The Last Class in Sinai

Reichal's interesting and relevant book discusses the Ophira school in Sinai during the days of uncertainty before the area's evacuation, during the evacuation, and during its students' integration into new schools.

"Beit sefer tzome'akh bein yam lemidbar vene'ekar: Beit sefer ophira (Sharm el-Sheikh), 1974-1982" ("A School Between Desert and Sea, Ophira/Sharm el-Sheikh, 1974-1982") by Nirit Reichal, Mofet Institute, 243 pages, NIS 35

The small community-based neighborhood school in Ophira (Sharm el-Sheikh) operated for eight years before being evacuated in 1982, in the wake of the Camp David Accords. This book is a historical chronicle of the school written by the principal, who has a Ph.D. in educational history, based on documentary sources and interviews with those who took part in the drama - students, teachers and parents. As one of the readers of the manuscript, I encouraged Reichal to publish it, after the incorporation of certain additions and improvements. As a reader of the finished product, I find it interestingly written, and of relevance today, in the era of the Dovrat Commission and disengagement.

The Ophira school was an elementary school for grades 1-8. It also ran two kindergartens. Apart from two years when there was a ninth grade, the graduates were sent to boarding schools. What was special about this school was that it served a small, intimate community - 250 families in all - on the eve of Israel's evacuation from Sinai. In its heyday, the settlement of Ophira had a population of about 1,000.

It was a community school without being officially classified as such - a school brimming with activity and informal educational opportunities, a school that considered the needs of every student. The parents were active in the educational process, and not just in the classrooms of their own children. Teachers, students and residents worked together. The students gathered in the schoolyard whenever there was a reason to celebrate. The school threw class parties for students reaching bar- and bat-mitzvah age. All kinds of projects were organized, some of them community oriented. There were exhibits and workshops. Visiting artists from other parts of the country ran special activities. The yard was turned into a model of desert agriculture. There were holiday plays and happenings to which all the residents of Ophira were invited. Hiking and environmental education were an integral part of the curriculum. The students were taken on outings in the desert, in the neighborhood and outlying areas; second graders received their first Bibles at a ceremony at the foot of Mt. Sinai; aerial tours were organized to familiarize the students with the north of the country.

Nirit Reichal discusses the evacuation of the Ophira school over three time periods: the days of uncertainty before the evacuation, the evacuation itself and the period of integration into a new school. The pre-evacuation period commenced with the Camp David talks in September 1978 and ended with the "exodus" from Egypt and Ophira on Passover 1982. During these years, the school held two festivals linked to the peace process. One revolved around the selection of a school anthem and the other was a festival of peace songs, combined with a student performance on the theme of the upcoming evacuation. There were classroom discussions of it and students expressed their views in the school newspaper. Before the withdrawal, the school held a fair. Ophira residents were invited to purchase books and other items from the school, both as a memento and to raise funds for a farewell party.

The story of the evacuation is told by teachers, students and parents. Israeli journalist Natan Zahavi, a resident of Ophira, was also interviewed. The move to a new school is described from the point of view of two groups: the children of army personnel living in Ophira, who were accustomed to moving around and able to adjust to their new schools within a reasonable period of time; and the children of permanent residents, for whom adjustment was more difficult. This second group described adjustment problems that lasted for two to three years after the evacuation. For some, the trauma left scars that remain until today.

Negative impact

The chief difficulty for most of them was moving from a small, intimate community school to larger, more impersonal schools, with insufficient attention paid to their problems by the educational staff and advisors. Apart from social problems, the students spoke about the negative impact of the move on their families, about missing Ophira and Sinai, and about a sense of hostility toward them in their new environment because of the compensation they had received. They felt betrayed and abandoned by the state and the whole educational system. The parents say they found it hard to help their children because they were in mourning themselves. They avoided paying attention to any signs of distress and put their minds to adjusting quickly, without going into the nitty-gritty of how their children were faring in their new schools.

The book includes a special chapter of recommendations for easing the absorption of "evacuated students," based on Reichal's talks with educators, parents and students. The recommendations are grouped separately, to accommodate different points of view, and then incorporated in a "master plan," to be used in the period prior to evacuation for the purpose of "preparation and reinforcement," and after evacuation, "to provide encouragement and support." The school in the settlement being evacuated is responsible for the first half of the program, and the new school is responsible for the second half.

Before the evacuation, Reichal recommends accelerating the regular curriculum, bolstering the students emotionally with the help of educational advisers, keeping the students informed on matters connected to the evacuation, allowing identification with the settlement while stressing the importance of the pullout for national goals, organizing a leave-taking of the settlement and the region as a whole, and cultivating ties with the future schools.

The new schools are advised to familiarize themselves with the students and their academic achievements through contact with the faculty of the evacuated school, to accompany the newcomers and their families through the early stages of absorption and, if necessary, to consult with their former teachers.

The introduction to the book provides an overview of the school, its geographical location and a short history of the peace process with Egypt. Part I offers a fine presentation of the objectives and methodology of the research, and sets out Reichal's questions about the interplay between school, community, life in the desert and the evacuation process. Part II provides the theoretical anchor, bringing in relevant theories from the fields of community schooling, informal education and environmental studies, as well as data about the evacuation of Ophira and Yamit, and the fate of the evacuees, as recorded in the literature.

Existing literature touches very little on the educational aspects of being uprooted and settling elsewhere. Hence the important contribution of Reichal's work, which also cites world literature on displacement, refugees and resettlement in the 20th century, and studies on the educational absorption of immigrant children in Israel (as an example of difficulties faced by those who have been uprooted from their home environment). The different perspectives throughout the book feed into the final chapter, which tells four personal stories - of a teacher, a student, and of a mother and a father, each with two children in the school.

In the prologue, Reichal explains what sparked this return to the school where she served as principal 20 years ago: "The goal was to bring to light relevant issues for secular education in the State of Israel," she writes. A unique community-based school like the one that existed in Ophira in 1974-1982 links up to the educational discourse of today and the recommendations of the Dovrat Commission.

For the educators of the Gaza district and northern West Bank, and the supervisors of the upcoming disengagement, the lessons of the past, painted here in such bold colors, can be of assistance, both before the evacuation and afterward.

The writer is the head of the Educational Policy and Planning Department, School of Education, Tel Aviv University.