Are Israel’s Jewish-Arab Coexistence Schools Setting Kids Up for a Cruel Fall?

Bilingual, dual-narrative schools like Hand in Hand teach tolerance and dialogue between Israel’s often de facto segregated Jewish and Arab populations – but its graduates face a very dissonant outside world.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, center, speaks with children during a visit to the Hand in Hand Arabic-Hebrew bilingual school in Jerusalem, Monday, Feb. 15, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

Although one in five Israeli citizens are Palestinian, Israelis exist in two largely exclusive worlds. Separate school systems, little knowledge of Arabic by Jewish Israelis, and mostly de facto segregated geography means there is little daily contact across the Jewish-Arab divide.

Some Israeli initiatives aim to challenge this. Hand in Hand, a network of six schools around the country, educate Jewish, Muslim and Christian students in a bilingual and dual-narratives framework. Overseen by the Ministry of Education, students pay modest annual tuition (around $1,000) to support the double staff complement required to deliver the curriculum in Arabic and Hebrew.

But does this kind of shared-society framework inadvertently set up graduates for a rude awakening?

Marwa Tarabieh 22, hails from Sakhnin, an Arab city in the Lower Galilee, and attended the Galilee Hand in Hand school through ninth grade. 

Marwa speaks glowingly of her experience there. In addition to making “everyone feel equal,” there was the ironic discovery that Marwa learned more about the Nakba (the Palestinian dispossession and expulsion surrounding the 1948 War) at school than she did in her local Arab high school.

But Hand in Hand was “a bit of a greenhouse,” she admits. Once she reached college, she felt she had to defend her people against a perception that “all Arabs are terrorists.” In at least one case, a modest attempt at tolerance education – a dialogue skill she learned at Hand in Hand – led to a meaningful friendship with a Jewish student at the college. 

Shira Mingelgrin, 21, is a Jewish Israeli who attended Hand in Hand in Jerusalem through twelfth grade. And while Marwa’s parents chose the school for its explicit coexistence aims, Shira’s parents enrolled her rather by accident, starting with another coexistence kindergarten that drew them for logistical reasons.

Shira acknowledges that Israeli society doesn’t share the same values of acceptance as those propagated within the school’s walls. These values extend from inter-ethnic relations outward. The first time she encountered homophobic remarks outside school, for example, she was stunned. While “gay” and “Arab” are used as hateful epithets at many high schools, it simply doesn’t occur to Hand in Hand students to use them, says Gaby Goldman, communications director. 

And while students at Hand in Hand are well aware of the racism that pervades society – they don’t live in a bubble, according to Goldman, socializing with Arab students and gaining Arabic proficiency gives Jewish students a window into intolerance that might otherwise stay under the radar. When Shira and her Palestinian friends hang out downtown, they are sometimes angrily accosted by Jewish or Arab youth.

Shira has overheard Arabic speakers – thinking she wouldn’t understand them – making disparaging remarks about her interracial relationship. (Her boyfriend is Ethiopian.) Accompanying a Palestinian-Israeli friend to apply for a job, the store clerk, initially encouraging, did an about-face when the friend stated her clearly Arabic name.

Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, a civic day of commemoration that could otherwise prove paralyzing, is marked by two alternative tracks. Before gathering for a joint assembly, students are invited to attend one of two ceremonies, one to commemorate Israeli deaths and another to discuss the Nakba.

As Rebecca Bardach, director of resource development and strategy, describes it, through “critical thinking with a lot of empathy,” the school promotes the idea of “recognizing real differences while still being part of a whole.” By way of example, Goldman describes a mock trial the students conduct about the meaning of the 1929 Hebron massacre. In mixed Jewish-Arab groupings (an important detail which assures students that they need not subordinate their intellectual faculties to their ethnic identity), students relay each of the two dominant historical narratives around the events.

Like Marwa, Shira still maintains close friendships from her school days that transcend the Jewish-Arab divide. But it isn’t without its challenges. When Shira entered the army to complete her compulsory military service, “it was hard” for her Arab friends. For them, “the uniform represents something completely differentTo them, it’s an occupation army.” Upon completion of her service, Shira and her Arab friends sat down and shared their respective perspectives. It helped them, she says, move on together.

The school does not preach a particular political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No matter whether a one-state or two-state solution or some other arrangement emerges, Jews and Arabs will continue to live together, Goldman stresses. Plus, she adds, “a solution seems so far away that we’re not waiting; we’re starting to live together here and now.”

But despite these coexistence values and dual-narrative skills, not all graduates feel like they can change the world. 

“I don’t want to change everything because I don’t think I can do it on my own,” Shira says. “I’m doing small things to help people.” Right now, she volunteers at a women’s shelter.

Not a lot of twenty-somethings tend to gravitate back to the high school milieu. But on Memorial Day, Shira likes to visit Hand in Hand. “It gives me hope.”

If an educational experiment like Hand in Hand is an incubator, it is a nuanced one, providing dialogue skills and an extra window into the inter-group tensions constantly lurking beneath the surface. Reaching across the divide, graduates may have more complex roads to navigate than young Israelis who manage to remain within their silos. But in being ambassadors for a shared society, these graduates also get to glimpse possibility – something every budding citizen wanting to reshape their society should get to do.

Mira Sucharov is associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa. Follow her on Twitter: @sucharov