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At the bilingual Arab-Jewish kindergarten in Be'er Sheva, teacher Rada Alubra calls the children to order. About half of the 25 children are Jewish, while the others are Arab. Alubra reads them a story in Arabic, while Jewish teacher Hanita Hadad interjects periodically in Hebrew. The classroom is festooned with pictures of animals, letters of the alphabet and the days of the week, all in both Hebrew and Arabic.

The bilingual kindergarten curriculum lets Jewish and Arab children learn side by side, generally with equal numbers of Arabic- and Hebrew-speaking children, and with both an Arab and a Jewish teacher in each classroom. Each teacher generally speaks his or her native language, in order to reenforce the children's connection with their mother tongue.

The Arab children at the Be'er Sheva school generally become bilingual before their Jewish peers. They seem comfortable speaking in both languages, while the Jewish children seem to understand but are less fluent.

The atmosphere of cultural coexistence and respect doesn't necessarily prevail beyond the walls of the school, however. At a bus stop a few streets away, someone scrawled "Kahane was right," a reference to the anti-Arab former Kach movement leader.

Weathering the war

The Arab-Jewish kindergarten in Be'er Sheva was established two years ago by the Hagar non-profit organization, with support from Yad Beyad (Hand in Hand), which sponsors four bilingual Arab-Jewish schools around Israel.

The kindergarten weathered the war in Gaza, when missiles regularly struck Be'er Sheva, but in its aftermath, Hagar is struggling to recruit children.

"In the Negev, Israel's social problems are more extreme, as are relations between Arabs and Jews," said Yifat Hillel, the director of Hagar. "The war in Gaza just made the situation worse."

Anis Farhat has a child enrolled at the kindergarten. "The war aroused antagonism between the kindergarten and the residents of Be'er Sheva," he said. "But among the parents, we actually felt that we had to pull together, that we were approaching the edge of a frightening abyss and that we had to reinforce the secure place we had created for ourselves."

The Jewish parents say the bilingual, bicultural setting makes their children think more about their Jewish identities, "which is not self-evident," said Hillel. "The program is a challenge to Jewish values. It's not easy either when a child starts singing in Arabic at the Rosh Hashanah table."

The parents, both Jewish and Arab, seem convinced that the contact between Arab and Jewish children lets the youngsters oppose extremism. One of the Jewish parents, Shlomit Someh-Lehman, commented, "Before my child is exposed to the winds of racism, he knows that Arab means Wasim or any other child at the kindergarten, children just like him."