In Some Israeli Schools, It's Arabic in First Period and Hebrew in Second

Some schools in the country are successfully co-educating children from different religions. But now, they face an accreditation challenge.
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A Palestinian (center) and an Israeli girl participate in a basketball practice in Jerusalem on November 6, 2008 hosted by Hand in Hand, one of the few Israeli public schools where Jews and Arabs study together. (Eliana Aponte/Reuters)

TEL AVIV -- Lian Jabbar-Rothschild is 11 years old, with a big, gummy smile and a lot to say. A student in the sixth grade at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand bilingual school in Jerusalem, where Jewish and Arab children learn together, in both their languages and with an aspiration toward equal representation of both their cultures, Jabbar-Rothschild is a case study in co-existence.

Even her hyphenated last name says it all. Jabbar-Rothschild's father is Arab and her mother is Jewish. In a city defined by its boundaries, its striations, and its ethnic strife, this Jerusalem child is at once a member of both sides and a player on neither.

"I think every human being is the same," she says, before breaking into a giggle. "Yes, sometimes it's a little bit confusing because I don't know what religion I will choose when I am older. But here," she says, gesturing to the classroom in which we stand, "I feel like I fit in because there are Jews and there are also Arabs."

Her friend Rami Nassar, who is also 11, has two Arab parents. In proud, fluent English, he tells me that this Jerusalem school, which educates 530 students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, really could one day shift from the exception to the rule.

"A lot of people don't believe it's possible to learn the way that we do, together," he says. "But we feel differently. We are just kids, and we are doing something small, just learning together, but that's the start of something big."

There are currently four Hand in Hand schools across Israel, educating some 900 pupils in total. The Jerusalem campus, founded in 1997, is the flagship and the largest. The other schools are in the Galilee, in a rural part of northern Israel; in Wadi Ara, an Arab region near Haifa; and in Haifa proper, where a brand-new daycare and preschool was opened in September and where administrators hope a new school will grow by one grade each year. A fifth campus, in Tel Aviv-Yafo, is in the works.

Each classroom has two teachers; one Jew and one Arab. Students are split nearly fifty-fifty along ethnic lines. Coursework is done in both languages and when Jewish, Muslim, and Christian holidays appear on the calendar, students celebrate them together, acknowledging the customs that are their own and learning how to appreciate those that belong to their classmates.

The schools are public and fully recognized by the Israeli Ministry of Education. To absorb the additional costs created by having double teachers, as well as smaller classes, the Hand in Hand schools receive funding from international donors. The Jerusalem campus also benefits from support from the Jerusalem Foundation, which sponsors more than 4,000 cultural, educational, and developmental projects in Israel's capital.

Parents at the school say their children are growing up to stand apart from the rest of Israeli society - and that's a good thing.

"They are definitely different," Merav Carmeli, who has three children enrolled in the Jerusalem school, says. "I'm Jewish, and I look at the Jewish kids, the way that they look at other people - Muslims, Christians. They get to go to their houses. I grew up in Israel and I was never friends with Arab kids and I knew nothing about them except from what I saw on TV. They are very lucky."

Samar Jabber-Massarwa (no relation to Lian), who is Arab, agrees.

"For me, really, there was no other alternative in Jerusalem. I'm not going to send my kids to a Jewish school because then they're going to be the 'Arabs,' the different ones," she says.

But sending them to an all-Arab school was also out.

"I also didn't want them to grow up in a very homogenous one way of

thinking, of this is right and this is wrong," she says.

Students at Hand in Hand schools routinely outscore their peers on the Israeli matriculation exams, which are similar to the SAT, are disproportionately represented at national contests and academic fairs, and have a higher rate of college attendance. In addition, in a study carried out by Zvi Bekerman and Nader Shhadi from Hebrew University comparing students from bilingual schools to those from monolingual ones, the bilingual students were better-spoken.

"The interviews with the bilingual students were longer than the ones carried out in the monolingual schools, and the children in these schools were the most articulate in their responses," the researchers wrote. Crucially, however, this group was also noted to be more accepting of other cultures and significantly less radicalized than their peers.

"The responses of children in the bilingual school to questions related to political-[conflict] events are in general more moderate than those expressed by children in the regular monolingual schools," the researchers wrote. "Moreover, from an analysis of their responses to questions related to cultural-religious matters, it is apparent that the children's understanding of one another's cultures runs deeper than that found in the monolingual settings."

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Debra Kamin is a writer and editor living in Israel.

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