Respect is what we need in Jerusalem

Chris Wright

Last week the British Council building in Gaza was bombed; nobody has claimed responsibility. There is a danger that British interests have become the latest targets in the Middle East conflict. The British Consulate in Jerusalem has warned all of us to be on the look-out for anti-British feeling in both the Israeli and Palestinian communities.

The Anglican International School is the main British school in Jerusalem. Since the beginning of the Intifada it has seen its student enrolment drop dramatically. The projected enrolment for September 2002 is just over a third of what it was 19 months ago.

We live in a "holy city" disfigured by religious intolerance. We see all around us the tragic effects of this, and so I welcome Prince Charles's multi-faith movement, Respect. As he said: "Good neighbourliness is one of the things most in need of repair."

After seven years in the school I leave for a new headteacher's post in the UK this summer. My final job here is to restructure a new, much smaller school, and to terminate the contracts of two-thirds of my staff. Many of these excellent and experienced teachers will have to return to the UK to seek new employment for the next academic year.

In the light of so many families and teachers leaving we have this week brought into the school a UK consultant on transition to work through some of the difficult issues involved.

This conflict has affected the school in ways we could never have imagined. Ten-foot high stone, concrete and metal fences have been built to surround the compound. Armed guards patrol our perimeters.

Our bursar, who lives in Bethlehem, has been imprisoned in her home since November 2001. One of our staff has to nervously navigate military checkpoints and blockades to get school documents to her.

Some of our students are being privately schooled on the Mount of Olives, since the journey here is considered too dangerous. Five suicide bombs have exploded on our road in the past 12 months.

Schoolchildren have to navigate their psychological and emotional lives within a paradigm of conflict. A six-year-old Palestinian boy returned to school yesterday after visiting his extended family in Ramallah for the first time since the military incursion. He told his teacher that he nearly died when a gas bomb was thrown towards him and his family.

Students in Bethlehem have lived under curfew for weeks. A 15-year-old student who has just returned to school described life in the war zone.

"In March convoys of tanks rolled into town. There was heavy shooting throughout Bethlehem - we were all scared. By late morning the tanks had completely taken the town. For days we lived without electricity or contact with the outside. We were lucky to get water.

"In mid-April my dad managed to get my brothers and I out through a military blockade and walked us to a taxi for Jerusalem. As I said goodbye to my parents I knew this was the last time I would see them in a very long time. I thought that this is not the way to live life. We are going to be scarred by this for all our lives."(Basil, 15, Palestinian Christian.) The following is from a letter from one of our parents, who has three children in the school: "The past two years have been very difficult. Not only have the various people groups in this land had to deal with uncompromising political agendas, but they also have been shackled emotionally by an ever-increasing attitude of bitterness and intolerance for people who were once their neighbours.

"The issues of everyday life in a society polarised by conflict have seeped through the school's 10-foot concrete wall. They have become personal challenges for all our children. As parents, we are thankful that they are being provided with a secure forum to explore the various issues and emotions behind the conflict." (Mrs Ellen Kingry.) In our school we educate students from 35 nationalities. Israeli Jews sit alongside West Bank Palestinians. Jews, Christians and Muslims learn to work and play together. We teach respect for each person, to celebrate difference.

Faith schools take seriously the role which religion plays in life and offer beacons of hope for the values that they can inspire.

Chris Wright is director of the Anglican International School, Jerusalem

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