Israel: When Arab and Jewish kids go to the same school
Marie MMina - 01/07/2008
In Israel, Jews go to Hebrew schools and Arabs, most of the time, to Arab schools. Some parents, however, are refusing this segregation and founding bilingual schools. Across the country there are five of these schools, in which Jewish and Arab children study together in both Hebrew and Arabic, in a spirit of equality.
These initiatives contrast with the situation that prevails in the Israeli education system. The Hebrew and Arab curricula are not only separate, but unequal as well. The underfunded Arab schools are generally considered not as good as the Hebrew schools. As a result, Israeli Arabs commonly go to Hebrew schools, whereas Jews never go to Arab schools.
The first school where Jews and Arabs could study together in both their languages was created in Neve Shalom - Wahat as-Salam ("Oasis of Peace" in Hebrew and Arabic). This small village, situated midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, was founded in the 1970s on a piece of land made available by the neighboring Latrun monastery. Today, some 50 families live there, half of them Jewish and half of them Arab (Muslim and Christian). In the general population of Israel, the proportion is four Jews to one Arab.
In Neve Shalom - Wahat as-Salam, first a day-care center was created, followed a kindergarten and then a primary school. In 1990, the schools started accepting children from nearby villages, who now account for 90% of the student body.
The pupils mix according to personal preferences, not religion. "I could not tell who is what," says Michal Litvak Mozes, who leads a weekly recycling workshop for 10 year-olds.
In the kindergarten (ages 2 to 4), two teachers are reading the same story to a dozen kids. Dana Ofer is reading one page in Hebrew, then Sawsan Garh the same page in Arabic. All the children are listening to them intently.
"It really didn't matter in what language the teacher would talk to me," remembers 21 year-old Noam Shuster, who started there when she was six. After doing all her primary school in Neve Shalom - Wahat as-Salam, she went to a nearby kibbutz for her secondary education (the local high school only opened in 2003). On her first day there, she wrote down her name and the date in both Hebrew and Arabic, as she was used to. Her classmates gazed at her, astonished. "That's when I realized my previous education had been unusual," says the young Jewish woman whose best friend, Sami, is Palestinian.
Since then, the model has been reproduced. A Jewish social worker and an Arab teacher founded Hand in Hand in 1997. The following year, the organization opened two bilingual schools, one in Jerusalem and the other one in the Galilee. Eldad Garfunkel, whose son studies in the latter school, recalls how parents had a lot of meetings to prepare for any problems that might occur on the first day. "But the children blended so naturally that we realized that we were the problem, not them."
The situation became tenser during the October 2000 riots when 13 Palestinians (of whom 12 had Israeli citizenship) were killed by police during violent protests in the North. Despite the deterioration of the political climate, the bilingual schools continued operating. Jewish and Arab parents of the Wadi Ara region even decided to create a new school. They couldn't find a site for it until the mayor of Kfar Kara offered them an empty building on the outskirts of his village. The Gesher al HaWadi school ("the Bridge over the Valley") opened in 2004. "It's the first time that Jews have come to learn in an Arab village. It has never happened before in Israel," notes co-principal Yochanan Eshchar.
At Gesher al HaWadi, each class is given by two teachers, in Hebrew and Arabic. The science curricula are those of the Israeli Education ministry. However, for other subjects such as history, the school writes its own curricula so as to incorporate a Palestinian viewpoint.
The weekend goes from Friday to Saturday. Jewish and Muslim holidays are kept, but not Christian holidays - simply because there aren't any Christian pupils. Children thus become acquainted with each others' culture, without losing their own identity. "This is not a mixed identity," insists Yochanan Eshchar. "The Jews will be Jews and the Arabs will be Arabs."
The teachers do not talk about the conflict but if the kids ask delicate questions, they do not avoid them. One day, after watching the news on TV, a 7 year-old boy asked why the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were firing rockets on the Israeli town of Sderot. So the educators led a conversation between the pupils who then decided to write to Ehud Olmert. In their letter, says the co-principal, they invited the Israeli Prime minister to come and visit the school "to see how Jews and Arabs can live together."
Most of the Jewish parents who put their kids in that bilingual school are leftists who believe in coexistence ideals - at least in theory. The results sometimes go beyond their expectations. "When children come home and speak about the Nakba, for instance, their parents say: I'm not sure that's what I meant when I sent you there," reports Yochanan Eshchar. The Nakba ("disaster" in Arabic) designates the forced exile of Palestinian people during and after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
Like in Neve Shalom - Wahat as-Salam, the Gesher al HaWadi school tries to maintain a balance between its students, half of them Arabs and half of them Jews. However, the waiting list keeps growing for the former, but it doesn't exist for the latter. "The situation of Arab education in Israel is not good," observes Yochanan Eshchar. What is more, Jewish parents have a larger choice of education systems (public, religious, etc), where the bilingual schools are just an option among many others.
The general environment therefore has an impact on bilingual education. "We are part of the society of Israel. We are not an island," says Anwar Dawood, principal of the Neve Shalom - Wahat as-Salam school.
His school tries to give equal status to Arabic and Hebrew but "it's so hard to keep that because there is no equality between Hebrew and Arabic in Israeli society. Hebrew is the dominant language," he states.
The teachers are supposed to use only their mother-tongue but the Arab teachers speak both languages whereas their Jewish colleagues speak only in Hebrew.
After one year, the Arab pupils can study most subjects in Hebrew but it takes their Jewish classmates several years to be able to learn science, history or geography in Arabic.
This is mainly due to "the political attitude of the Jewish community," asserts Anwar Dawood. According to him, "in general, there is no need for Jewish people to learn Arabic."
"It's true our Hebrew is stronger than our Arabic, including for some Arab students," admits former pupil Noam Shuster, who speaks Hebrew with her Palestinian friend Sami. But for her, the most important was being raised with values of equality, openness and respect.
Neve Shalom - Wahat as-Salam has about 300 pupils. Hand in Hand has around 830 students in schools in Jerusalem, the Galilee, Wadi Ara, and also in Beer-Sheva, in the South, since September 2007.
So today in Israel, there are not more than five bilingual schools where slightly more than 1,100 children are being taught. This is to be compared to the more than 3.000 Hebrew schools and 700 Arab schools where two million kids are receiving their education.
Whereas Hebrew and Arabic are the two official languages of Israel, the few bilingual schools that exist today were created solely thanks to individual initiatives - by parents and educators who wanted Jewish and Arab children to be able to learn, play and grow up together. The state has never launched a project of that kind. As Noam Shuster sadly puts it: "If anything, the government gives us obstacles."