Classroom Coexistence Under Stress

Jaffa's Weizmann school was a symbol of Jewish-Arab harmony for years. Then came the intifada.

The playground behind the Weizmann school in Jaffa was alive with action. Even though there were no official holidays that particular week, the school was celebrating a kind of holiday of its own: Language and Book Day. Groups of pupils followed each other onto the stage to present their interpretation of a children's book about coexistence, peace and brotherhood.

In the midst of the ceremony, two boys slipped out of two empty classrooms, checked the surroundings, and when they saw that no one was around, found a spot where they could sit quietly together. Ahmed from sixth-grade, and Tom, a fifth-grader, had both been punished for disturbing the ceremony but didn't seem to care as long as they could spend time together.

Apparently they had struck up a friendship on a previous occasion when they were in a similar situation. Asked what they think of the mixed Jewish and Arab population of the school, they shrugged their shoulders and replied that they both have Jewish and Arab friends. They didn't seem to know of any other situation. "What do I care if a boy is Jewish or Arab?" Ahmed asked.

Over the past three years, a shadow seems to have crept over coexistence - the symbol and pride of the school which for years attracted the Arab population of the Lev Yaffo quarter. The covert fear of Jewish parents that the number of Arab pupils is growing because of the high birthrate of the Arab population - a fear that has increased since the outbreak of the intifada - has come to the surface and spoiled the atmosphere in the school. The Arab parents felt rejected and the Jewish parents were scared of being called racist. The teachers, caught in the middle, were afraid the school would lose its special character.

An organizational psychologist was brought in to help the parents sort out their innermost feelings and the result was a decision to open an independent Arab school, Lev Yaffo Hehadash, inside the Weizmann compound. The new school opened in September last year and has preschool and first-grade classes. It is meant to absorb most, or all, of the Arab children residing in the quarter. The two schools are on different sides of the playground.

Of course, no one talks overtly of separation or of a demographic problem. Both Arab and Jewish spokespersons are careful to choose their words during this period. But between the lines, one can see a picture of today's complex political reality in Jaffa.

Ilan Maimon, chairman of the parents' committee and a resident of Lev Yaffo, explains that the demand for an Arab school came both from Jewish parents who were anxious to maintain the Jewish character of the school, and from Arab parents who preferred that their children be inculcated with Arab culture - or, as he phrased it, those who did not feel comfortable with their children studying the Old Testament.

"The situation has become absurd. In some classes more than 50 percent of the children are Arab. This makes it difficult for the school to function. The Arab children, most of whom are from a low socio-economic background, come to school with severe deficiencies and without knowing Hebrew. There are also children of immigrants and foreign workers. A teacher who is not qualified to teach children who speak other languages spends most of her time trying to impose discipline instead of imparting valuable content," says Maimon.

George Hadad, an Arab parent on the committee, does not disagree. "The move was not against the Arab population," he says. "They have limitations. They cannot accept so many Arab pupils."

Does he plan to send his son Khalil, a third-grade pupil, to the Arab school? Apparently not. "There is not so much use for the Arabic language," he says. "If I want him to have a profession and to get somewhere in life, it is better for him to study here."

Hadad's words reflect the traditional view of the Arab population in Jaffa, which considers the Jewish schools to be of high quality. Until recently, the Arabs of Jaffa remained conspicuous by their absence from the state Arab school system, which they consider to be of poor quality. Most of the wealthy families sent their children to private schools and some of them to the special Jewish schools (such as the Open School or the school for arts and nature). The three state schools in Jaffa (in the Ajami quarter and on the border with Bat Yam) for the most part served a population in distress. Only when the Jewish-Arab Aji'al elementary school opened its doors some four years ago was the low image of the Arab schools changed. The school admits pupils only on the basis of tests.

A positive step

Abu Shindi is the director of the Jewish-Arab community center in Jaffa and a well-known figure in the area. He moved his two children, who are in the advanced grades, from a private school to Weizmann this year. Abu Shindi considers the opening of the new Arab elementary school, Lev Yaffo Hehadash, to be another positive step toward strengthening the Arab educational system in Jaffa.

"The Arab children in Jaffa need to know their language and culture. With all due respect, what do they need to study the Old Testament and Jewish history for?" he says.

At present, the Arab pupils at Weizmann are continuing to study there. About 30 percent of the children in the new kindergarten class that opened this year are Arab. Only time will tell if there will be two separate institutions for Jews and Arabs, or if coexistence will continue to flourish and Arab pupils will continue coming to the Weizmann school.

The shabby central yard of the school has seen better days. It is as if the problems that have befallen the veteran school as the result of the city's demographic changes are a reflection of the upheavals of the entire city. Sarah Sharon has been principal of the Weizmann school for the past five years, and has witnessed most of the changes. The Jaffa-born Sharon, 52, studied at the school at a time when no one talked about coexistence. The school was then called the Central School and served a homogeneous population of immigrants from Bulgaria (including MK Haim Ramon). The Arab population then lived "on the other side of town" in the Ajami quarter. At that time, Sharon says, Weizmann was one of the best schools in Israel and 1,500 pupils (as opposed to 385 today) crammed its classrooms in one long, narrow building. In order to make things simpler, the pupils came in two shifts. Sharon returned to the school 30 years ago as a temporary teacher and has not left since.

She does not remember when the first Arab pupils came to the school. It was a natural process, she says. The Jews were leaving Jaffa, particularly the Lev Yaffo quarter, and the remaining Jewish population was aging. At the same time, Arab residents began moving from Ajami to Lev Yaffo in an attempt to improve their living conditions.

"The Arab population considered it a good school. Those who could not afford a private school started coming here, first in a trickle and then in larger numbers." The children of immigrants and foreign workers started arriving at a later stage.

If you enter one of the classrooms, you cannot fail to notice the mixture of languages and foreign names. But Sharon insists that "Weizmann is a Jewish school, until it is decided otherwise. All the children study Bialik. Even today, when the Arab students form almost 50 percent of the school body, we do not teach the Koran."

At the same time, within the limitations of the situation, Sharon tries to allow the different populations to express themselves. The Arab children study Literary Arabic four hours a week. The Jewish pupils learn spoken Arabic. The Muslim and Christian holidays are recognized but, she says, "we will not have a Christmas tree at the entrance to the school." The Arab children are excused from Israel's Memorial Day events, "but all of them show up," she says. Last week all the children celebrated Jerusalem Day like everywhere else, while noting that Jerusalem is a city holy to three faiths.

At all events, the atmosphere of coexistence in the school does not appear to need an infusion of strength. Ziyyad and Ro'i, both in fourth grade, are indistinguishable. They have been best friends since kindergarten and plan to go to high school together. They are in the same work-group in the class, Ziyyad says, "otherwise Ro'i won't study properly." What does he like about Weizmann? "My mother said it is better for me to be in a school with Jews."

Raisa Ibrahim, the principal of the new school, believes that Arab children should study at an Arab school. But she says that she can understand the Arab parents who send their children to Jewish schools "in order to be part of the country." Now she is trying to prove to those parents that an Arab school can be a quality school. To this end, the children in the kindergarten and grade one study English, Hebrew and Arabic. "The parents in Jaffa like many languages," she says.

Ibrahim learned of the establishment of the Arab school more or less at the last moment. She won the position in a tender, and even though she was pregnant, managed to get the school renovated in two months during the summer holidays, to engage new teachers and to set up a school from scratch. She had the high walls painted in optimistic pink.

In the beginning, relations between the old school and the new were tense. The Arab school was given a spacious building that Weizmann had to forgo. There was an atmosphere of suspicion between the two. The principals did not speak with each other directly, only through the municipality. But relations warmed up after Ibrahim gave birth. Today the two schools have begun cooperating and joint music classes are held for both schools in the Arab school building. The children also visit each other on the various holidays and when there are special ceremonies.