Israeli Arabs, Jews Trade Places in New School Civics Initiative

Injecting civility into civics: trying to get Jewish and Arab students to engage with each other through a TV program.

At a typical burger joint in Tel Aviv, the two main protagonists sit down after a hard day's work and ask themselves whether a different reality is at all possible. Suddenly the two teenagers, maybe 18 years old, are put into each other's bodies.

Maor, the Jewish shift manager, becomes Jamal, the Arab kitchen worker, and vice versa. This is the initial premise of a new TV drama, "Exchanges," aimed at civics students and teachers.

exchanges - Miriam Darmoni-Sharvit - October 22 2010
Miriam Darmoni-Sharvit

The series, which will be available via the Internet starting in a few weeks, is an initiative by the Center for Educational Technology as part of a more extensive program dealing with promoting coexistence between Jews and Arabs. The series is produced by Darset Productions, which is also responsible for the television series "Arab Labor."

The exchange of identities between the Jewish and Arab characters enables open discussion of the conflicts and fosters ways of reducing them.

Thus, for example, Maor discovers he can't advance at the workplace, only because he is now an Arab, and Jamal grapples with the pressure in advance of conscription into an elite unit in the army and the security check he must go through to get into the unit. In addition to dealing with Independence Day and the Nakba (the Palestinian catastrophe from 1948 ), inequality, human rights and the fears of each side, the series also tackles everday issues of life.

Maor, who until the change of identity was insensitive to Lizzie, his girlfriend, suddenly becomes remarkably considerate. The renewed love brings up another, no less sensitive issue: Can Jamal-Maor kiss Lizzie? In the end, it was decided not to film such a scene, mainly because of Jamal's understanding that Lizzie is not really his girlfriend, as Haim Avihail, the writer for the series, explains.

The "Exchanges" series consists of eight episodes, each of them 10 minutes long. At the Center for Educational Technology and at Darset Productions they believe the episodes will also get airtime on TV.

Maor is played by actor Gal Lev, Jamal is played by Shahir Kabaha (who starred in the film "Ajami" ) and Lizzie is played by Meital Gal. Funding for the series, as well as for other elements in the Center for Educational Technology program, comes from the U.S. State Department, which supports projects promoting coexistence.

Episodes from the series will be shown in about two weeks, at a new training course for civics teachers held by CET in cooperation with Education Ministry's civics section.

"It's hard to ignore the deterioration in relations between Jews and Arabs in recent years, which is manifested among other things in the increasing difficulties civics teachers have in teaching topics connected to Arabs," said Miriam Darmoni-Sharvit, the head of the civics staff at the CET. "We've tried everything and it was clear to us that a different approach is needed and it's no longer enough to talk rationally and use figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics to teach about inequality, because the students simply aren't prepared to listen. The teachers are finding themselves helpless in face of a murky wave of inattention and racist statements."

According to survey conducted several months ago for a symposium in Tel Aviv, approximately 30 percent of Jewish Israeli youth believe it is unnecessary to grant equal rights to Arab citizens of Israel and 56 percent believe they should not be allowed to be elected to the Knesset.

Similar findings emerged from another survey, conducted a few months ago for the Ha'Ir conference on education. In that survey, half the young people replied in the negative to the question of whether they would be prepared to learn in a class in which one or more of the students is Arab.

In the process of formulating the training course for teachers, CET interviewed about 150 civics teachers from around the country, in an attempt to identify the main difficulties in teaching topics having to do with coexistence between Jews and Arabs.

The picture emerging from the teachers' replies is cause for concern.

"The students do study civics in an expanded format of two study units but there is no real internalization of democratic values," said a teacher from Haifa.

A teacher from Herzliya said the nature of civics classes is that student's opinion, sometimes rascist, seep out.

"The alienation between Jews and Arabs means that all the student knows is nothing but a bundle of prejudices and it goes without saying that he has never met an Arab young person of his own age," the teacher said.

"In civics classes I find myself dealing with expressions of hatred, insults, stereotypes and prejudices, especially among the Jews concerning the Arabs," a teacher at a school in Lod that has both Jewish and Arab students said. "During the classes, the Jewish students say to their Arab friends - and in some cases they really are friends - that the anger and hatred aren't directed at them personally, but rather at the Arab people that is making war on us, is interested in the destruction of the State of Israel. Unfortunately, usually the Arab students in the class just bow their heads and don't answer." A civics teacher from the center of the country told Haaretz that some teachers would prefer to skip the section dealing on the rift between the peoples, because of students' reactions.

"The solution is to teach the material only in a superficial way, one that enables the students to regurgitate the answers on the matriculation exam. When I tried to go deeply into the topic, they yelled at me that I am an 'Arab lover,'" the teacher said.

One of the conclusions arising from questionnaire results was that there is an urgent need to give teachers tools and skills neeeded to deal with coexistence. Demand for the new training course, which will continue throughout the year, far outpaced the space available and in the end only about 100 teachers will participate in it. This is the first time Jewish and Arab teachers will study the subject together.

According to Adar Cohen, who is in charge of civics studies at the Education Ministry, "In contrast to the past, this training course relates to the intellectual, experiential and emotional dimensions in the study of the shared life of Jews and Arabs."

According to Darmoni-Sharvit, the decision to create "Exchanges" as a telenovela was dictated by the reality.

"Precisely because of the alienation and the prejudices, we needed characters with whom it is easy to fall in love. The use of the telenovela is aimed at creating this emotional connection, a springboard for opening the student's heart to the other side," she says.

According to the CET executive director Gila Ben-Har, the series will serve teachers in building lessons and study units in civics of a concrete nature and in step with the curriculum for the subject. Among other things, CET is now planning the creation of virtual communities in which discussions of the episodes will be held.

"There is racism toward Arabs in all of us, and the major work of the series has been to show there are human beings here, that there is another side to the conflict," says Darset Productions CEO Yoni Paran.

"Everyone has worked on this project out of a desire to bring the two populations closer and to transmit something different to the younger generation," said Avihail, the screenwriter. "I hope the series really will open a different angle of vision. We have put a lot of effort into this. It will be very sad if that doesn't happen."