The Jew Comes to Learn From the Arab - and It Works

Kafr Kara's multicultural school, the first located in an Arab town, is trying to build a future free of stereotypes.

Several months ago, Maida Othamna invited Ruthie Weiss to visit her home in Baka al-Garbiyeh. Weiss turned down the invitation. This week, the two women were sitting in the teachers' lounge at the school where they teach, talking about what happened. "I was a prisoner of my own preconceptions. All of the stories about the proximity to Baka al-Sharkiyeh (on the other side of the Green Line - E.A.) frightened me. In retrospect, I realized that I made a mistake. After all, she came to visit me in Hadera," says Weiss.

"I wasn't angry," says Othamna. "Ruthie's answer didn't come out of nowhere. There is a reality, and there is an entire world of stereotypes on which everyone is raised."

The two women co-teach Grade 1-B at the Hand in Hand - Bridge Over the Wadi school in Kafr Kara in Wadi Ara, a bilingual school attended by Arab and Jewish children. The conversation between them encapsulates the everyday conflicts that go on between the walls of the school, and its capacity to discuss any subject and attempt to understand the world of the neighbor.

The school opened its second academic year this month. Hand in Hand - Bridge over the Wadi is the third school in Israel where Arab and Jewish children study together. The two veteran institutions are in Jerusalem and in the Segev Bloc in the Galilee. Like them, it operates under the aegis of the Yad B'yad (Hand in Hand) nonprofit association; unlike them, it is located in an Arab town and was founded through a local initiative, not by the nonprofit.

The Kfar Kara school developed from a series of encounters between parents from the Arab and Jewish communities in Wadi Ara. The October 2000 events left deep scars in the area, which in the past had known the pain of terror attacks, land expropriations and poor relations between neighbors. The idea was "to meddle with reality and go against the current," in the words of Mohammed Marzuk of Kafr Kara, a member of the parents' group. Consequently, the parents decided that it would be important to build the school in an Arab town.

"There is a message here," says Yohanan Eshkhar, the school's Jewish co-principal (along with Nuha Hatib, the Arab principal). "A message of trust and of breaking the mistrust. We've never had a situation before in which Jewish parents could bring their children to an Arab town. The message bursts the atmosphere of suspicion, of fear. This step has already managed to generate a change throughout the local environment," he says.

At first, the proposal to found the new school encountered difficulties. The Education Ministry said that it would oppose its establishment, "due to its being a one of a kind school, which they no longer authorize." According to Eshkhar, "This only created greater unity among the parents. They said: `Despite all the obstacles, it makes no difference, we are here and the school will be realized.'"

The parents initiated a public campaign aided by Members of Knesset, and appealed to the media. Eventually, the ministry came around. "When the parent's struggle succeeded, there was euphoria here," recalls Eshkhar. "On the other hand, there was a sense of `We've taken a big chance here: what does the educational staff know? What exactly will they teach? What is going to happen here?"

Objective: 800 pupils

In the school's first year, the student body numbered nearly 100 children, from kindergarten to third grade. In its second year, which is described as "no longer euphoric but not yet routine," the school has 189 children, from kindergarten to fourth grade. The classes are evenly divided between Jewish and Arab pupils, who come from every town and village in the area: Ara, Arara, Baka al-Garbiyeh, Umm al-Fahm, Zemer, Kafr Kara, Katzir, Pardes Hanna, Karkour, Givat Ada, Binyamina, Zichron Yaakov and Givat Nili. About 40 applicants were turned away this year, due to a lack of teachers and classrooms.

The school is located in an arched khan-like structure adjacent to the Kafr Kara educational campus. The head of the local council, Zuhir Yihye, entrusted the building to Bridge Over the Wadi. At the start of the current school year, another local building was given to the bilingual school.

Additional resources will be provided for the growing school by next year. Plans call for the school to eventually extend to the 12th grade, with about 800 pupils. It will be housed in a new educational campus to be built in Kafr Kara. Donations are now being collected. Operation of the school is funded by the Education Ministry, the Hand in Hand nonprofit and parents, in more or less equal shares.

The children learn from 8 A.M.-3:30 P.M. "It's no paradise," says Khaled Mahamid, a fourth-grade teacher. "It's a lot of hours, and you always have to take into account the two languages. There is a lot of preparation and a lot of effort spent on every lesson. There are also a lot of meetings with parents. My friends claim that I spend more time at school than at home."

Bilingualism is intrinsic to the school's philosophy. The ideal is to grant equal space to Arabic and Hebrew. The pupils, it is hoped, will become fully bilingual. It is obvious to all that these are not laboratory conditions. The Arab pupils will be exposed to Hebrew after school hours; they will be able to get help from their parents, who understand the language. This is not generally the case for the Jewish child.

Language also has a world of image and connotation. For the Arab child, Hebrew is the language of the "strong," and only through it can he progress; for him, it is also the language of the "oppressor." For the Jewish child, Arabic is the language of an inferior culture. The school views bilingualism as a challenge. In general, the term challenge is consistently used in place of the word difficulty.

Each class has two teachers, one Jew and one Arab. They do not translate the other's words. Rather, they conduct a lesson prepared in advance. For instance, in an first-grade math class taught by Gitit Haydn-Ronen and Suhad Gazmawi, each pupil uses a workbook written partly in Hebrew and partly in Arabic, without translation from one to the other. Suhad refers the children to a problem in the workbook and asks, in Arabic: "Has Omar prepared enough cheese for his mice?" Some of the children answer in Hebrew, and some in Arabic.

Weiss and Othamna describe themselves as Siamese twins. "It involves a lot of energy and patience. The preparations that we do for every lesson are very difficult. We have to fully cooperate in building the lesson plan. In the ordinary school system, a teacher prepares his lesson plan whenever he feels like it."

Weiss, who taught in the regular school system for 30 years, describes working at Bridge Over the Wadi as a gift for her: "The children study in small classes of 28 pupils each. Our work with the pupil is almost one-on-one. It's like what it says in the Dovrat report, except that here it is implemented for real."

Weiss does not know Arabic, and is now studying the language in a course held for the teachers at the school. There is no parallel course in Hebrew, as it is not needed. According to Weiss, "It shouldn't be like this. Why should Maida know Hebrew while I don't know her language? I believe in the idea of the school. It will achieve results. In another ten or twenty years, these children will be the leaders of tomorrow."

`There is a light that shines in their eyes'

Eshkhar, who shares the duties of running the school with his colleague Hatib, says, "You have to work together, think together, make decisions, create a system of joint management. Everything must be built on complete trust, and when it works it's incredible. The same holds true for the teachers: You have to develop teamwork that will also be a model for the children. It's hard work, and there is no recompense for all the extra work, but there is a light that shines in their eyes."

In some classes, the children divide into two groups, according to their religion. This is the case for language lessons in one's mother tongue, and for lessons in Torah and Koran. On national days - Independence Day and Nakba Day - there are also separate classes, after which a joint meeting takes place.

A great deal of thought was devoted to the national days, which can be extremely sensitive at the school. The educational staff spent a few weekends together, where they explored their own identity and the identity of the other. The parents take part in workshops as well, in which they get to know one another. "They begin to understand that there are things we did not learn, things they didn't tell us, things we did not know about the other side that is living here with us," says Eshkhar.

In proximity to the pain of the Jews on Memorial Day, the pain felt by Palestinians on Nakba Day is emphasized - it is the pain of being uprooted, of being a refugee. "The Jewish child experiences what a pupil from an ordinary school experiences, but also experiences the sadness of the Palestinian," says Eshkhar. "When he receives this at a young age, without the baggage that we adults have, there is a chance of raising children differently, with an understanding of what happened to us and to them, while carefully considering how this could be done differently, without perpetuating the conflict."

Teacher Khaled Mahmid says that there have been some very difficult conversations in his class. "Some children said, `You took our land from us,' and other things like that. In the end, everyone gives his opinion. They learn to respect one another's opinion, even when extreme statements are made."

Tamar Abu-Moch, who is married to an Arab and has two children in the school, says, "This school seems to have been created for us binational parents. I only believe in projects of this scale, not in after-school classes or encounters, but in projects that have a broad horizon. It's a drop in the sea, but it makes positive waves in the region. You have to bear in mind that there are Jews who are afraid to enter Kafr Kara to buy pita. There is enormous ignorance about the Arabs in Israel. This kind of school can change this to some extent. Hey, there are parents who attend parents' meetings at 8 P.M. Once, they wouldn't have dared come here at such an hour. All of a sudden, they understand the ignorance in which they used to live."