Inside the Conflicted World of Israeli Arab Teachers in Jewish Schools

'I chose to work in a Jewish school partly because I wanted to change reality. I’m less certain this is possible now. But if I give up and leave, pupils won’t hear a voice like mine,' says one Arab teacher in a Jewish school

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שיעור ערבית בבית ספר בחיפה, בשנה שעברה. למצולמים אין קשר לכתבה
An Arabic class in a school in Haifa. The people in the photograph have no relation to the articleCredit: Rami Shllush

When Nasreen, an Arab teacher in a Hebrew school in central Israel, posted her support for a general strike that was called by the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee on her Facebook page last week, she received an unwanted response. One of her colleagues described it as “support for terror.”

According to Education Ministry figures, there are 1,100 female Arab teachers in Hebrew-speaking schools, twice as many as Jewish teachers in Arab schools. In only a few hundred of the 5,000 schools in Israel can pupils meet a teacher from another national community (this excludes religious and ultra-Orthodox schools). The recent flare-up between Israel and Gaza, and across mixed Arab-Jewish cities, has emphasized the complexity for teachers who decide to work across community boundaries. This involves concerns about physical harm — such as stones thrown at them on the way to school — abusive remarks by pupils, and basic questions regarding what they say to children contending with an emergency situation.

In the ensuing argument, Nasreen said that the strike was a protest against the discrimination in mixed cities. “I explained what it’s like to grow up in a neighborhood without sewage or street lighting, with drug addicts crawling in the street on their way to a drug dealer. And then she [the colleague] said that we’re to blame, that this was Arab culture. We’ve been working together for many years; she was a good friend until I discovered her imperious attitude. Another teacher said I was not supporting Israel. I asked if this was because I was demanding rights for my children. It’s hard to educate adults. I do this work with my pupils.”

Along with the problems and questions, teachers from both communities talk about having a “sense of mission.” “What are the chances that my pupils will hear a non-Jewish voice in school, in their neighborhood or in the media?” asks Shireen, a teacher in the north. None of the Arab teachers we talked to wanted their real names disclosed, in contrast to the Jewish ones.

Last Wednesday, following the Shavuot holiday, classes resumed in the north. “I told one pupil he was disturbing and he yelled that I was an Arab with a dirty mouth,” says Miriam, an English teacher. “I was shocked. He’s known me for three years; he never talked like that. The other pupils didn’t know how to respond. I asked him to leave, and somehow managed to continue.” She complained, and senior school staff hurried to intervene. The pupil apologized. “The principal made it clear, to teachers as well, that we wouldn’t let the situation lead to such talk,” she adds.

The program for integrating Arab teachers in Jewish schools was initiated by the Merhavim Institute, the Education Ministry and the Social Equality Ministry. Arab teachers told Merhavim Institute members who accompanied them about remarks they had been subjected to recently, such as “I hope Arabs will now bury their children,” or a first-grade boy who said “he was afraid of me because I was Arab”. One teacher said she refrained from entering the staff room “so as not to encounter accusing looks by other teachers.”

Yasmeen, another English teacher, teaches in the Sharon area. A few weeks ago, as tensions in the Jerusalem area were rising, a sixth grader told her during recess that if there were an Arab nearby, he’d murder him. “I hate Arabs,” he said. “That continues to affect me even after he apologized,” she says. She’s deliberating whether to return to work again, worried about being hurt again, but will probably go back to work on Sunday. Her Jewish colleagues were sympathetic and encouraging, telling her that “we shouldn’t let the bad ones take over.” Some teachers said that principals informally allowed them to miss work, while others showed less consideration.

A protest in Jaffa, last weekCredit: Ofer Vaknin

Rula has been teaching Arabic in Jewish schools for almost 20 years. In the junior high school she’s in now, she has a homeroom class, as well as coordinating several classes. “I always saw myself as an ambassador of Arab society, a link that might contribute to understanding the complex reality we’re in.” Echoes of the riots in Lod reached the staff room, and Rula says she’s fed up with hearing only the Jewish side. “I chose to work in a Jewish school partly because I wanted to change reality. I’m less certain this is possible now. I don’t know where I’ll teach next year, I try not to listen to internal wonderings about a common life. But if I give up and leave, pupils won’t hear a voice like mine,” she adds.

A test case was the classes ahead of the last Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and Independence Day. “Pupils know I come to class with two identities, Palestinian and Israeli,” says Rula. “From this complex place, I told them I chose to be with them on Memorial Day, and that we shouldn’t dwell on which side hurt the other one more. It’s better to allow the hurt and joy of both sides to be expressed. I don’t try to embellish reality. I told them that when they celebrate Independence Day, we mark the Nakba.”

Last week, when a community near her was hit by Hamas fire, some pupils asked about her wellbeing. This gesture meant a lot to her. She wants to emphasize this more than the fact that others remained silent. “Maybe the others didn’t understand what happened or know how to respond. That’s alright, I didn’t reply to all the messages from Jewish friends who wanted to meet.”

According to Michal Pinchuk, the executive director of Merhavim, the recent days have emphasized “the importance of allowing meetings between Jewish pupils and significant figures from the Arab community. Children who have a positive educational experience at school will find it hard to view all Arabs the same way, as hostile and frightening.” According to a senior Education Ministry official, these Arab and Jewish teachers took upon themselves a “crazy life mission, which is now being put to the test. We offer guidance and help to anyone who turns to us. They’ll get the required support and backing,” he says.

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