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."

It's no surprise, then, that with the success of Hand in Hand's campuses, other schools are looking to follow suit. But the road to inter-religious harmony, it seems, has been paved with roadblocks.

At Ein Bustan, a bilingual Arab-Hebrew kindergarten in Israel's Galilee, parents have for nearly two years been trying to gain government approval to expand to first and second grade. Rather than rubber-stamping the effort, however, the government has instead summoned five parents to court.

The charge is breaking Israel's Compulsory Education Law, which requires parents to enroll their children in an accredited educational institution as soon as they turn 5. Ein Bustan currently does not have ministry approval, which means the kindergarten is fine, but the first grade, which starts at age 5, is not. Despite their lack of accreditation, classes are currently in session for both the first and second grades, with school officials banking on the hope that this school year will be retroactively approved.

Ein Bustan was established in 2005 by a group of Arab and Jewish parents who wanted to educate their very young children together according to the Waldorf method, an alternative education structure that emphasizes art, imagination, and social competence. The school, which sits in the Arab village of Hilf began by offering preschool classes for 1- and 2-year-olds, and a pre-kindergarten for children between the ages of 3 and 6.

The pre-kindergarten received authorization from the Israeli Ministry of Education. As the first class approached elementary school age, however, the parents began petitioning the Education Ministry to recognize them as a grade school, as well. They were met with what appeared to be endless red tape. Paperwork was lost, countless signatures were demanded, and eventually, parents at Ein Bustan decided they weren't going to wait to educate their children while the Education Ministry shuffled its papers.

Amir Shlomian, chairman of Maayan Bustan, the educational non-profit that runs Ein Bustan, says the only other option for students after kindergarten in their area is to go to all-Jewish or all-Arab schools in the neighborhood. "We have no other solution for our students," he says. "We have kids who study together, Arabs and Jews, and we don't want them to be segregated."

Ein Bustan began petitioning for recognition in January 2012. One significant difference between its experience and that of the Hand in Hand schools is that at Hand in Hand, the authorization papers were stamped before the doors were opened.

"With Hand in Hand they had a plan for a school, they went back to the U.S. to raise money, they convinced the people in the government that they needed to convince, and then they invited children who were the right age," Shlomian says. "With us, we started eight years ago, with seven Arab families and seven Jewish families." The children, he said, have started to grow up, and hence, the school simply must expand. "We knew we had to open whether we had a license or not."

The story of Ein Bustan has generated accusations of government foot-dragging.

"It suggests the ministry is being tough because these parents dare to have their children educated in a joint framework for Jews and Arabs," Haaretz staffers wrote in an editorial on March 10. "The ministry didn't show such a combative spirit in similar cases in the past; special school structures have started operating long before they received official approval. The difference: It appears the programs of the past didn't upset the educational, social, and political order held sacrosanct by the Education Ministry."

But some parents feel the problem is less about race relations and more about bureaucracy.

Ein Bustan's proposed curriculum is radical not only because of its two languages but because, unlike any other public school in the nation, its administrators insist on adhering to the Waldorf model. Signing off on such a school will require individualized attention from the Ministry of Education on everything from textbooks to matriculation exams to the shape and size of classrooms. There is no precedent from which to learn.

"We're a bureaucrat's nightmare," says one mother of a student at Ein Bustan, who asked to not be named. "Do you know how hard it's going to be for them to sort out the paperwork? We can talk about racism and stuff, but it also might be that they just don't want to deal with it."

Ira Kerem, director of donor relations for the Hand in Hand schools, agrees that the hold-up likely stems from small-mindedness, not cynicism.

"They don't have a problem with Jews and Arabs together," he says of the Ministry of Education. "They have a problem with new ideology."

The trial of the five Ein Bustan parents has been postponed three times and is currently set for June of this year. In the meantime, classes are in session at Ein Bustan and administrators and parents continue to meet with local authorities in hopes of gaining support.

"We're just parents. We're not bureaucrats. And it's very hard to wade your way through the Ministry of Education's legal procedures, especially when they're bent on not helping," says the mother. "And I hope that a judge can see that."

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Debra Kamin is a writer and editor living in Israel.

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