Profile of SIWAR EID, 11th-grader in Jerusalem.
Modeling Coexistence, From Neighborhood to International Scene.
It happened so naturally that maybe she doesn’t realize it, but 11th-grader Siwar Eid has become one of Jerusalem’s most experienced ambassadors of Jewish-Arab coexistence.
In the summer of 2010, Siwar was part of a delegation of Arab and Jewish kids that traveled to Switzerland to meet with European students. In preparation, the Arab and Jewish Israelis met about 20 times in their home country, getting to know one another. Many of the Jewish kids, she says, had never talked to an Arab.
“They think we came out of space,” she laughs. “I don’t know what they thought. But after a year, we became best friends.”
In 2007, she participated in a program called Kids for Peace, in which Arab and Jewish kids camped together for two weeks in Vermont. They spent time with American students, too — and a lot of time hashing out their similarities and differences.
She wasn’t surprised that most Americans she encountered didn’t know much about the conflict in Israel. “I meet lots of kids in Israel who don’t understand what’s going on,” she says.
Siwar passionately believes that people should be more open-minded and educated about world conflicts, especially those affecting their own countries. “I’m not saying I know everything,” she says. “Things are changing all the time, in Gaza and other places. But people would change their minds in one minute,” she says, “if they knew even a little something of the other side.”
An Arab Christian, soft-spoken with long dark hair, Siwar has attended Hand in Hand’s school in Jerusalem since first grade. Her younger brother, a fifth-grader, also attends the school.
“My parents are smart,” she says. “They think it’s better for me to learn about the other side from individuals than from TV and the media.”
Most of Siwar’s neighborhood friends attend Arab-only schools and are shocked to find out she goes to an integrated school. “‘They took your country, and they took your house,’ they say. ‘So why do you live with them and learn with them?’”
She shares her experiences and opinions with these skeptics, and invites her Jewish friends to hang out with Arab families. In this way, she slowly and naturally transforms her community.
Siwar, who enjoys physics and social studies, and hopes to study architecture in unversity, was born in Jerusalem. Her parents are from the northern part of Israel. She is aware of her family’s difficult history as Arabs in Israel.
“They went through a lot,” she says. “But that doesn’t change my mind about anyone I know. We are looking toward the future. We want this — peace — for our future.”
When high school rolled around, Siwar’s parents let her choose where to go to school. “I chose to stay at Hand in Hand,” she said. “These kids are my family.”
A guiding philosophy at Hand in Hand’s close-knit schools — there about 100 kids from seventh to twelfth grades at the Jerusalem school — is open discussion about differences in religion, historical viewpoint, politics. Led by principals and teachers who model this behavior, students learn to disagree, sometimes even profoundly, while remaining friends.
“We sometimes do get mad at each other,” Siwar says. “But it’s only in the moment, right when we are talking about it.”
In November 2010, Siwar traveled to the U.S. with her Jewish 10th-grade schoolmate and close friend, Yael Keinan. On a whirlwind tour up the West Coast from Los Angeles to Portland, they spoke about Hand in Hand to youth groups, churches, temples, donors and others.
The girls had an excellent visit, they say, mixing business with lots of teenage-girl fun. They went to Disneyland, took a night hike in San Francisco, and did lots of shopping.
At a presentation to Jewish youth in Portland, Yael and Siwar addressed their school’s unique status in Israeli society. The reality, they say, is that most Arab Israelis face discrimination and feel somewhat excluded from mainstream Jewish society.
“Maybe the only place I feel equal to a Jewish kid is at our school,” Siwar admits.
But she and Yael both believe that society will and can change, and that school is a good place to start.
“A lot of people say we live in a bubble,” Yael says.
But, Siwar finishes, “We don’t really care what other people say.”