while the war was raging, the Jerusalem school won the T4 Education prize as the best in the world at “overcoming adversity”.
You don’t have to be a pessimist to assume that these high ideals might have taken a beating in the present calamity. But, astonishingly, after a two-week break following the sadistic atrocities of October 7, pupils and teachers have returned and the schools are open again. No one imagines this is easy.
Arab students have families and friends who have been injured or have died in Gaza. In Israel, many know someone kidnapped or worse. A relative of the Arab principal of the Kafr Kara school was killed while acting as a paramedic to the wounded at the Supernova music festival. But schools such as Hand in Hand are more than classrooms and textbooks; over many years they have built a matrix of friendship and deep human connection. So, even though the pain, fear and conflict pull hard at those bonds, it will be possible for each side to talk to each other in a spirit of good faith and mutual trust. This is a trial by fire of their ideals; but it is also the picture of a possible shared future.
They are not alone in this vision. For years, EcoPeace Middle East, with offices in Ramallah and Amman as well as Tel Aviv, has been tackling environmental issues based on the premise that ecological disaster knows no borders and that solutions to the most intractable problems must be a co-operation between Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians. Its project to create an energy exchange — solar power exported from Jordan; desalinated water going in the opposite direction — to the West Bank was adopted by the Bennett-Lapid government. And it was EcoPeace that provided the means to decontaminate Gaza water supplies that were posing serious health hazards to the Palestinian population.
Knowing that the war has now sabotaged that achievement, it’s tempting to throw up one’s hands in despair. But, if anything, the war has only made the need for acts of mutual co-operation embodied by the work of Hand in Hand and EcoPeace more urgent than ever.
When the great Israeli writer Amos Oz was asked what could be done about the agony of Israel and Palestine, he compared it to a consuming fire. You have a choice, he said. You can run away and save yourself or you can take a bucket and pour it on the flames, and if you don’t have a bucket, use a cup, and if you don’t have that, bring a teaspoon.
The fire is huge and the teaspoon (words were his) is very small, but everyone has a teaspoon and can, in their own way, pour some water on the furious conflagration.
Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor