Haifa's Christian Schools Lead the League

The prestigious Orthodox School in Haifa belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church, but half its students are Muslims. Some 95 percent of the students matriculate and over 70 percent of the graduates complete university degrees. The school enforces zero tolerance for violence, particularly for insults based on religion.

David Ratner
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David Ratner

In October 2000 Rami Shinawi buried his dream to study at the Reali school in Haifa. Rami, the son of a Muslim family that lives in Haifa, is attracted to the exact sciences and his father - a doctor at Rambam Hospital - and his mother - a nurse at Fleman Hospital - encourage him to excel. But then, when the time came for him to decide which high school to attend, the October riots erupted and his parents were afraid that the growing tension between Jews and Arabs would affect his absorption in the prestigious Jewish school.

Shinawi registered at the Orthodox School in Haifa's lower city. Registering does not guarantee anything: Over 60 percent of those registered fail the school's stiff entrance exams. Shinawi, however, passed the tests and is now in 11th grade, on the physics and electronics track, and he's not sorry about his choice. Next year, when he completes his matriculation exams, he will become part of the exceptional statistics of the two Arab schools in Haifa that belong to churches - the Orthodox School, which is a Greek Orthodox institution, and the Nazareth Nuns' School, which is Catholic.

In 2002, of the Haifa schools, Nazareth Nuns recorded a 98-percent pass rate in the matriculation exams; in second place was the Leo Baeck School, with 96 percent and the Orthodox School was in third place, with a 95-percent pass rate. Reali was in fifth place, with a 90-percent pass rate.

For the sake of comparison, the average national success rate in the matriculation exams is 52.8 percent (the Education Ministry refused to provide detailed national figures). Although the two Christian schools are private schools, they ask about one-tenth of the tuition demanded by their Jewish counterpart, Reali, which charges annual fees of just over NIS 10,000.

Over 50 percent of the students at the Orthodox School are Muslim, while the rest are Christians, Druze and Bedouin from all over Israel. It is an Arab version of the military section attached to the Reali school, which offers a quality education to students from all over the country, or a private English school that educates the children of the elite.

NIS 1,200 a year

The Orthodox School is located on Yitzhak Sadeh St., behind the German Colony in the lower city, in a plain concrete building with a schoolyard devoid of greenery or space for the students during recess. The school was founded in 1952 by the Greek Orthodox Christian community. The school's full name is the Arab Orthodox School and its principal, Maroun Ka'bour, himself a graduate of the class of `62, relates that the community's education committee - which founded the school and is responsible for its management to this day - decided from the outset to serve the entire Arab public. As stated, in 2002 some 95 percent of the school's graduates were eligible for matriculation certificates. Ka'bour says that this is a slight decline from previous years.

"The average eligibility is a measurement used by the Education Ministry," says Ka'bour. "I'm more interested in the average matriculation scores of the graduates. What makes me happy is that over 45 percent of the students achieved scores of 100 or more on the exams."

The Orthodox School switched to the Education Ministry's technology track three years ago. The decision was based, among other things, on the fact that the track offers larger budgets for the construction of labs and the fact that the Orthodox community's education committee in Haifa, which includes two senior doctors from Rambam Hospital, a senior lecturer at Haifa University and a member of city council, decided that the future lies in technology.

The most prestigious curriculum tracks at the school are electronics and biotechnology, and physics and electronics.

"Before anything else, students here are required to take five matriculation units of Hebrew, while the Education Ministry's minimum requirement is two units," explains Ka'bour, "add to that three units of Arabic, five units of English, five of mathematics, two history and one civics. That's 21 units even before a student has chosen his or her major, such as a combination of physics and electronics, which are 15 units together." Due to the broad mixture of ethnic groups and religious communities, no religious studies are offered. Even so, the Church subsidizes the school - annual tuition is just NIS 1,200. "Low tuition means that we have to make do without essential things such as an assembly auditorium worthy of its name, or any sports facilities," says Ka'bour.

In 1956 the school's first 14 graduates completed their studies. This year the graduating class totaled 145. The school is proud of its list of famous graduates: Knesset member Talab al-Sana (United Arab List), Dr. Suleiman Agbariyeh (former mayor of Umm al-Fahm and a senior member of the Islamic Movement, currently in prison), stage actress Salwa Nakara and dozens of lawyers, doctors, scientists and public figures who are well-known in the Arab sector. Over 70 percent of the school's graduates completed university studies.

"The Orthodox community decided that every Arab in Israel should have the right to compete for a place in the school," says Ka'bour, who is a Maronite Christian. "We accept students from Rahat to the Galilee. At present 50 percent of our students come from the Triangle region southeast of Haifa - they leave their homes at 6 A.M. to get to Haifa. Only a few of the students come from Haifa itself."

At the end of April Ka'bour's desk was covered with the files of dozens of eighth-grade students from all over Israel who had sat the entrance exams. Out of 280 applicants only 120 passed the exams.

"Students from 40 communities sat the exams; there are schools from which not even one student managed to get accepted this year," says Ka'bour.

The entrance exams consist of tests in Hebrew, Arabic, English and math. Graduates of the school claim that anyone who passed those tests in eighth grade will have no difficulty passing matriculation or psychometric exams. In ninth grade there is another screening, with an 8-10 percent dropout rate. The tests allow the school to absorb the best young minds from the Arab sector. Until the 1970s, students from the distant south of the country enjoyed a dormitory that operated adjacent to the school, but now students from faraway towns have to find their own accommodations with relatives or rent apartments with friends.

Served in Israel's wars

The school also puts a big emphasis on discipline. The parents sign a `behavior constitution' for the students, so the rules of the game are clear - any student who violates the constitution is expelled.

"We forbid violence of any kind, particularly verbal violence based on religion or ethnic background," says Ka'bour. "A student gets two warnings and the third time he is expelled. We had a case in the 1990s with Shulamit Aloni, when she was education minister. She intervened when we expelled a student whose parents had connections and demanded that their son be readmitted. We politely made it clear that we are a private school and said we would rather be shut down than readmit a violent student."

Despite all efforts, the atmosphere at the Orthodox School is less sterile than at Nazareth Nuns and there is a bit more "Israeli noise" in the hallways and the schoolyard. There is, however, a school uniform and a ban against body piercing, tattoos and belly tops. The students also know there is a basic precondition for holding a mixed party with boys and girls - the presence of a few teachers.

Politics is not a dirty word in the school, say the students; at morning assembly, staff members do not hesitate to comment on current affairs. After the assassinations of Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi the vice principal spoke out against the operations. On the other hand, the staff were also very critical of the big terror attacks in Haifa over the past two years, in which both Arabs and Druze were murdered, some of them acquaintances of the students.

Ka'bour admits that there is a certain tension due to the ambitions of the student council for more freedom and more student involvement in decision-making. In the meantime the administration agrees to hear what the students have to say, but reminds them of the school's rigid constitution.

"Once a year the students have the opportunity to influence constitutional amendments in negotiations with the administration," says Ka'bour. "Whatever is not decided in the constitution will not be compromised over the course of the year."

At the end of April one male and four female students, all in 11th grade, gathered in one of the classrooms to talk a bit about the school. Rami Shinawi spoke about how he got to the school and his future dreams.

"I'm very interested in aeronautics and nuclear studies," said Shinawi, "but I know that in Israel there's no chance I'll be accepted to such studies at the Technion [Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa], because I'm a Muslim Arab. And if I were to be accepted, I wouldn't find a job in that field. So I'll probably study electrical engineering."

Salma Abu Ful is studying in the physics and electronics track. She is a Muslim from Jatt, in the Triangle, in central Israel. Her father is an orthopedist; her mother is a well-baby clinic nurse. A former mayor of Jatt, Abu Ful's father pleaded with his daughter to study in her home town. It doesn't look good if the mayor's daughter chooses not to study in the town where she lives. At age 14, however, she insisted on the Orthodox School.

"I knew that this is the only way to broaden horizons and meet people from other places," she says. Her dream, from childhood, has been to be an astronaut.

Abu Ful is a brilliant and highly motivated student. She admits, however, that she is aware that the combination of being a woman, an Arab and a Muslim blocks her dream of becoming an astronaut. "After September 11," she says with a smile, "even in the United States I wouldn't be able to succeed. That actually challenges me more. I guess I'll have to go in for medicine."

Among the school's outstanding students, medicine and law are perceived as the main avenue for Arab students who excel. They know that their path as research scientists will be blocked, due to the relationship between the research institutions and the security establishment. Even so, they all declare that they want to continue living in Israel.

Muna Kharoba, an Orthodox Christian from Haifa, is majoring in computers and electronics. She says that the attitude of teachers at the school is still suspicious toward girls studying electronics. Kharoba's father is a self-employed accountant, her mother, a bookkeeper. Kharoba figures that she will probably follow in her mother's footsteps. Kharoba is interested in politics and is a member of the municipal youth council.

"It bothers me that politics is not discussed more in class," says Kharoba. "I feel there are things that they don't let us discuss.

Marwa Shiban is an Orthodox Christian from Haifa. Her father teaches biotechnology at the school. "I want to be a psychologist or biotechnologist," she says.

Sahar Halabi is a Druze from Daliat al-Carmel. Her father is a building contractor and owns a large cement factory. She gave up easier studies at the local Ronson high school in Daliat al-Carmel and went to a school where the standard of education is higher. She says the school strengthened her Arab identity; she has not yet decided what to study at university.

Gisele Absawi, the school's educational counselor, says that the school's Druze graduates can be divided into two groups - those who do not serve in the army for religious reasons and those who serve via the Israel Defense Forces academic program (in which conscripts defer their military service until after they complete their university studies, but undergo basic training and serve in the reserves during university recesses and usually in their professions after they graduate). The Orthodox School, like many Israeli schools, has several alumni - Druze and Circassians - who were killed in Israel's wars.

Some of the students complain about the racism they say they occasionally encounter. "On a flight to China, my family was separated from the other passengers and examined in a humiliating manner," says Abu Ful.

"Just the opposite happened to me," says Shinawi. "On a trip to Jordan the Jordanians thought we were Jews and checked us more thoroughly than all the others, and on the way back, since we are light-skinned and red-haired, the Israelis thought we were Jews and let us through before the other Arabs."

Kharoba says that in the municipal youth council, the Jews find it hard to label her. "They say I'm not an Arab, but rather a Christian," she says. "They don't understand that we are all the same." n

And over at Nazareth Nuns, the halls are very quiet

In the Nazareth Nuns School, the other prestigious Arab educational facility in Haifa, 60 percent of the students are tested on over 30 matriculation units - far more than students in Jewish high schools. Nazareth Nuns practices a strict disciplinary code that mandates uniforms, prohibits belly tops, tattoos or body piercing and does not tolerate any type of violence.

The fact that this is a private school increases the students' motivation to behave properly: Anyone who doesn't want to stay doesn't have to; many others will jump at an open place in the school. The result: The school corridors are amazingly quiet.

The Catholic order of Nazareth Nuns was founded in France in 1822. In 1854 a delegation was sent to bring education to the Holy Land. In 1855 the first school was founded in Nazareth and the school in Haifa was established in 1858 - four years from now, the school will celebrate 150 years of continuous operation.

In 1913 the main building, which stands to this day, was built on the side of the mountain. Sister Byran explains that it was the first modern concrete building to be built in northern Israel. The building is part of an impressive 17-dunam (4.25-acre) compound surrounded by a high wall, which includes kindergartens, an elementary school, a small convent and church, and another modern building that serves the high school.

"There are many families whose children have been studying here for three generations," says Alia Shiti, the principal. "A child can start here in the nursery school at age three and continue until grade 12."

About 70 percent of the students are Catholic, and most of the remainder belong to other streams of Christianity; there are also a few Muslim and Druze students. The overwhelming majority of students are from Haifa. The curricula from elementary school on include at least two hours a week of Christian religious studies, from which the non-Christian students are exempt.

The language of instruction at Nazareth Nuns was French until 1920, when the teachers switched to English during the British Mandate period, and only in 1964 did they start teaching in Arabic. There are over 1,000 students; in the afternoons the compound becomes a culture, youth and sports center for children from the school, offering various extracurricular activities.

The school has computer, communication, chemistry and physics labs. Shiti ardently promotes the vision of the Mother Superior, Margaret Byran, an Irishwoman in her seventies who has been in charge of the school on behalf of the Nazareth Nuns since the 1950s. Shiti notes that as far back as the 1970s, Byran steered the school toward technical education and worked hard to obtain budgets from the church to develop the labs.



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