Building bridges in Israel
Bilingual schools for Arabs and Jews aim to break barriers
International Herald Tribune
Tuesday, February 18, 2003
JERUSALEM---While Palestinian suicide bombings and terrorist attacks continue
unabated, and Israeli-imposed curfews,
closures, and military activity stretch out interminably, a group of educators,
parents and students at three Israeli schools
is quietly working to encourage equality, coexistence and tolerance between Arab
and Jewish pupils.
The schools provide bilingual education in Arabic and Hebrew in the hope that
bilingualism will help break down cultural
and linguistic barriers. Even in Israel's few mixed cities, Arabs and Jews live
mostly in segregated neighborhoods and
attend separate schools.
"This is a very idealistic school," said Omar Nashef, 42, whose 7-year-old
daughter Areen attends Jerusalem's Hand-in-Hand
school. "All the parents who send their children to this school have strong
ideals. We know this is working at coexistence
drop by drop, but we all hope something will come of it." Areen and her best
friend, Tahel, who is Jewish, are
inseparable. And Tahel spends a lot of time at the Nashef home in Jerusalem's
Arab Beit Safafa neighborhood, a rare
occurrence in this part of the world. Tahel's mother, Naama Greenwald-Kashany,
36, said her contact with the Nashef
family was the first she had had with Arabs, though she had always supported the
concept of coexistence. "I wasn't
scared [going to their neighborhood] but there was a feeling of strangeness,"
she said. "This was the first time I was in
an Arab home and the first time I had a personal relationship with Arabs. I had
no idea what their house would look like.
Now, for me, it is so natural."
The Jerusalem school is part of the Hand-in-Hand Center for Jewish-Arab
Education in Israel that was formed almost five
years ago. A second Hand-in-Hand school is located in Galilee. Both schools have
adapted the philosophy of the bilingual
elementary school of the Jewish-Arab Neve Shalom/Wahat Al-Salam/Oasis of Peace (NSWAS)
village. That school was
opened in 1984. At all three schools, distinguishing between Arab and Jewish
children can be difficult. But while these
youngsters are unaware of the groundbreaking steps they take by studying and
playing together, their parents and
teachers know only too well that the schools are far from typical. The
separation between Jew and Arab in the Israeli
educational system serves only to develop fear, prejudice and hatred, said Amin
Khalaf. He co-founded the Hand-in-Hand
Center for Jewish-Arab Education in 1998 as an outgrowth of the west Jerusalem
YMCA Arab-Jewish nursery school
program that his son attended. By the age of five, Khalaf said, many children
have already begun to establish stereotypes.
And by the time they reach university -- where most Jewish and Arab students
first encounter each other -- it is often
too late for meaningful cultural exchange. About 270 students, from nursery
school age to sixth grade, attend the
NSWAS school. Some 126 children study at each of the Hand-in-Hand schools. The
Galilee school includes first through
fifth grade; the Jerusalem school kindergarten through fourth grade. The classes
are roughly divided evenly between Arab
and Jewish students. The schools, which receive state funds and are recognized
by the Israeli Ministry of Education,
depend on outside funds for special projects and programs.
"That two bilingual schools have been established is indicative that we have
established a precedent," said Bob Marks, an
English and history teacher who is also in charge of public relations for NSWAS.
"Ideally, we want to see this get rooted in
Israeli society and see the state take care of all the future financing." The
schools use different methods to achieve the
same goals. At the Hand-in-Hand schools, there are two teachers, one Arab and
one Jewish, in each classroom who teach
in their mother tongue. Sometimes they divide the subjects, other times they
teach together. Nothing is translated and
teachers use body language or other signs to make themselves understood.
Students study each other's religion together
and have time off for Jewish, Christian and Muslim holidays. Most students are
bilingual by the third grade. The presence
of two teachers in the classroom requires adjustments, said Lily Mesch, a Jewish
first-grade teacher at the Jerusalem
school. "It is even more difficult when my partner comes from another culture,
with another type of educational
background, and a different outlook and values concerning education," said Mesch.
"At the beginning of this year, I didn't
have such a good relationship with my partner but today we have learned to
understand and respect one another and
we have reached a point where the learning process flows. The children benefit
from this because they see in us a model
of coexistence and harmony between Arabs and Jews." At the NSWAS school, there
is only one teacher per class. It
could be an Arab or Jewish teacher who instructs in their own language. Students
separate for classes such as religion and
math. Art, music, current events and homeroom are fully integrated.
Marks noted that teachers found difficulties where they were least expected.
There were no problems in language
classes. "But in arithmetic classes," he said, "where we didn't think there
would be a problem we encountered problems."
He noted that in Arabic teaching methods the arithmetic equation is from right
to left just as the language is written, but
in Hebrew, which is also written from right to left, equations are done from
left to right. All three schools have two
principals -- one Jewish and one Arab, of whom one is male and the other female.
Neither system shies away from difficult topics. For example, many of the
Galilee school's Jewish families now live on land
that was expropriated by the state from Arabs during protests in 1976. Six Arabs
were killed on what is known as Land
Day, which is observed on March 30. "It is clear that what happened was an
attempt by the government to take land
from Arab citizens and there is no argument over these facts," said Aura Mor, an
academic consultant for the
Hand-in-Hand schools. "At the school we are learning how to live with this
reality. What is important is the discussion of
these issues, the telling of it and the asking of 'What next?"' Family histories
are used as a way to confront complex topics
such as Israeli Independence Day versus El Nakba, a term meaning "the disaster"
which is used by Arabs to describe that
same day. Children in all three schools are asked to bring in family stories
from this period.
"We continuously hold meetings with the parents and teachers and examine
ourselves and what we are doing and how
the environment we are in influences us and how we can influence the
environment," said Kamal Abu Younis, co-principal
of the Galilee Hand-in-Hand school. *** Judith Sudilovsky is the Jerusalem
correspondent for the Catholic News Service.