Teaching The Language Of Coexistence
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Teaching The Language Of Coexistence

At the Hagar School in Beersheva, I witnessed a dream realizing itself. My three weeks of volunteering there recently showed me shalom and salaam.

Israel is essentially a multilingual, multicultural country. Historical developments have created a unique and complicated situation: two populations with two different languages living in the same state. Israeli Jews speak Hebrew, and Arabic is the mother tongue of Bedouins, Palestinians, Druze and Arabs.

Hagar bilingual school — where students learn Arabic and Hebrew — responds to the needs of the diverse population in Beersheva. The school is located in a building rented from the municipality and is jointly operated and supported by Hagar, the municipality, and the Ministry of Education. In addition, the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ provides financial support to the Hagar School through its Kedma platform, which promotes shared society in Israel.

It’s clear that parents cannot lay the burden of creating a shared future on the shoulders of their children. They must lead the way. Thanks to a supportive parent community at Hagar, there is a way to create a broad base for a shared civil society in Israel.

The student population in Israel stands on the front lines of the struggle to return decency and compassion to their shared land. With segregation effectively the norm in Israeli schools, a wave of outspoken parents and teachers is arguing that only truly integrated classrooms can bring peace.

“My image of the Jewish people was that they are my enemy and want to kill me no matter what,” a Bedouin volunteer teaching aid told me. “Now I focus on building relationships between Jews and Arabs in our school, working together to change the hostile perception between the two groups.”

Phyllis Bernstein

Segregation exists as a de facto reality, rather than something legislated by the state: Arabs are not restricted from attending Jewish public schools and vice versa. Children can attend any school in their educational zone, but since most live in separate communities, Arabs usually choose Arabic-speaking schools and Jews choose Hebrew ones. Even in mixed cities, children typically attend schools that reflect their heritage.

Some of the Bedouins I spoke with said it was not Israel’s divided system that was seen as discriminatory, but the unequal funding received by both sets of schools. And they say there is a reason for this separation: the language is different, the culture is different, the narratives are different.

Even parents of students at Hagar said they don’t wish to replace this system. They simply believe the government should provide bilingual education as an option for all children who attend public schools.

The Hagar School is expensive to run, in that equal class time is given to Jewish and Bedouin-Arab culture and history. While Hagar receives some taxpayer funding, unlike other public schools it is not fully funded by the government. The government money covers half of the basic costs of running the school, since Hagar, like other bilingual schools, requires double the number of teachers to operate bilingual classes. The remaining half of Hagar’s operational costs are covered by donations, along with minor fees from parents.

One Bedouin father who sends three children to Hagar said he grew up participating in coexistence programs, but he grew pessimistic about his children’s future in Israel during the first and second intifadas. He now believes that Jewish-Arab education is the only initiative that can truly make a lasting impact on Israeli society.

The difference between going to school every day with Bedouins and meeting them once a month or once a year is obvious. The only way forward is for both groups to recognize the other’s rights and history without taking away from their own narrative. These children are working toward this every day, as is the entire community.

And yet it’s bittersweet. Hagar education ends in sixth grade — such a young age. Jewish-Arab education is an essential initiative for a lasting, peaceful, shared society for all in Israel, but it must continue long past adolescence in order to succeed.

Phyllis Bernstein, who lives in Westfield, N.J., is co-chair of the economic development committee of the Social Venture Fund for Jewish Arab Equality and Shared Society, and founding co-chair of the Israeli Arab Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest N.J. This article first appeared in the New Jersey Jewish News.

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