My Experience as an Israeli Arab Teacher in Jewish Schools

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High school students in Modi'in, in June.
High school students in Modi'in, in June.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

For almost four decades I was a teacher and educator in the Israeli school system. I retired at the end of the past school year, not because of my pension, but because I was tired. My fatigue is not related in any way to my students. It stems from the inferior quality of the teaching staffs and the school administrations.

With a few isolated exceptions in both categories – and there definitely are such people – today’s teachers are not familiar with the learning material. They favor apps over content, and the mistakes they make in the sciences, especially when carrying out experiments, are serious.

Regarding the administration staff, publicity is their primary goal, and it seems that graduates of the new institutes for training principals that have developed in Israel in the past two decades are responsible for the drastic decline in the quality of principals, in terms of values. Their only goal is their personal success, publicity and marketing, in any way that will lead to enhancing their reputations. But that’s a subject for a separate series of articles.

I had outstanding exchanges with the students in all the schools in which I worked, throughout my teaching career, which in recent years was in Jewish schools. In one of them, in Haifa, I spent the best year of my entire teaching career anywhere. And here, precisely, I want to begin my reference to the recent piece by Ran Shimoni, titled “Arab teacher reassigned after parents complain that she can’t teach Jewish values” in Haaretz.

In the same school where my teaching experience was the best of my career, there of all places, I clearly refrained from political and even social discussions that I considered delicate. Already in the first days I noticed that in that school, military service is a supreme value, and it seemed this was the main subject of discussion in the teachers’ room.

In addition, many uniformed men and women were present in the school. My male and female students (in 11th grade) spoke a great deal about their impending military service, and by listening to their conversations I realized that they consider it very important. I refrained totally from participating in those discussions.

In one case a female soldier came to the classroom and presented a permit from the principal, asserting that she is allowed to speak to the students about army service. I gave her permission to enter and I left the classroom. I stood next to the door and when she ended the discussion and left, after about 25 minutes, I immediately reentered the classroom. The students gave me surprised looks, and one of them asked me why I had left. I didn’t reply.

In another case too, which took place in a different school in the center of the country, where I’d worked earlier, I noticed that issues of military service, the combat heritage and Zionist education were the school’s top educational priorities. That seemed almost natural to me, because that was also the case in the school where I studied, Hadera High School. There too, those values were among the main ones, in addition to Holocaust memorial education.

And in that connection I will tell my readers about a unique experience I had: On a memorial wall in Hadera High School the names of school graduates who were killed in Israel’s wars and by hostile acts were engraved in bronze. In ninth grade I felt a great deal of anger and disdain for that wall. After all, those names belonged to young men and women who wanted – and perhaps succeeded – to kill those of my people. But over time those metallic names became human beings in my eyes, after I met some of their relatives who studied with me, and I felt the intensity of the sorrow and loss that they felt.

In this school in the center of the country, which, as mentioned, educated with clear Zionist military values, all the teachers were asked to begin the first lesson with a discussion of the legacy of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had died a day earlier. Since the next day I was supposed to teach the first lesson in the morning, I asked the social education coordinator to excuse me from the task, because my opinion of Ariel Sharon and his legacy wasn’t positive, to put it mildly. The massacre in Sabra and Shatila was only one of the examples that explains my attitude.

The coordinator abjectly refused to excuse me, and I stuck to my guns. I told her that if I had no choice, I would tell the class my opinion of Ariel Sharon, and clearly the results would be very bad. When the coordinator didn’t give in, I turned to the principal and told her I would be absent from work at that hour, with the excuse of arriving late or something like that, but she also refused.

The issue developed into a quarrel on the school’s internal email, in which I was told off by most of the teachers, but I didn’t give in. And the next day I was absent from work for the entire day.

There were other such incidents, which only emphasize the acute sensitivity involved in the work of an Arab teacher in a Jewish school. It is important to note that in all the Jewish schools where I worked, I conditioned my taking the job on not becoming a homeroom teacher, who has to teach “Jewish and Zionist values.” Another detail that should be mentioned is that the only Jewish school where I felt great openness to the political and social opinions of the “other” was Ironi Dalet High School in Tel Aviv.

It was actually a school where I taught in the north of the country, where Jews and Arabs studied in equal numbers, and whose watchwords were equality and openness, that turned out to be the only one to demonstrate blatant intolerance of my political views. But there is another aspect to that: It would be interesting to see the degree of tolerance for a Jewish homeroom teacher in an Arab school, who shares the opinions of the political “center,” or a female Jewish educator who is a lesbian.

In conclusion, the work of female Arab teachers in Jewish schools is of indescribable importance. Direct human contact and cultural ties are the key and the surest way to coexistence. The Jewish majority, especially in urban communities, knows very little about Arab culture, far less than we Arabs would like. In all the places where I worked, when I presented the story of the Feast of Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha) – the Muslim version of the Binding of Isaac – there was tremendous enthusiasm, and I received very positive feedback.

That’s how peace and coexistence grow, but an Arab teacher does not have to be a homeroom teacher, imparting Jewish and Zionist values, in a Jewish school.

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