As Israeli Arabs Contend With Uptick in Gun Violence, Schools May Have the Answer

'Violence is felt on a daily basis. It's impossible to shut your eyes and ignore it,' says school principal, part of a growing movement of educators offering goals and dreams to replace fear and oppression

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Children in a workshop at the Taha Hussein School in Arara, Israel, December 29, 2019
Children in a workshop at the Taha Hussein School in Arara, Israel, December 29, 2019 Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Fifth graders at the Alzahraa elementary school in Kalansua tell their classmates what they want to be when they grow up: a doctor, a singer, the head of a high-tech company. The school spends a lot of time on dreams for the future, and short- and long-term goals.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 56Credit: Haaretz

“A child with a goal is a child who won’t be violent,” says their teacher, Niveen Mathany. In order to make them real, the children draw them, talk about them and think about how to reach them.

While there is little violence in the school, there is plenty of it around the children. There were 91 murders in Israel’s Arab community in 2019; only around one-third have been solved.

Many more people have been injured or otherwise affected by violence, including in Kalansua, about a 45-minute drive northeast of Tel Aviv. “In Kalansua everyone knows who murdered whom, but nothing happens,” says the principal, Majda Natour.

She says the issue comes up in classroom discussions. “The violence is felt on a daily basis, it affects the students. Everyone knows and talks about which families are involved; it’s impossible to shut your eyes and ignore it.”

According to the Meitzav nationwide assessment exams for 2018, violence declined from the preceding decade at Arab elementary schools; 7 percent of children said they experienced a physical or verbal violent incident in the preceding month, down from 19 percent.

The rate at Jewish elementary schools was 9 percent, and for middle school for both communities it was 8 percent. But educators say these figures don’t tell the whole story. They don’t take into account, for example, the emotional damage to children whose relatives or neighbors have been affected by violence.

A man passes by graffiti in Arabic reading: 'They are shooting us. Where are you?' Credit: Amir levy

Around three years ago, Natour resolved to introduce major changes to address violence. The decision came after she took part in Mifras, an entrepreneurship program for school principals that’s a partnership between the Education Ministry and philanthropic organizations. More than 70 percent of the Arab principals who participate in the program are female, even though the majority of principals at Arab schools are male.

Bat-Chen Weinheber, the director of Mifras, praises the strides by female graduates of the program. She says they excel at winning the support of parents and the community, including members of the clergy, “even over sensitive issues such as female empowerment or advancing atypical areas of interest in a community that focuses on practical accomplishments.”

Natour decided to involve the entire community; she conducted brainstorming sessions with parents, residents and community activists in the city.

Most of the recommendations they produced had to do with developing responsibility and entrepreneurship in the students and bringing parents into the process. A framework for regular lectures and meetings with professionals at the school was set up, with morning and evening sessions. In December, there were lectures on the importance of art, as well as on violence in the Israeli Arab community and ways to prevent it.

Children meditate at Al Gazali elementary school in Kafr Qasem, Israel, December 29, 2019Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Natour says the main emphasis is on taking responsibility and expressing one’s feelings. At the start of the school year, students were given a diary in which, once a month, the children respond to cues on the pages: “From whom do I want to ask forgiveness?” “What am I proud of?” “What would I like to improve?”

Natour says that speaking openly about feelings isn’t something to take for granted in the Arab community. She views such efforts as a step toward a society that resolves crises with dialogue, not violence.

Last month in the school lobby, children in the higher grades worked in pairs on presentations for parents night. On the wall were pictures of the late Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon alongside a picture of the 11th-century Muslim scientist and scholar Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni.

The theme is “Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling,” and the students will present the biographies of pioneers from the Arab community. They include Prof. Hossam Haick, a world-renowned scientist and engineer who was recently named dean of undergraduate studies at Haifa’s Technion technology institute. Natour says the exercise is part of the effort to change behavior and lead the students to a better future.

“There is a glass ceiling for members of the Arab community. But there’s also the inner dialogue of ‘they stopped me,’ ‘they limited me.’ We’re trying to change that,” she says.

Natour knows about glass ceilings. She was the first female principal to be hired in Kalansua, 14 years ago, “and in the beginning I had to work twice as hard to prove myself,” she says. “I couldn’t suffice with cafe conversations, as the men do; I went from house to house to introduce myself to parents and persuade them to enroll their children.” Today, female principals are much more common in Arab communities.

In the school’s yard is a vegetable garden planted as part of a program to make the institution “greener than ever” – the title awarded by the education and environmental protection ministries to schools with regular ecological activities. Natour says the garden is also part of the larger goal of raising the next generations with a sense of responsibility for the environment and patience for long-term projects.

A radio broadcast at Al Gazali elementary school in Kafr Qasem, Israel, December 29, 2019Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

A stage for every child

The Al Gazali elementary school in Kafr Qasem opens at 7:30 A.M. In the yard, children sit or stand on mats, playing with balls and other toys. One child’s mother teaches a movement class to a small group, another boy shows his friends his latest hobby: solving a Rubik’s Cube as quickly as possible. At 8, the children enter the building and find their classrooms.

Like Natour, Kawthar Shik-Issa was the first female principal in her town when she was hired 26 years ago. Like Natour, Shik-Issa introduced major changes at her school after taking part in the Mifras program for principals. She interviewed students to get their take on the main issues, and they said their biggest challenge was expressing themselves – whether addressing groups or their parents. Shik-Issa decided – in an education system that prizes achievement – to focus on hobbies and personal expression.

“We live in a traditional, obedient culture. Students are wary of their parents’ reactions and don’t tell them everything,” she says. Her solution was to give children a chance to express their feelings and practice public speaking “to gain confidence and independence.” Her motto became “a stage for every child.”

At nearly every opportunity, the students are instructed to present, to share and to express themselves in words, song or art. Once a year in front of the entire grade, every student does a show-and-tell of a hobby such as painting, singing, playing soccer or taking care of animals. They can invite relatives and friends from other schools if they want.

Kawthar Shik-Issa, principal of the Al Gazali school in Kafr Qasem, Israel, December 29, 2019Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

There’s a school radio station, and each morning a different group of students puts together a program that’s uploaded to the school website. One day last month, three fifth graders sat in the studio and discussed a preselected topic: honoring one’s parents. The host described various family situations and the students weighed in.

In the control room, three students regulated the sound quality. Shik-Issa tells a visitor about a girl from the special education classroom with learning difficulties whose affinity for radio work spurred her to improve her reading and writing. The girl improved so much that she was eventually mainstreamed.

“For years she was given the message that she didn’t know anything, and then there she was in front of the microphone with everyone listening to her. It’s motivation to make progress,” Shik-Issa says.

Red no more

Until 2016, Arara’s Taha Hussein elementary school was a so-called red school; its scores on the “school climate” questionnaires included with the Meitzav exams were particularly low, with students reporting frequent violence and a poor sense of personal safety. The principal, Samaher Abu Sharqiya, realized the importance of improving the atmosphere. Like other graduates of the Mifras program, she decided to focus on helping students express their feelings.

“There was no emotional dialogue here,” she says. “At first it seemed impossible.”

An extra hour was added to the regular classroom hours, one devoted to a conversation between the homeroom teacher and a small group of students in a comfortable room with carpets. The teacher’s regular semiannual meeting with each student and his or her parents – a formal event that’s often full of tension – has been replaced with a meeting spent playing a game; this way the student’s difficulties can be brought up in a less threatening way.

Samaher Abu Sharqiya, principal of the Taha Hussein elementary school in Arara, Israel, December 29, 2019Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The school’s pride and joy is its workshop, a large space where students are invited to saw, glue, drill and hammer nails. One day last month, students building a ball track out of large cardboard boxes. The structure kept collapsing, so the students had to find ways to keep it standing.

“Here they learn to work cooperatively, and they also learn that it’s allowed and necessary to make mistakes,” Abu Sharqiya says. “That’s part of the process.”

The workshop operates via mentoring. Students from higher grades teach the younger students how to use the different tools.

On the 2016-17 Meitzav exams, the results were already apparent. The proportion of students who complained of violence tumbled to 3 percent from 14 percent two years earlier. Only 2 percent said they didn’t feel safe at school, down 11 percentage points.

Moreover, in 2014, only 29 percent of students thought their classmates behaved “appropriately.” Two years later, 78 percent of students thought so.

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