As I was trying to think of a title for this post that related to the school, which is the subject of the story, I thought of the Paul Simon song, Bridge Over Troubled Waters. Read on and you will see why.
A Facebook friend, Kamil Somaratne, recommended that I watch a 2008 PBS Global Voices documentary about the Israeli Bridge Over the Wadi school, which is a Jewish-Arab school dedicated to teaching tolerance and mutual co-existence. My first impression was intense skepticism. Aren’t most Jewish-Arab education projects dewy-eyed and hopelessly idealistic? Other than assuaging the consciences of the organizers, who do they help and what do they accomplish? And is what the world needs now another Kumbaya moment?
You can forget all that. This is a brutally honest, unblinking look at an absolutely crucial subject: educating Jewish and Arab young people to learn to live together. Yes, there is joy here at watching some of these children bond in touching and innocent ways. But there is no sentimentality. Every moment of sweetness is leavened by at least as many moments of acidic unvarnished truth. There are so many devastating moments in this documentary it’s hard to know where to begin.
Of course, there is the Jewish boy who invites an Arab boy to his home for a sleepover only to have the Jewish boy’s grandmother quiz the latter unmercifully about what his parents tell him about Palestinian terror attacks against Israel. There is another unblinking moment when the grandmother candidly reveals that she believes the Arab children of the school will exploit their education in order to learn better how to kill Jews.
All this is beyond horrible. But–and this is the mark of great documentary filmmaking–in the midst of this woman’s poison you realize that she too is caught in a trap of hatred from which she cannot free herself. While you don’t exactly sympathize with the grandmother, you at least have a sense from whence her fears derive as her family listens to the radio announcing the latest terror attack in Haifa, in which there were many innocent victims.
There is another segment about a visit to an amusement park by Jewish and Arab girls who clearly adore each other. The Israeli Palestinian father chaperones them and they appear to have a lovely day. In the evening the three sit around a campfire and you expect your Kumbaya moment. But this expectation is shattered by an innocent set of questions from the Jewish girl about the nature of love and relationships in Arab culture. To her increasing consternation, the father tells her that his daughter simply may not fall in love of her own volition with a boy of her own choosing, and that if she did he would kill her. And as he says it, the words come out in almost a friendly, embarrassed way. But nevertheless they come crashing down upon all three victims as they sit beside this charming roaring fire.
The observance of the respective holidays of the Jewish and Muslim students is fraught with tension. None more so than Yom Ha-Atzmaout and Land Day/Nakba. You watch as a Jewish teacher innocently tells the children about Arab villages which were “abandoned” by their inhabitants; only to be corrected by the Arab teacher who politely, but firmly takes command of the narrative and reminds her colleague that these villages were not “abandoned,” but “uprooted.”
Later you see tender young Jewish children in tears at the realization that their national holiday portends tragedy and suffering for their Arab classmates. When one Jewish girl in particular seems to break under the burden of this realization and says it is unfair to make her so sad, you want to reach out to embrace her for beginning to grasp this unfathomable contradiction. You know something is going to break in relations between the Jewish and Arab characters. And it does in the midst of a staff meeting in which two Jewish teachers take the Arab teacher to task for forcing such knowledge on a girl too young, innocent and tender to absorb it. The Arab teacher reacts angrily and blames her critics for refusing to understand her own personal and national pain.
Frankly, my sympathies were much more with the Israeli Palestinian teacher. But again the greatness of the documentary lies in the rightness of both sides. Even the side that is less right–in this case the Jewish teachers–elicits sympathy, especially when you watch this tender little girl almost break under the burden of the suffering with which she’s been saddled.
You watch with knowing sadness as an Israeli Palestinian mother takes her family on a car ride she hopes will end with a family reunion with close relatives in the West Bank. Of course, IDF road blocks and uncaring soldiers prohibit her family from traveling the few minutes it would ordinarily take to get to Tulkarem. Later, the mother unburdens herself at a parent’s meeting in front of Jewish and Arab parents. The tears flow and the other parents listen in unblinking silence. Their faces are a mask–not exactly an uncaring one. It’s more a mask of two peoples afraid to feel too deeply for the suffering of the other.
Finally, there is a chilling interchange among a group of very small Jewish boys (perhaps nine or ten years old) in which they speak candidly about the fact that when they grow up they will serve in the IDF and when they do they will have to kill Arabs. There is nothing savage in the statement, which makes it even more disturbing. The boys present this awareness matter of factly, drily, as if to say: “This is the way it is. What can we do?” There are other Jewish boys who protest and say they won’t be asked to kill Arabs. But you know that the boys who are the most cynical are also the most clear-eyed. And this breaks your heart.
This is an hour-long documentary. It’s hard to take that much time out of one’s day in this time of multi-tasking and pressure filled days. But I strongly urge you to make time for A Bridge Over the Wadi. It is time that will be richly rewarded by joy and wisdom and painful knowledge.
For more on the Wadi Ara school and the Yad B’Yad national program which sponsors it.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.