Opinion |

Bedouin Education, Israel's Shame

Today’s Bedouin high school grads will become another lost generation, at best making a living from menial jobs

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Bedouin schoolchildren study in makeshift school in Negev
Bedouin schoolchildren study in makeshift school in Negev.Credit: Khaled Diab
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

At first it was funny, after that it was depressing and finally the anger arose. Not a very major story. Certainly not North Korean nuclear weapons or building a settlement. All it’s about is a Bedouin youth who wanted to be accepted to a college in the south.

His scores on the matriculation exams (bagrut) were low and he did not do well on the entrance exam. Nonetheless, students at his level and with his achievements receive another chance at this college to convince them they are worthy of being accepted to study at an academic institution. They are invited for a personal interview during which they can present themselves as somebody worth much more than just the numbers the educational system has assigned them.

The Jewish candidates may be asked about a movie they saw recently, a book or newspaper they read, where they see themselves after they graduate and where they went on their post-army trip. In the unrecognized Bedouin communities there are no movies because there is no electricity, and the longest trip is usually to Be’er Sheva. The Bedouin applicant told how he likes history a great deal. Who are the figures who impressed you? asked the interviewer. “Herzl,” and after a short pause, “Hitler too.” An interesting combination, an opening for a deeper conversation.

Why Herzl? “He hated everyone. Jews, Arabs, everyone.” And why Hitler? “They would have mummified him in Egypt, made him a bird’s head.” And what period in history interests you? “The history of butterflies,” he answered as he tried hard to properly pronounce a letter in Hebrew that does not exist in Arabic, so it did not come out the “history of the barbarians.” If he is accepted to the college, he wants to study education and be a teacher. “I need to advance, otherwise all my life I will work in the gas station where I work now.”

It was funny, especially the part about the “butterflies.” And then the depression and frustration set in.

This young resident of the unrecognized Bedouin communities spent 12 years in the Israeli educational system – and succeeded. He is among the 81 percent who do not qualify for a matriculation certificate in the Bedouin community. He did not drop out of school as 40 percent of his friends did, and he is not unemployed like the 38 percent of those who live where he does.

He speaks broken Hebrew, and Arabic. The special five-year plan announced at the beginning of the year by Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel is too late to help him and the thousands of other Bedouins about to finish high school. They will become another lost generation, who in the best case will make a living from menial jobs, and in the worst case will keep themselves busy as metal thieves.

The generation after them – at least those lucky enough not to be among the 5,000 Bedouin children who do not go to school because there are no classrooms, or because they live too far from school to walk there on their little legs – will study with the same teachers, too. These are teachers who passed the tests, wrote seminar papers and proudly sat with their families at the graduation ceremonies. But only a few of these graduates will know at the end of their studies how to write proper sentences in Hebrew. Most of them aspire to be teachers, but they are also the ones who will perpetuate the knowledge gap.

The government plan for advancing the Bedouin and reducing inequality allocated 3 billion shekels ($840 million), of which 150 million shekels go for prevention of dropping out of school, and 60 million shekels are for academic scholarships. There is even talk of establishing a college for the Bedouin. Ariel recognizes the importance of Bedouin education, and without any embellishment he said: “We are 70 years behind with the Bedouins.”

Budgets, when they arrive, are the unrivaled basis for reducing inequality. But building schools by itself or funding transportation to school cannot compensate for the low level of teachers, the teaching methods, and the population’s socioeconomic level (the lowest in the country), which determines the government’s order of priorities.

Closing the gaps cannot start in academia. It requires intensive involvement of the educational system in elementary and high schools, to encourage Jewish teachers to teach in Bedouin communities. This is what’s meant by a national mission.

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