First Arab Principal at Jewish-Israeli Public School Wants Migrant Children to Feel at Home

After leading Jaffa high school to excellence, Jalal Toche will be the first Arab principal of Bialik-Rogozin school, which serves almost half of foreign students in Tel Aviv

Jalal Toche in Ajial High School in Jaffa, Israel, May 29, 2019.
Ofer Vaknin

Israel's next school year will see the unprecedented appointment at a school in south Tel Aviv. Jalal Toche will be appointed as the first Arab principal of the Bialik-Rogozin school that serves almost half of the approximately 2,500 foreign students in the city (not including kindergartens).

This is the first instance of an Arab principal in a state school run according to the Jewish-Israeli culture curriculum. The fact that the students at Bialik-Rogozin come from families of asylum seekers and  migrants only adds to the complexity – challenging the well-known boundaries and separate tracks of the Israeli education system. A crack in the glass ceiling, perhaps on the way to an Arab principal of a school all of whose students are Jewish.

“I don’t accept the idea that because I’m Arab I have to work my whole life only with Arabs,” says Toche, who for the past decade has been principal of the Ajial High School in Jaffa.

“I don’t think that an Arab teacher should teach only Arabs, just as an Arab doctor doesn’t only treat Arabs. I'll enter my next position with experience in education, values and successes, giving to the children and investing in the faculty. Arab is not a profession, it’s an added value. I can better understand the difficulties of the children at parents at Bialik-Rogozin as I know what it means to be a foreigner," he said. 

Before Ajial, Toche served as a principal for a decade at the Second Chance High School, which is actually the last chance for school dropouts. Farther back in his past, 49-year-old Toche was head of a drug rehabilitation center. His academic background includes social work, special education and law.

Ajial was founded in 2006 as a municipal-state response to the private church schools in Jaffa that for many years had enjoyed educational success and prestige, attained by dropping any student who might hurt the school’s grade averages.

The school has 320 students; two classes for each grade level – the same setup as in the private schools.

Gradually, Ajial became a desirable alternative. Standardized testing shows significant disparity between Ajial and other Arab schools in Israel and in some subjects even between the overall national average. 

Ajial's success also manifests itself in the school's environment – 82 percent of the students say there is a positive atmosphere at the school while 92 percent noted support and encouragement from teachers ahead of matriculation exams (in comparison to the national average of 69 percent and 76 percent respectively). In addition, 87 percent of the students pass the matriculation exams, with no dropouts.

Toche says he sought a new challenge after Ajial because he was “afraid to get stuck in neutral.” The coming year, he says, will be spent getting to know Bialik-Rogozin, but he’s already suggesting, with all due caution, that the will school also try to attract children from families living in Israel for many years. They would have the benefit of “seeing the world from a different point of view. The sense of fear has to be lowered,” he said.

The Bialik-Rogozin school in south Tel Aviv, 2018.
Moti Milrod

At Second Chance High School, Toche worked with the weakest students, who “had to choose between the world of crime and enlightened life that makes more things possible, by leading a profession and gaining a matriculation certificate,” Toche said. 

After eight years, he said he wanted "to seek a new challenge, and then came the opportunity to lead Ajial, the jewel in the crown. In an instant I went from the weakest population to the Jaffa elite."

The school day at Ajial begins with morning assembly, which includes a short address by a student to the student body, a self-confidence exercise. Classes in math, biology, chemistry and computer sciences are in Hebrew, with all the students doing their matriculation exams in the highest level of Hebrew. The faculty includes Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Druze teachers. “It’s a microcosm of Israeli society waiting for the kids outside the school,” Toche says.

The most important demand Toche made on his teachers was to work “according to the need for excellence.  As an Arab citizen in Israel you have to succeed in everything you do. The starting point, and in fact, throughout life, is completely different. I don’t care about the average. There are lots of average people. The standard has to be much higher,” he said.

That might be the reason the school made a decision to maintain contact with the kids after graduation: 28 are in law school, 20 in medical school in Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Italy and other countries.

Toche is known for insisting on high discipline, as well as promoting the advancement of women.

“No one needs to accuse me of feminism. I declare it proudly,” he says, half smiling. In the junior high school, girls take special empowerment classes and in the upper grades they are encouraged, including in individual guidance counselling, to continue to higher education as a matter of policy.

The significance of such support of girls in Arab society means fighting engagement (and sometimes marriage) before the age of 18. In the past, this struggle has led to threats and malicious graffiti painted on the school fence against Toche.

Jalal Toche in Ajial High School in Jaffa, Israel, May 29, 2019.
Ofer Vaknin

“Sometimes the girls are pressured to start thinking about a partner and a home, and I try to explain that they have many possibilities that they can get married later, when they choose to and after they’ve studied and gotten a profession. It’s very important for the girls to have as many options as possible. I’ve seen enough cases of girls who got married early, left school and got divorced a few years later with a child or two,” Toche says.

Toche is a father of four — Layla, a law student at Tel Aviv University; Mohammad, an art history student at the University of Haifa; Rani, a 12th-grader majoring in computer science at Gymansia Herzliya High School, and Shiraz, who will start at Gymnasia next year. Layla is the only one who went to Ajial. Her brother went there until the 9th grade and then continued to Hebrew-language schools.

“I was afraid they’d be confused about their identity, but the kids say their Palestinian identity only grew stronger,” Toche said.

“I was also a little worried that people in Jaffa would consider this a lack of faith in the Arab education system. Eventually, my children explained that they mainly want to spread their wings. This is no cliché since they need to get to know and understand every side they come in contact with. I’ve also changed, realizing I can only show the way, but they have to decide which steps to take.”

Toche says he wants to help the foreign students “feel very connected to the country, for them not to feel persecuted because of their skin color. I’m not exactly blond myself. I’m also perceived as foreign and I know just how it feels when you’re told to stand aside for a security check. I’m not afraid of meetings with students and parents, some of whom might see me as a foreigner…I have no doubt that I will have to make much more of an effort,” he added.

According to Toche, being principal of a school that runs according to the Jewish-Israeli culture curriculum doesn’t mean a loss of identity.

"Holocaust Remembrance Day conveys a very principled, universal message and Memorial Day for fallen Israel Defense Forces soldiers also carries a message of great pain to both peoples.

"The pain for the loss experienced by the Palestinian people cannot be taken away from me. I don’t have to conduct a Memorial Day ceremony, but I’ll take part in it and properly honor it. You don’t have to expect me to become Jewish. The Jews also don’t want that to happen,” Toche said.

The head of the educational administration in the Tel Aviv municipality, Shirli Rimon Bracha, said Toche's appointment is “groundbreaking," adding “an Arab principle can lead a Jewish school where not one pupil is Jewish  – that’s apparently a unique Tel Aviv story, from our point of view and also an optimistic message to all of Israeli society.”

Several months ago, the outgoing principal of Bialik-Rogozin, Eli Nehanma, requested that three students from Eritrea be allowed to take the matriculation exams in Hebrew tailored for new immigrant students from Ethiopia. The Education Ministry granted the required approvals in 2018, however, this year it has dragged its feet on the matter. Nehama continued insisting, seeking help from every possible official. The approvals were granted just before the test, which took place this week.

In response to a query on the matter from Haaretz, the ministry released a statement: “Based on the objective difficulties with which the students deal in acquiring the language it was decided to allow them to take the test in level 3 Hebrew for immigrants (students who arrived in Israel and began their schooling here between 9th and 12th grade).

Stressing it is not its policy, the Education Ministry added that “The permits have been issued to three students, and to them alone, and are valid only for this year. At a later stage, the ministry will hold a comprehensive discussion on the matter.”

Past experience shows that chances are not high for a government discussion on refugees and asylum-seekers' rights and refugees.