In Jerusalem, about a 10 minute drive north from the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif, lies the only refugee camp in the Holy City. It is called Shofat. Mostly concrete and dust, rundown but teeming with life and a variety of humanitarian outreaches, the “camp” represents to its residents — perhaps on this very spot — the future capital of Palestine.
As with all of Abraham’s offspring, its children are its future stars: among them, 46 teenagers, 9th grade students at the Shofat Basic Girls’ School. The bell rings; this is their English class. Later in the lesson, we will interrupt the teacher and girls to poll them. The results will not be surprising.
Now, however, as the 40-minute period begins, the teacher is calling four of the girls to the front of the class. She asks the quartet to sing a song in English.
“How about ‘We Shall Overcome’? Now let’s not be shy. Good and strong,” says the teacher, a middle-aged woman dressed in black. She is one of some 10,000 Palestinian teachers employed by UNRWA to educate Palestinian refugees in territories and countries surrounding Israel. UNRWA is the acronym for United Nations Relief & Works Agency; the United States is its largest donor.
By now the young women, dressed in brown and white-striped uniforms like their classmates, are facing their peers, giggling with stage fright; a universal “teacher’s look” calms them down.
“We Shall Overcome, we shall overcome…we shall live in peace someday…deep in my heart, I still believe,” they sing, parroting the popular American civil rights theme — but with a personalized touch, a kicker that snaps this former Chicago inner-city English teacher, now a correspondent who is sitting at one of the long desks in the back of the room, observing — snaps him out of ’60’s make love, not war nostalgia and into the ’90’s and beyond:
“Deep in my heart, I still believe, we shall have Palestine some day!” The room is now alive with applause. Maybe we should give it to them. One God, one Messiah, Hatikva, no Right nor Left wing, just peace, Thy most precious gift. Imagine all the people….
The four girls return to their benches and the teacher picks up a piece of chalk.
“So, class, what’s this song about? What do we want?” she asks rhetorically. Peace, they respond; “Pease” one girl writes on the chalkboard, to the left of a map of the world. “Good, very good,” the teacher says, ignoring the spelling. “And why do we want peace?” No more war. “Good, no more war. Wonderful,” she says. The atmosphere is charged and rarefied; the teacher has written, then crossed out the word “war.” Suddenly her tone shifts.
“But class, our people have not yet overcome; they are being killed. Why?” asks the teacher. The class rustles, but there is no response. “In case no one is listening, I’ll ask again: our Palestinian people, why are they being killed?” Still no verbalizing. “Anyone? What is the killing about?”
“Land,” someone responds. “It’s because of land.”
“That’s exactly right. Our land is under occupation,” says the teacher, writing “land” to the right of the map, then shifting back to the class. “And who took our land?”
“The Israeli’s,” 46 girls respond in unison. “Israel” is written under “Occupation.” Meanwhile, sitting next to me and growing increasingly uneasy as I write down the classroom dialogue is the UNRWA public information person who has brought me to the school. Glances are exchanged between the teacher and official, (who wishes not to be identified.)
The teacher continues. “Now for the most important question, the question we’re all concerned about: How do we fight for peace? We have to fight for peace — by education. Okay, please take out your book and turn to the lesson on shopping,” the teacher says. And the practical lesson begins.
The 40-minute period is now half over. Choices must be made: should I check the textbook for bias or…? Suddenly I remember, then extract a form which has been sitting in my briefcase: “Confidential Survey On Middle East Issues.” After perusing the questionnaire, my anonymous UNRWA guide, also bored with the shopping lesson, whispers, “Good idea — let’s try it,” and walks to the front of the classroom where he consults with the teacher.
She sits down and he takes the floor. He reads in English, then in Arabic, each statement on the poll, then counts raised hands and writes the numbers on the sheet. Responses range from “strongly agree” to “unsure” to “strongly disagree.”
The straw poll lasts beyond the bell, then class is dismissed; we exchange awkward, but cordial smiles. The teacher asks to make copies of the survey, then returns with the original. After student-made sugar cookies with the principal, I take one final photograph of the Shofat School; then the UNRWA guide drives me back down through the dusty, narrow, winding streets of the camp: Jerusalem, capital of Palestine to three million refugees.
Of these refugees, 46 (100% of the class) “agree” or “strongly agree” with the following:
There should be a Palestinian state next to Israel. Israel should give the West Bank to the Palestinians. All Palestinian refugees & descendants should have right of return.
All “disagree” that Jews should be able to live in the West Bank and Gaza while all “agree” that Palestinians should be able to live within the borders of Israel.
For some reason, the following statement was also polled, hands were raised and counted, but the response was left unrecorded:
Based on religious traditions, both Palestinians and Jews have a legitimate claim to some of the Middle East lands.
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