Kay Klinkenborg knows Elie Pritz, the author of this piece, who lives and works in Jerusalem. She was raised there and is a Christian who, 10 years ago, founded a NGO to work on peace curriculum in teaching children K-12 non-violent options and peace building. Elie has lived her entire life in Jerusalem, has an American father and Swiss mother. Her pain about the issues in Palestine/Israel is palpable. She wrote this for her December newsletter.
It was about a month after the war started that I walked into Hand in Hand—a Hebrew-Arabic school in Jerusalem. We had originally planned to meet on October 9th, which clearly didn’t happen after the war broke out on October 7th. I was surprised when, a month later, they contacted me and asked if we could try again. Wasn’t their plate already ridiculously full, trying to keep a school like theirs running during a war? But we set a date and time, and two days later I was sitting inside the principal’s office, preparing to talk to her and one of the English teachers about our Peace Heroes program.
Bilingual schools (Hebrew and Arabic) are very rare in Israel. The vast majority of schools are sector based: secular Israeli Jewish schools, religious Jewish schools, Palestinian Israeli (Muslim and Christian) schools. Schools don’t integrate. The nine bilingual schools dispersed throughout the country are an anomaly—a place where Jewish and Palestinian Israelis can learn together in one another’s languages.
I could only imagine how recent events would have greatly strained this mixed school community. So I asked the Jewish Israeli principal how this war has affected them.
“Look,” she said, “we’re in a war. And our students represent both sides of this war. It’s hard. But unlike some other organizations, we don’t have the privilege of going into ourselves right now, to reflect on the situation and decide how to move forward. Our students are coming to school every day. We have to figure this out every day.”
The English teacher, a Palestinian Israeli, said: “After October 7th I didn’t want to come in to work. But I chose to come anyway. Every day I wake up and I make that choice all over again—the choice to be here…It’s not easy, but it’s my choice. It’s the choice every single one of us in this school is making.”
We spent the next hour talking about Peace Heroes, brainstorming ways they could make it part of their school program. It was the first time in a month I felt inspired and even hopeful. Here is a school that is doing the hard (hard!) work of figuring out how to live life together. Here is a school that understands, at an existential level, how crucial it is to raise the next generation of leaders in this land to be pursuers of peace and mutual thriving. They loved the idea of using stories of Peace Heroes from all over the world—as well as from the region—to not only model to their students how to navigate really hard things while still upholding the dignity of all people, but also to open up difficult conversations around identity, justice, and security within the safe space of storytelling.
At the end of the meeting the principal told me that our hour together felt like oxygen to the soul. I understood what she meant. For the first time in weeks, I felt like I could breathe again, even if only for a moment. To be in the room together with people who, like me, were making a supreme effort to swim against the tide that in this moment is dividing not only the people of this land but also of the world, brought me to tears. Tears of relief in feeling that there are others who are doing what is possibly one of the hardest and most isolating things to do in a war: fighting to stay united, to be in relationship, to be mutually empathetic to and supportive of one another’s identity as well as experience of the nightmare we are all living through.
October 7th and its aftermath is changing our landscape in a way that will take us years to fully understand. In the days following the beginning of the war, people everywhere asked me to tell them how I was doing, to explain to them what was happening. It felt impossible. I was stunned into silence, completely unable to articulate the chaos, trauma, fear, and grief we were all suddenly plunged into. And yet, even while I sat in this stunned silence, I was completely taken aback by the onslaught of divisive and damaging words being spewed out by people around the world, aimed at one or other of the communities in this land. This tsunami of hate-filled words quickly spiraled me down into a despairing depression. I felt as voiceless as I’ve ever felt, and so alone in my desire to push forward another narrative, to tell a different story.
But slowly, I began to hear other voices speaking the words I could not speak—local peacemakers, both Israeli and Palestinian, whose stories I had written, whose organizations I had been following since the days I had started my journey with Peace Heroes more than a decade ago.* These people were articulating what I could not: the unbelievable pain of the moment we suddenly found ourselves in, AND the absolute necessity of upholding the dignity of all the people in this place. Their voices anchored me the way nothing else could. They gave me solid ground to stand on and brought me back to myself and to what I knew to be true: that violence is our common enemy, and that taking a stand against violence and its dehumanizing effects is the only way we will ever come out of this moment with our humanity still intact.
Words matter. They matter so much. Words can break our world or they can remake it. It took me a few weeks to connect the dots (blame the war—it messes with one’s ability to think logically), but it finally dawned on me that I do have life giving words. I’ve been writing them for a decade, telling the stories of people from all over the world—as well as from Israel and Palestine—who have faced devastating situations and have chosen to be a light in the darkness, a force for healing rather than division, hate, and fear. Voices that will never stop trying to remake our world.
Hand in Hand school is one of these voices. They understand the toxicity of the space we are living in, and the urgency of raising our voice to tell (and live) a different story. Peacemakers are often the first to be sidelined in a war, but I believe it is precisely these people who are doing the hardest work of all: the work of daily choosing to live out a different reality. A reality that says to people across the divide: “You matter, and I will live my life in a way that manifests this conviction and upholds your dignity as well as mine, no matter what.” This is the only reality that promises any kind of viable and shared future in this land.
As this year comes to a close it is my deepest hope that we will all follow in the footsteps of these peacemakers. May we live a different story–one that daily chooses to remake our broken world.