Jaffa, Israel – A group of young girls play in a colourful plastic house in the playground of a small kindergarten in Jaffa, all wearing pink sweatshirts and with brown curls encircling their curious faces.
It looks like any kindergarten, but in contrast to most of them in Israel, Jewish, Muslim and Christian children play together here.
The kindergarten, which serves students between the ages of three and six, opened less than three years ago, with an initial intake of 38 children. Today, that number has risen to nearly 140.
Ilan Grosman, whose three-year-old son, Jonah, recently started in the kindergarten, says mixed schools are a good step towards overcoming years of conflict, mistrust and fear among Jews and Palestinians in Israel. He says he is excited to see his son make friends from various cultural backgrounds.
“It’s amazing. He comes home and says ‘Me and Mohammed played’, ‘We shared food’ or ‘We fought with each other’ like normal children do. Or he says, ‘I want to be Christian because I like Christmas.’ This is the only way to live – to break all the old stereotypes,” Grosman told Al Jazeera.
Formally, the public school system in Israel is divided into several different tracks: one for orthodox Jews, one for secular Jews and one for Palestinian Christians and Muslims. The Jaffa kindergarten – which is among six public educational institutions throughout the country run by an organisation called Hand in Hand – is part of an unofficial, fourth, bilingual and mixed track.
We want an equal school with equal rights for everyone - Jews and Arabs - not a Hebrew school, in which the Palestinian children will not feel comfortable.
Hand in Hand established its first kindergarten in Jerusalem in 1998, and has since expanded it into a school going all the way until the 12th grade. Most of the other Hand in Hand institutions, some of which operate inside existing public school buildings, only offer kindergarten or first-grade classes.
“My oldest has been part of [the Jaffa kindergarten] since she was three years old. I think it has become natural for her to be among everybody. She doesn’t distinguish and she loves it,” said Honey Shamy, a Palestinian Christian mother.
Shamy’s eldest daughter, Samia, who is five, is ready to start primary school in the fall. Shamy, along with other parents with children of the same age, wants her to continue in the same bilingual track – but local authorities have not welcomed the idea.
Last year, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality agreed to open two first-grade classes for the community within the framework of an existing Hebrew school, but with guidance from Hand in Hand. Just weeks into the school year, however, a controversy erupted after the school refused to allow students time off for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. Parents raised concerns that if even religious holidays could cause disputes, how would the school tackle the teaching of serious issues, such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, as their children grew older?
“We want an equal school with equal rights for everyone – Jews and Arabs – not a Hebrew school, in which the Palestinian children will not feel comfortable,” Grosman said. “The municipality says it is a long process, but we believe it’s a short one. They just have to make a decision.”
Assaf Zamir, the deputy mayor of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, told Al Jazeera that while the municipality supports the ideology behind the Hand in Hand school system, it cannot give complete autonomy to any group of parents or any organisation within the public education system.
“The whole thing you are talking about is a few parents, who think [the formal schooling options are] not good enough and want to move and get freedom. But you can’t be in the public sector and have absolute freedom; it doesn’t work like that,” Zamir said.
Last month marked the deadline for registration for the new school year, and many parents whose children participated in the Hand in Hand programme told Al Jazeera that as the Hebrew school did not meet their expectations, they were instead enrolling their children – both Jewish and Palestinian – into an Arab school for the upcoming year.
While negotiations with the municipality in Jaffa are still ongoing, Nadia Kinani, one of the founders of Hand in Hand and the headmaster of the Jerusalem school, said she was optimistic.
“It’s unbelievable that parents have to push for this, have to fight for it instead of the government saying, ‘OK, we are going to offer this choice’,” Kinani told Al Jazeera. “It’s incredibly important that there is this option in every area. Not every school has to be like ours, of course, but you have to have the choice to attend this kind of school.”
The debate comes at a time, however, when critics warn that Israel’s right-wing government is cracking down on multiculturalism in the Israeli education system. In December, Education Minister Naftali Bennet banned a Jewish-Arab love story from being used in Israeli high schools, and a new civics textbook has drawn accusations of being “ethnocentric” towards Israel’s Jewish religious right.
Kinani said she remains concerned about some of the radical sentiment in Israeli society, noting the Jerusalem school experienced an arson attack by a right-wing group a little over a year ago.
“We are not disconnected from what is happening around us. It affects us and we have to deal with it,” Kinani said. “But what we are seeing is that because of it, more and more people are coming to us – because we give hope, we give an alternative, and they want to be a part of that. Now we have an even longer waiting list than did in the past, because people want to choose this.”