'Education Is Our Weapon as a Minority in Israel'

Academic excellence is seen by Israeli Arabs not only as a personal success but also as a means of changing society.

1. What is the meaning of the thin smile on the lips of Nazar Zahran? This new graduate of the Orthodox Arab High School in Haifa came to school last week to receive her matriculation certificate: a long column of grades hovering around the "100" mark.

She hardly seemed to be hopping with excitement. Apart from the Mona Lisa smile, she seemed almost indifferent. In the principal's office, as well, they did not crowd around her in amazement. Certificates of excellence are expected in this high school, which appeared this week (and not for the first time) in a very respectable place on the national list of schools with a high proportion of outstanding matriculants. (The data relates to the Class of 2005.) "Nazar is one of the brightest students in our biotechnology track," affirms the principal, Edward Shiban. "I know. I taught her."

Zahran lives in the village of Ibilin, about an hour from Haifa. The travel is exhausting, she says, but she did not for a moment consider studying in the village high school. She always knew her place was at the prestigious Haifa school. She has just turned 18. She is attractive, and her seriousness and self-control make her seem older than her years.

Her Hebrew is fluent, something not to be taken for granted among students who live outside the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Haifa.

Success is her dream - a really lofty goal. The model of success of a young Arab woman like her is Western and Israeli; but Zahran does not talk about it in Western terms of material success, fame or celebrity status.

Nazar Zahran seems to see life as an assignment. "Hard work," she says, in response to the question of how she achieved her impressive results. With quiet seriousness, she explains she intends to study medicine. It is a natural choice, she says. Her father is a pediatrician, her mother a nurse. Her older brother is in his third year of medical school. The question of whether medicine is a profession for a woman, a mother, was never a consideration. In any event, she does not intend to marry before she completes her studies.

Would a young woman from her village have declared her ambitions so freely a decade ago? Almost certainly not. In fact, she relates, her father is not too happy with her decision; but his reservations have nothing to do with her gender.

"He thinks that the course is too long, and I could have made do with research." He thought the same about her brother. Working in her father's clinic in the village, she learned more about the nature of the work, but it did not deter her. "I am prepared to invest [energy] in it, because I have a goal, and medicine best suits my ambitions," she says.

2.Other Arab schools marked by excellence belong to churches in Nazareth. Salem Jubran, a Nazareth journalist and educator, speaks of the achievements among the young generation as a quiet revolution: "The Arabs in Israel are the true Jews. They understand that education is the only necessary capital."

Jubran speaks about a new and pragmatic view of reality. "The state has taken Arab lands," he says. "There is no industry, no construction work. The public understands that the only course of advancement is through education."

The youngsters no longer yearn to emigrate, he says. "A national minority has two choices: to be fanatic and insular, or to be pragmatic. The Arabs in Israel feel they live in an achievement-oriented society, but that the world is less open to them. If they don't achieve more, they won't be part of the race." According to Jubran, the Druze as well have developed economic and social motivation: "Young Druze men no longer want to be career soldiers or serve in the police or the prison service. They want to be part of the new world, and the Bedouin are following suit."

"Fierce Arab politics is bankrupt. It does not meet the needs of the young generation. These are assertive and determined youngsters, but not arrogant. This is a ray of light for the Arab community, the fact that there is a generation growing up with a new quality, without hysteria or angry passion," says Jubran. "The young people today study not to disappoint the community or their parents."

3. "I have a dream, and I want to realize it," says Hanin Marshood, a 12th-grader in the biotechnology track. She wants to study clinical psychology, an unconventional profession in Arab society. Aside from the usual explanations of wanting to work with people, and liking psychology, she adds a social angle: She wants to encourage people from her community to come for treatment and get over their prejudices.

"Education is our weapon as a minority in the State of Israel," says her father, Fathi Marshood. In his job as director of the Haifa branch of Shatil, a body founded by the New Israel Fund that offers support services and advice to organizations for social change, Marshood is actively involved in educational and social matters. His sharp, throw-away remark overrides all other claims, and exposes the real material on which the success of this school and others like it is based.

"My parents constantly reminded us that as a Palestinian minority in the country, we need to use education as a tool for advancement, and I pass it on to my children," says Marshood. "In my education there is room for democracy, but they know that studies are my red line."

Jawadat Oudeh, whose daughter Mali is also a 12th-grade biotechnology student at the Orthodox Arab High School in Nazareth, is an editor and presenter of Arabic-language sports programs on Israel Television's Channel 1. The situation in his day was different, he says.

"My parents were illiterate. They didn't even know where I studied. We, as parents, are much more aware. And we consciously transmit this mantra to our children." Marshood regrets that the high school is not more democratic, but he says that the compensation is that it is so multicultural. "The students are make friends from every corner of the Arab community."

The high school was founded 52 years ago, by the Greek Orthodox community in Haifa, and is run by an association that includes community representatives. It is a secular school, however, without any religious trappings at all. True, it is an exclusive private school, with high entrance requirements, but the socioeconomic cross section is middle-class and below. Tuition fees are relatively low: only NIS 1,500 a year.

Thirty percent of the student body are Haifa residents. The rest come from across the country, from Acre in the north to the Negev in the south. Some rent apartments in Haifa. The decisive majority of the students come from "the Triangle," two hours away, where there is a dearth of good schools. Prominent graduates include MK Talab al-Sana of the United Arab List, and Dr. Suleiman Agbaria, former mayor of Umm el-Fahm and a leader in the Islamic Movement.

This is a technology- and science-based school. Students sit for a record number of matriculation credit courses (more than 30 points), most in physics, chemistry, biology, and a relatively new, but very popular, subject in the Arab community: biotechnology.

The school is short on budget. It looks austere, and there is little money spent on new projects. The laboratories seem outdated, and the only investments made are in vital advanced equipment. The teaching methods are somewhat conservative, say the parents. Classes are large and crowded - 40 students on average - which contradicts the common claim that if only the classes were smaller, the level of education would be higher.

Motivation is the keyword. The high school has a winning combination of students who want to learn and excellent teachers. These are teachers with PhDs for whom the corridors of academic research are inaccessible because they are Arabs, says Shiban, the principal, who is personally familiar with that situation.

And finally, there is a real fear: "Whoever does not achieve the necessary standards must find another school," says Shiban, an elegant way of stating that students can be dismissed.

According to Shiban, even exceptional students are faced with obstacles when they get to university. "Once, the obstacle for acceptance to prestigious departments was the psychometric examination. It turned out that the Arabic texts they handed out there were old. But they changed them, and today more and more students get high scores, over 700. The problem is that the system of acceptance was changed, and the Arab students today have a hard time dealing with group dynamics and interviews."

"I look at the class of 2005. Many of the top students have gone abroad to study, my daughter among them. I persuaded her that it was a waste of time for her to try here in Israel. She's studying dentistry in Munich."

4. The revolution, says Jubran, is particularly fascinating with regard to the girls. "Quietly, over the last 20 years, they have been concentrating on their studies and done better than the boys. Without feminist struggles, or raising the banner of egalitarianism, another revolution for the status of women is taking place. In the last 10 years, even in traditional households, education is understood as a springboard for advancement. These families have realized that if their daughter finishes medicine, doors will open for her to achieve economic independence and find a good husband. So if she studies, she is no longer considered second-rate, and she doesn't have to be the one who cooks in the family."

"Our society is opening up," agrees Zahran. "Today most of the girls in the village study. Most of the boys don't study. This is our way of proving that we are equal, as a minority, as women." Recently she has been thinking of gynecology, for the good of her community. "Our women prefer women doctors, but there is a shortage of them."

She hopes that her score of 726 on the psychometric examination will help her to realize her ambition, but she is anxious about the acceptance interview. "When you're in a group of people, suddenly you're 'an Arab.' No one knows who you are, what you know, what your grades were. Sometimes it seems that they relate to you as if you don't belong. And you have to prove that you have a right to be here."