In East Jerusalem, A School Where Kids Can Be Kids

Mahmoud Jamal with a student at Jerusalem Kindergarten i

Mahmoud Jamal (right) sits with a student at Jerusalem Kindergarten. The Palestinian entrepreneur — who threw rocks at Israeli soldiers during the first intifada — founded the private, experimental school for Palestinian children two years ago. He says he wants to change the way Israelis and Palestinians think about each other. Rick Davis for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Rick Davis for NPR
Mahmoud Jamal with a student at Jerusalem Kindergarten

Mahmoud Jamal (right) sits with a student at Jerusalem Kindergarten. The Palestinian entrepreneur — who threw rocks at Israeli soldiers during the first intifada — founded the private, experimental school for Palestinian children two years ago. He says he wants to change the way Israelis and Palestinians think about each other.

Rick Davis for NPR

For most Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, violence is out and economic change is in. Business development is the new strategy for peace.

But one Palestinian is focused on educational development, based on the lessons of his own past.

In Beit Hanina, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, 200 Palestinian children in pressed red uniforms attend school at the Jerusalem Kindergarten.

With a camera in every classroom, parents can watch the children online as they learn at this private, experimental kindergarten.

Palestinian entrepreneur Mahmoud Jamal opened the school two years ago, financing the project himself by selling a successful furniture factory. "I didn't make a difference with couches. I didn't make a difference in people's lives," the 45-year-old says. “I started this ... to fix the situation of early education, and education in general in East Jerusalem.”

Israel is responsible for educating the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem, an area seized in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed.

But with a shortage of classrooms — and budgets that are much lower than for Israeli schools — the dropout rates are high for Palestinian students.

Lessons Of The Intifada

Mahmoud Jamal i

Jamal came of age during the first intifada, or uprising, against the Israeli occupation in the late 1980s. After two years in jail, he spent 12 years in the U.S. Now, when he picks up a stone, it is to build: first a furniture factory, then the kindergarten. He hopes to open a music school next. Rick Davis for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Rick Davis for NPR
Mahmoud Jamal

Jamal came of age during the first intifada, or uprising, against the Israeli occupation in the late 1980s. After two years in jail, he spent 12 years in the U.S. Now, when he picks up a stone, it is to build: first a furniture factory, then the kindergarten. He hopes to open a music school next.

Rick Davis for NPR

Jamal's approach comes from more than a decade in the U.S. — as well as his past failures. He was part of the generation of Palestinians known as the "children of the stones."

Jamal was a student in the late 1980s, when education was disrupted by what is known as the first intifada — or uprising against the Israeli occupation. He joined the protesters, challenging Israeli soldiers with slingshots.

The stone throwers became heroes in the Arab world for standing up to Israel, but the uprising came with a price for young students, who lost years of education.

“I participated in it, went to jail with it,” he says about his time on the street. "That’s where I was trained and graduated.”

“We were the oldest in the generation of the intifada. The younger ones threw stones. We planned,” he says.

Jamal was sentenced to two years in an Israeli jail.

Those violent times shaped his personal strategy for ending the occupation. After he got out of prison, Jamal spent more than a decade in the U.S. and received a computer science degree from the University of California, Berkeley.

No Place For Politics In The Classroom

These days, when he picks up a stone, it is to build — first a factory, then a kindergarten. A music school is next.

At the kindergarten, a fruit and vegetable garden and a pond filled with tropical fish are among the teaching tools. The students, ages 3 to 5, have a “fish feeding day,” says Jamal, so they understand that every living thing needs to eat.

Unlike most Palestinian schools, Jamal keeps politics and religion out of the classroom. "We don't preach any specific ideology. Learn how to read, play," he says.

Even so, Jamal says opening the school — which is licensed by the Israeli authorities — wasn't easy. “I thought I would be helping, with a new way of education. Instead [Israeli officials] made it so hard and difficult. It took two years before they gave us a permit," he says.

Jamal wants to change the way Palestinians and Israelis think about each other. He recalls a conversation he overheard between a Jewish woman and her son more than 30 years ago. "He's asking her, 'Is he Arab?' They didn't know I spoke Hebrew. And she said, 'Yes.' He said, 'How come he’s not killing me?' 'Because you’re with Mommy,' " Jamal says.

"I’m not saying that our people don’t do similar things. So, to me, I mean not to have a specific ideology. It’s only a school that cares for the children to have their fair chance to be the kid that they are,” he says.

This is Jamal's own personal uprising.

“Life is what happens. You can’t just stop and wait. We don’t give up easily. We don’t give up, period. Kids still have to learn," he says. "If everyone fixes from his side, the big picture becomes pretty.”

Education must go on, he says, failure or success in the peace process plays no part in his plan.

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