Mideast An Understanding Teacher

Jewish and Arab youth visit Yad Vashem as part of a course onthe Holocaust run by the Ghetto Fighter’s Museum at Kibbutz LahameiHageta’ot. Photo by Isaac Harari


It’s a hot summer day and 16 teen-agers are walking through YadVashem in Jerusalem with a handful of adults. The scene is acommonplace one until you look a little closer and listen morecarefully. Half of the group is speaking softly in Arabic amongthemselves and they come from villages with names like Julis and KfarYassif. The Arab and Druze teens in the group, as well as the Jewishones, are wearing long white T-shirts displaying the name of theGhetto Fighters’ House and the word “guide” printed in large blockletters across the back.

The group’s tour is the culmination of a year-long after-schoolprogram that teaches Arab, Druze and Jewish high school studentsabout the Holocaust. All 113 participants volunteered for theprogram.

“What happened to the Jews — this painful thing —made me feel I had to know more,” said Rania Sakas, 17, from KfarYassif. “I knew the Holocaust happened, but I didn’t understand itsenormity. I didn’t realize how many innocent people died and how hardit was for the Jews.

“Before this workshop, I identified with the Jews, but now Iunderstand more about their pain,” she said.

Rania, along with 19 other students from Kfar Yassif, 24 from theDruze village of Julis, 39 from Akko and 30 from kibbutzim in thenorth, spent one afternoon a week from October to March studyingabout the Holocaust at the Ghetto Fighters’ House in Kibbutz LohameiHageta’ot. At the end of the program, those who wished continued onfor four day-long sessions during the summer in which Druze, Arab andJewish students learned together about subjects not heretoforecovered, such as Holocaust denial and the Armenian genocide.

The project is the brainchild of Raya Kalisman, a former historyteacher and school principal from Misgav. She said this is the firsttime in Israeli history that Arab youth are learning about theHolocaust (aside from the little bit they learn in 11th grade fortheir matriculation exams).

During a sabbatical year in Washington D.C., Kalisman volunteeredat the U.S. National Holocaust Museum in a project that taught theHolocaust to African-American high school students.

“I saw what the program did for these kids, and I thought, if thisis so successful with children who have no connection with Israel,why not try it here?” she said.

The Holocaust Museum staff was excited about Kalisman’s idea andis supporting the project — though not financially. TheMinistry of Education paid Kalisman’s salary for a year while she setup the project and for the project’s inaugural program. Next year,her salary will be paid by the Ghetto Fighters’ House and the projectwill be subsidized by a grant from the Abraham Fund, which supportsArab-Jewish co-existence programs.

“We have to learn about the past in order to fix the future,” saidRachelle Schilo, director of the Abraham Fund’s Israel office. “TheHolocaust and its humanistic ramifications can help all of usunderstand the dangers of racism.”

At first, Kalisman did not know if high school students wouldrespond. “Teachers told me that kids wouldn’t come out in theafternoons,” she said. But after all the ninth graders in Julisvisited Yad Hayeled, the new children’s memorial at the GhettoFighters’ House, half of them volunteered.

“They hardly knew anything” before that first visit, Kalismansaid. “Yad Hayeled is a living museum that tells the story of theHolocaust to children from the point of view of children. We don’tuse much written material. Visitors listen to tapes from children’sjournals, children’s voices, video tapes of adults telling aboutthemselves as children during the Holocaust,” she added. After theexhibit, visitors participate in a workshop such as creative writing,drama or the plastic arts in order to integrate and express what theyjust saw.

Those who participated in the afternoon program also learned touse the Internet at the Oranim Teachers’ Seminary and communicatedthrough electronic mail with African-American children learning aboutthe Holocaust in Washington D.C. Kalisman hopes to someday bring thetwo groups together.

The highlight for students and teachers alike was the graduationceremony, during which the graduates guided their families around YadHayeled and exhibits at the Ghetto Fighters’ House museum.

“It was amazing to see these kids guiding their families, theirteachers, their friends. It gave them a lot. Each one seemed 10centimeters taller,” said Tzvika Oren, a teacher in the program.

“My mother cried at the graduation,” said Samahar Khirbawi, 16, ofJulis. “She said she didn’t know it would be so interesting andspecial.”

The graduates will escort younger classes from their schoolsthrough the museum next year. At the Holocaust Museum in Washington,the African-Americans who finish the course work become paid guides,but Kalisman said that is a luxury she does not have.

“Until now it was a taboo subject,” she said. “The Arabs said thatbringing up the Holocaust was manipulative and the Jews felt theydidn’t want Arabs to touch the Holocaust because it is holy and theywould politicize it. But we feel this is the way to real co-existence — learning together, discussing together. Because the story ofthe Holocaust is so strong, it opens the possibility for realdialogue.”

It seems clear that the Arab participants gain a greatersensitivity to the Jewish past and to Jewish pain. Said Khalil Ayoub,15, of Akko: “Everything I learned here helps me respect Jews aspeople. Before, I didn’t talk much with Jews. I didn’t have muchcontact. Now, when I meet a Jew, I speak to him, maybe even take aphone number. I see them as people. That’s what I learned from thiscourse — to respect people.”