At Israel’s Top High School, Classes Are Taught in Arabic

A small Druze village in the Galilee is home to one of Israel’s finest educational establishments, where two filmmakers spent three years uncovering the secrets of its success

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From the documentary "One Hundred Percent."
From the documentary "One Hundred Percent."Credit: Kan 11
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Year after year it tops the list of Israel’s best high schools — but it’s not an obvious contender for the title. For starters, it isn’t located in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or any of the country’s affluent suburbs. Neither is it privately or even semi-privately funded. And classes at this school aren’t even taught in Hebrew.

Israel’s top performing high school — as it has been widely hailed in recent years — is located in Beit Jann, a small Druze village situated atop a steep mountain in the northern Galilee. It is the rare example of an Israeli public school where 100 percent of the seniors (or very close to it) pass the high school graduation exams (a prerequisite for admission into Israeli universities). By comparison, the national average ranges between 60 and 70 percent.

In their new documentary “One Hundred Percent,” the Israeli husband-and-wife filmmaking duo Ronen Zaretzky and Yael Kipper go behind the scenes of this out-of-the-way school to try to figure out the secret to its success.

The film won the best documentary award at the Jerusalem Film Festival in July and will air in Israel on September 1, the first day of the new school year.

Filmed over the course of three years, this gorgeously shot feature-length documentary follows a group of struggling 10th- through 12-graders placed in a special program at the school — although boot camp is probably a more accurate term for it — that aims to bring them up to speed. They are made to understand that the responsibility for safeguarding their school’s illustrious reputation, a source of deep pride for the entire community, rests on their shoulders.

The film’s main protagonist is Jalal Sa’ad, the maverick teacher in charge of them. A big, scruffy guy who wears his long hair pulled back into a ponytail, Sa’ad uses a carefully balanced mix of tenderness and toughness to motivate his students.

At their first group meeting, he warns his new charges that the only excuse for absence from class is a hospital note confirming that they are both unconscious and in intensive care. “If you’re conscious, I don’t care if you’re in intensive care,” he tells them. “In that case, bring your oxygen tanks to class.”

He lets them know that they are expected to be on call for his special catch-up classes seven days a week, from 8 A.M. till 11 P.M. In one particularly memorable scene, he sits a student down for a pep talk to explain why his studies must come before everything else. “When they talk about this being a Jewish state, it means that if you don’t excel they’ll prefer one of their own,” he warns. “In other words, as a Druze you are a citizen in this state on condition.” (There are about 136,000 Druze, an Arabic-speaking minority, in Israel, mainly in the country’s north.)

The camera captures Sa’ad waking his students up when they’re late to class and prowling the neighborhood at night to make sure they’re not out in the streets and up to no good. He frequently makes house calls to chat with the parents — but not only to share his concerns about their children. This former school dropout, who came to understand the importance of education the hard way (as we eventually learn), believes very strongly that parents also need to know when their children are making progress.

From the documentary "One Hundred Percent."Credit: Kan 11

Curious neighbors

Beit Jann High School wasn’t always a national success story. Until fairly recently, the percentage of its students eligible for high school graduation certificates trailed way behind the national average. Like many other Israelis, Zaretzky and Kipper often wondered how this particular school, seemingly against all odds and out of nowhere, had catapulted to the top of the rankings.

But for them it was even more personal: The residents of Beit Jann happened to be their closest neighbors.

For the past 10 years, the two former Tel Avivians have been living in the tiny rural community of Harashim; the nearest big town to them — if you can call it that — is Beit Jann.

“We would see people from Beit Jann all the time,” recounts Zaretzky in a conversation with Haaretz. “We’d meet them at the local grocery and gas station. Sometimes a technician from the town would come over to fix something, but it was never a very deep connection. And then we started popping over for short visits, out of curiosity about the school. One thing led to another and we were put in touch with Jalal, who simply blew us away.”

Their cinema vérité-style documentary benefited from virtually unlimited access to the school, its teaching staff and students throughout the lengthy shoot. It made it possible for them to bear witness, for example, to an intimate and moving conversation between a student struggling with the recent death of her father and an extraordinarily sensitive and compassionate school counselor. Their camera was also on hand to capture this same school counselor responding with deep empathy to a teenage boy struggling with his sexuality.

The filmmakers were also welcomed into the homes of their protagonists. This is how they were able to document another rather remarkable conversation between one of Jalal’s struggling students — a beautiful and talented singer — and her mother. While preparing traditional pastries in their kitchen, the teenage girl plucks up the courage to share with her mother her dream of pursuing a career in music. Her mother tries to persuade her that marriage is more important, but to no avail.

“Tell me the truth,” the girl asks her mother. “Do you have any regrets about getting married so early?” The question is left hanging in the air.

Neither of the filmmakers speaks or understands Arabic. But Zaretzky believes this liability actually worked in their favor. “Because the students and teachers knew we didn’t understand the language, it somehow made them feel more at liberty to speak — even though they were aware of the fact that the camera was constantly running and recording them,” he says.

From the documentary "One Hundred Percent."Credit: Kan 11

For most Israelis, Beit Jann High School is considered a phenomenal success story but Zaretzky has a different take on it. “For me, this is more a story about change, or a desire for change,” he says.

“Like the Jews, the Druze in Israel are caught up today in an internal struggle with different forces pulling in different directions. This film, for me at least, is very much about how this struggle between traditional and liberal values is playing out in this community.”

“One Hundred Percent” can be seen in Israel on Kan 11 at 21:05 on Sunday September 1.

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