Parents Threaten to Withdraw Kids From Jaffa's Bilingual School

First-grade classes only started at the school in September, but parents are already threatening to remove their children after claims of broken promises and lack of Arabic.

Parents and children posing for a photograph in front of the Kiryat Hahinuch Yafo bilingual school in Jaffa, January 27, 2016.
Moti Milrod

Parents of students at the bilingual school in Jaffa are threatening to remove their children from the institution, as a dispute with the municipality and school authorities threatens to expand.

The problem erupted at the start of the school year and the Muslim holiday of Id al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice), when all parents decided not to send their children to school for the festival, whatever their faith. The school administration had decided that only those students observing the holiday would be excused from class. However, parents saw this as a violation of what they says is a basic principle guiding the bilingual school – that the school calendar is built around every student having vacations for Jewish, Christian and Muslim holidays.

Now, with registration beginning for the 2016-2017 school year, the controversy has reached such heights that parents of first-graders are unwilling to register their children for second grade. The parents are demanding a separate school rather than the current setup. They view the attempt to integrate the bilingual program into a Hebrew-language public school as a failure. In protest, parents of children in the bilingual kindergarten program, have announced their intention to enroll their children in first grade at the Arabic-language Hassan Arafeh school, also in Jaffa.

“We hope that values of equality and respect for all members of the community will be accepted with open arms, there will be receptivity to a public sphere open to the two languages, and an understanding for the intention to mark the holidays of the three religions,” the parents announced recently in a joint statement.

Jaffa is an area with a mixed Jewish and Arab population, and is part of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality. There are six other bilingual Jewish-Arab schools around the country, in the Galilee, Jerusalem, Wadi Ara region, Be’er Sheva, Haifa and Neveh Shalom. The principles guiding the schools include having two teachers in each classroom, one for each language; equality in instruction of Hebrew and Arabic; observance of the holidays of the three religions; bilingual signage; and a Jewish-Arab teaching and administrative staff.

The parents in Jaffa claim that the Tel Aviv municipality and school administration chose to punish them for not sending their children to school on holidays other than their own by removing an adviser, funded by a nonprofit organization, who assists in integrating the bilingual program into schools around the country.

However, a source who works for the municipality said the move was taken because the nonprofit, Hand in Hand, took over a room in a building where bilingual kindergartens are being run without permission. She was also operating contrary to procedure, the source added. Following negotiations, the adviser was reinstated, but the incident still reflects the unbridged divide between parents and the municipality.

Parents and children from the Kiryat Hahinuch Yafo School in Jaffa protest outside Tel Aviv city hall, January 28, 2016.
David Bachar

Jaffa’s first bilingual school was born in a sense of optimism, following an agreement between parents and the municipality early last year. The parents agreed to enroll their students in first grade at a school that had previously been known as Ironi Zayin and was renamed Kiryat Hahinuch Yafo (which roughly translates as “Jaffa education center”). It was agreed that the program would open within an existing Hebrew-language school rather than in its own building.

The municipality agreed to subscribe to some of the bilingual education principles embraced at other bilingual schools, and to allow the Hand in Hand organization – which runs most of Israel’s bilingual schools – to advise the school and provide training for the teachers. The municipality and parents signed additional agreements, including that the new first-grade classes would be taught in both languages; that multicultural content would be taught; and that the school would be run on its own calendar, which would include the same number of vacation days as other schools but be allocated to accommodate the holidays of the three religions.

At other bilingual schools, these are considered basic, mandatory principles. The parents at the Jaffa school claim the municipality violated its commitments and has halted efforts to accommodate them. They cite the removal of the adviser funded by Hand in Hand and what they say is the failure to accommodate the observance of the Id al-Adha holiday.

A sign of the problem

Hagit Ya’ari, the mother of one first-grader at the school, said the integration of a bilingual school into an existing Hebrew-language school just doesn’t work. “The municipality’s view of bilingual education is not accurate,” she says. “They see bilingualism as just the two languages. The municipality allowed Hand in Hand to provide an additional teacher in the classrooms, but nearly all the lessons are conducted in Hebrew. The setting is totally Hebrew. There’s not one sign in Arabic in the school, and the promised approach to education doesn’t exist.”

The Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality defends its actions. “The bilingual program at Kiryat Hahinuch Yafo is in its beginning stages, and the municipality is making every effort to create a program of equality and values that respects both cultures, beginning with the language aspect and including the subject of the holidays,” a spokesperson said. “In order to resolve the various issues, a mediation process is being undertaken.”

The spokesperson added that the absence of Arab signage would be investigated.

Ya’ari offers an example of the school’s Hebrew bias. “My son, who is just 6, really likes speaking Arabic, and is proud of that,” she says. “Last week, he went to the pizzeria near our house and suddenly refused to speak to the salesperson in Arabic. We found out that one of the teachers at school told him that if he continued to speak Arabic, he would lose his Hebrew. I am not accusing this particular teacher – she comes from a certain educational system; she is supervised by certain people. But I had expected that since our community has already been around for three years, things would look different.

“Our community is a success story in Jaffa,” she adds. “We began with 38 children and today there are 170 bilingual education students: there are four kindergartens and two first-grade classes.”

Ya’ari believes there’s a clear demand for a public bilingual school in the area. “The residents of Jaffa deserve a quality bilingual school. We have no desire for a private or exclusive school. The population here is diverse, despite us been told we’re a bunch of elitists.”

'Excessive demands'

Deputy Mayor Asaf Zamir, who holds the education portfolio at city hall and has supported the project, says some of the parents’ demands are excessive. He believes the municipality has shown exceptional flexibility in agreeing to involve a private organization in the establishment of a public school.

“The thing that is most important to me is strengthening public education in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, and there are disagreements over nuances,” he states. “We need more patience and restraint. The number of hours the municipal education department has invested into this project is huge compared to the number of students. Part of the price of a public system is that the program isn’t whatever you happen to want it to be.”

Sophie Kassem, the mother of a son in the bilingual kindergarten program and a daughter in a bilingual nursery class offered by the program, wants to register her son for the first-grade in September. “I won’t register my son at a private school. I don’t have the means,” she says. “I am paying local taxes to the Tel Aviv municipality, and I want to get what I deserve – and I deserve an appropriate educational setting. For me, bilingual education is the best education for my son.”

Kassem speaks passionately in favor of bilingual education, an enthusiasm that’s hard to find when many parents speak about their children’s schooling in general. “I’m really pleased with the wonderful education at the bilingual kindergartens,” she says. “I’m pleased with the teachers, with how the kindergarten is run. What’s most fun is that on Id al-Adha and Id al-Fitr [the holiday marking the end of the Ramadan fast], I don’t have to send my son to kindergarten and his [Jewish] friends aren’t going there either. And on Hanukkah, he lights a candle with the Jewish children. I like how it strengthens his identity that he is Arab and Muslim, but he also has Jewish friends and they are all equal.

“My son’s best friend is a Jewish boy. I speak to him in Arabic and he understands me. We are not different or ‘the other.’ We are just like other people,” Kassem adds. “Ultimately, we’re demanding equal education – that’s the minimum. Why do we need to go to war and fight over this, and experience uncertainty, disorder and fear for the future? Why can’t this be lifted from our shoulders? At least to know that my son will know how to accept those who are different from him, those who speak another language and celebrate different holidays. That my son will learn that it’s not strange and we are not aliens from outer space.”