More Jewish and Arab Students Sharing Israeli Classrooms

Educators attribute 60-percent increase over five years in enrollment to bilingual schools to growing frustration over lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

File photo: Students at Max Rayne Hand in Hand Bilingual School in Jerusalem, June 5, 2013.
Olivier Fitoussi

It’s Sunday morning at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Bilingual School in Jerusalem. First-grade teacher Sirin writes Arabic words on the board – asal, asfour, ein – honey, bird, eye, and the children read them aloud. "What’s asal?" she asks, and immediately explains in Hebrew mixed with Arabic that on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, apples are dipped in asal. After 45 minutes, the other teacher, Haim, takes Sirin’s place at the front of the room, and asks the children to recite the Hebrew alphabet.

The Rayne bilingual school is one of the pioneer schools in which Jewish and Arab children study together. According to a Knesset study, such education is becoming more popular than before; while in 2013-14 some 1,100 pupils were studying in joint schools throughout the country, during this school year the number rose to 1,700. The increase is even more pronounced in preschool; five years ago there were only 80 children in the preschools run by Hand in Hand, which runs most of the country’s bilingual schools; this year there are 15 preschools with 470 children.

There are now eight bilingual schools in different locales throughout the country. Though such education is becoming more popular, the Rayne school is the only one in the country that goes beyond primary school, with classes through 12th grade.

>> Read more: Jewish and Arab students cross cultural boundaries at model bilingual Jerusalem school

In each of these schools, the children start off together in first grade, but in the upper grades the language classes are split into Jewish and Arab groups. Otherwise, Rayne school officials explain, they would be forced to lower the level of instruction.

In the sixth grade at the Jerusalem school, the teacher, Nadira, teaches Arabic to the Hebrew-speakers. Everyone understands Arabic well, she says, but with speech it’s different; some speak fluently, others have more difficulty. For many of these children, she notes, Arabic is a third language; at home, in addition to Hebrew, they often speak English, French or Russian.

Despite the effort made to accord both languages equally in the school, testimony from the field, as well as academic studies, show that Hebrew eventually becomes the dominant language.

“The reality is that the relationship between Jews and Arabs is one of majority and minority,” explains Zohar Shahar, a resident of Katzir whose four children study in the Bridge Over the Wadi School in Kafr Kara, the only bilingual school located in an Arab town. “A minority has a survival need to know the language of the majority.” She notes the Jewish children learn Arabic quickly, but the moment the Arab children gain sufficient fluency in Hebrew, that language becomes the preferred one. “A lesson will be conducted in both languages, but the Arab child will often answer in Hebrew even though it’s not his language,” she says. “The opposite never happens.”

It’s not just language use that suffers from imbalance, the Knesset study shows. While the bilingual schools in principle seek a balance between Arab and Jewish pupils, in practice there is an Arab majority in all of them – overall the ratio 60 percent Arabs and the rest Jews. At the Rayne high school, the imbalance is even more pronounced – there are only 36 Jewish pupils compared to 178 Arab ones. “Jewish pupils have a wealth of good schools [available], so bilingual education is an ideological choice,” says Shuli Dichter, who until recently was director of the Hand in Hand association. “Arabs have less of a choice.” With the move to high school, the Hebrew choices are even greater, she adds.

Is it justified to maintain a bilingual high school when only 36 Jewish teens are interested? Dichter’s answer is vehemently positive. “To give up on 36 families who want to live in mutual coexistence? That would be a crime.”

One of the biggest difficulties these schools face is coping with the political climate. “We are not a bubble, and we don’t want to be a bubble,” says Nadia Kinana, until recently the principal of the Rayne elementary school in Jerusalem.

Shahar adds that the school in Kafr Kara “is very careful to answer the children’s questions. In the younger grades the day begins with a morning conversation in which the children share their experiences, and everything comes up there,” including political, security issues, terror attacks and army raids. “Over the years the school has accumulated a lot of experience in how to convey these issues to children.”

Operation Protective Edge, the war between Israel and Hamas during the summer of 2014, aroused a lot of anxiety within the Rayne bilingual school community. “The Palestinian families were frustrated, but on the other hand there were missiles falling on Sderot. Pupils’ parents were called into the reserves,” Kinana says. “There was a lot of tension.”

What the school decided to do was hold a series of marches along the Train Tracks Park, which runs between the Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa and the German Colony neighborhood and also runs past the school building. “We decided to march without signs or slogans, but just out of our call against violence,” Kinana says. “We are trying to do what we can in our small space. To say that we’re coming to resolve the conflict? No. But we succeeded in showing that we can conduct a conversation about joint living.”

The first bilingual school was opened in Wahat al-Salam–Neve Shalom, a village near Latrun where Jews and Arabs live together. In 1998 a bilingual school opened in the Galilee and then the school in Jerusalem opened. The school in Kafr Kara opened in 2004. Now there are also schools in Jaffa, Haifa and Beit Berl.

What has led to the increase in registration for bilingual education in recent years? The answers are varied, but many mention the extreme political climate and the lack of a peace process as factors encouraging the search for islands of coexistence.

“The greater the despair, the more people search for hope,” says Kinana. “I feel something similar regarding Arabic; after the nation-state law [which diminished the status of Arabic], I see around me more Jews interested in learning Arabic. When you take something from someone, they will fight to get it back.”

Dichter cites the arson at the Jerusalem school four years ago by activists from the extreme right-wing group Lehava as a factor that led to increased interest. She isn’t sure, however, whether it was just the fact that the school was making headlines, or whether there was a desire to prove that the flames wouldn’t wipe out this initiative at coexistence.

Almost all the bilingual schools had the same genesis – a group of parents looking for a school for their children that would express their discontent with the almost enforced separation in the school system that makes coexistence later in life more difficult. These schools then became a reality with little help from the Education Ministry. “It always starts with a group of restless parents,” says Dichter, who later adds, “The Education Ministry won’t allocate special resources to bilingual education, but it doesn’t stop the founding of new schools. If the local authority is interested, then fine.” Additional resources come from fundraising and tuition payments, which is probably why, according to a study by the Taub Center, the population at bilingual schools tends to be better-off than average.

Mohammed Marzuk, one of the founders of the school in Kafr Kara, is now Hand in Hand’s communities director; his job is to work with groups of like-minded parents seeking to start new bilingual schools.

“The most basic concern is the level of learning,” he says. “No parent wants to take a chance with his child, even for ideology’s sake. People want to know that it’s going to be a good school. Another concern relates to identity. For both the Jews and the Arabs it’s important to know that the child will get the basic anchors of his social and cultural identity. We explain that despite what one might think, the children’s identity is actually sharpened by the encounter with the other side. On holidays it’s very clear which holiday belongs to whom. Thus the Jewish pupil’s identity is clarified, even more than it would be in a regular state school.”