Israel Keeps Arab Teachers Out of Orthodox Religious Schools

Critics charge that policy encourages growing extremism in Jewish public system.

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A widely touted plan to employ more Arab teachers in Jewish schools apparently has one limitation: The Education Ministry does not intend to employ Arab teachers in religious Jewish schools.

An official familiar with the details of the program said the ministry’s decision came because the matter was too “complicated.”

The official also said there was concern in the Education Ministry that “integrating Arab teachers in religious schools could end in failure, which would paint the entire plan as a failure, and when it is a matter of a minority, when these teachers succeed it will be a success story, but if they fail, opponents will see it as a failure of all the Arabs.”

Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu, codirector of the Abraham Fund, which operates an Arabic language and culture studies program in elementary schools, said he was disappointed to discover that the Education Ministry was not planning on employing Arab teachers in Orthodox public schools. He said that eight of the 100 schools in which the Abraham Fund program is taking place are Orthodox.

“The very fact that there is or could be opposition shows how important this integration is. It cannot be a reason for the Education Ministry not to move ahead in the integration of Arab teachers in Orthodox public schools. In a country where the school systems are hermetically separated, inter-communal integration is critical,” he said.

Oren Yehi-Shalom, director of the NGO Israeli Education, said he wrote a letter to the outgoing Education Ministry director general, Dalit Stauber, when the program was first made public last summer, asking about the extent to which Arab teachers would be integrated into the Orthodox public school system, but never received a reply.

Yesterday he said: “It’s unfortunate and worrying to receive yet another signal of the ongoing increase in extremism in the Orthodox education system that is funded by the state, which acts like an ignorant soccer team that is not prepared to accept even one Arab player. The state cannot accept the establishment of educational ghettos that it funds, which not only do not fight extremism and racism, but give the impression of even encouraging them.”

The Education Ministry told Haaretz in response that the Orthodox public education system would act according to its needs.

The ministry’s plan is to employ Arab teachers in secular Jewish public schools not only as teachers of Arabic - as most of them are employed now - but as teachers of core subjects such as math, English and the sciences. The plan to employ 100 new Arab teachers in this school year and in each of the next four years has been somewhat delayed, so only 44 Arab teachers were hired in Jewish schools this year, half of them in Arabic and half in the core subjects. The goal remains to hire 500 Arab teachers in Jewish schools over the five-year period.

The plan aims not only to further a coexistence agenda, but an economic one. There are some 10,000 Arab academics who are trained teachers but have not found teaching positions, while there is a severe shortage of teachers for core subjects in the Jewish schools.

Funding for the project comes from the Prime Minister’s Office and an NGO, the Merhavim Institute for Shared Citizenship.

Research shows that almost all the Arab teachers who began working in the Jewish school system were successful both professionally and socially. A study by the Hizun Research Institute showed that schools employing the teachers were pleased with the program, and that both Arabs and Jews involved in it came away with a higher opinion of the other’s ethnic group.

The director of Merchavim, Michael Prashker, says that coexistence is visible in the schools where the Arab teachers work because “half the women teachers wear a hijab.” Prashker said that although some schools do not want to accept Arab teachers, it is important to insist that they do so, and that Merchavim will host encounters between principals who are pleased with the program and those who are wavering.

One of Merchavim’s recommendations to the Education Ministry is to give eight extra teaching hours to schools for every Arab teacher they hire. A similar grant was offered to schools that hired new immigrant teachers in the 1990s.

Hilin Zaharir, who teaches in Hod Hasharon in a Tali school (a non-Orthodox program enriched with Jewish studies), was placed at the school by Merchavim. A teacher of Arabic and Arab culture, Zaharir says she is very pleased. “I don’t feel like I’m going to work, I feel like I’m at home,” she said.

Zaharir noted that she was initially concerned about working at a school with a religious emphasis, but that the children accepted it that she does not take part in their daily prayers. “Because I came there as an ambassador of Arab culture I saw this as promoting shared citizenship. In every school it is important to show the picture of the other. I feel that my identity was also being built there,” she said.

Zaharir said she didn’t see a problem with Arab teachers working in an Orthodox public school. “It would be a little difficult at first but it can be overcome. As soon as the principal prepares the parents’ committee, it will work. Before I came, there was certain opposition. I started teaching after the summer of the Second Lebanon War and I was very concerned when the school year started. But I never heard a racist remark either from the students or the parents.”

Israeli high school students taking their matriculation (bagrut) exam.Credit: Alon Ron

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