JERUSALEM – In Israel, Jews go to Hebrew schools and Arabs to Arab schools—most of the time. Some parents, however, are refusing this segregation and have founded 5 bilingual schools across the country where Jewish and Arab children study together in both Hebrew and Arabic, in a spirit of equality.
In contrast with these initiatives, Hebrew and Arab curricula in the Israeli education system are not only separate, but unequal as well. The Arab schools are under-funded and often of a lower academic level with the result that Israeli Arabs commonly go to Hebrew schools, whereas Jews never go to Arab schools.
The first school where Jews and Arabs were able to 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 neighbouring 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 ratio is four Jews to one Arab.
First, a day-care centre was created in Neve Shalom – Wahat as-Salam, followed by 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 cannot 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, the other in the Galilee. Eldad Garfunkel, whose son studies in the latter school, recalls how parents had many 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 they."
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 taught 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 creates its own curricula so as to incorporate a Palestinian viewpoint.
The weekend extends 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 remain Jews and the Arabs remain Arabs."
The teachers do not talk about the conflict but if the children 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 send their children to that bilingual school are left-wing 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) refers to 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 Arab and half Jewish. However, while the waiting list keeps growing for the former, it is nonexistent for the latter. "The situation of Arab education in Israel is not good," observes Yochanan Eshchar. Jewish parents have a larger choice of educational streams (public, religious, etc), with the bilingual school as just one 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 weight to Arabic and Hebrew, but "it's so hard to keep to 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 are able to study most subjects in Hebrew, whereas it takes their Jewish classmates several years 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, and that includes even some Arab students," admits former pupil Noam Shuster, who speaks Hebrew with her Palestinian friend Sami. But for her, the most important part of her education was not Arabic, but learning values of equality, openness and respect.
Neve Shalom – Wahat as-Salam has about 300 pupils whilst Hand in Hand around 830 students, studying in schools in Jerusalem, the Galilee, Wadi Ara, and, since September 2007, in Beer-Sheva in the South.
* Marie Medina is a French journalist who has been in Jerusalem since September 2007. She started as a reporter in 2000 in Paris for an international news agency. While in Jerusalem, she wrote for Babelmed, an online magazine focusing on Mediterranean cultures. She studied sociology at the university of Paris VIII, in Saint-Denis. And has an English BA from the Sorbonne university (Paris IV).
This is one of three winning articles in Search for Common Ground’s 2008 Eliav-Sartawi Awards for Middle East Journalism. The article originally appeared in BabelMed on 29 June 2008, and is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author. Copyright permission is granted for publication.
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