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Bilingual Education Is the Key to Our Children’s Future

Learning to speak modern could contribute a great deal to regional understanding
Illustrative photo of high school students. (Maya Levin/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of high school students. (Maya Levin/Flash90)

Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.” — Dr. Martin Luther King

After reading Sarah Tuttle-Singer’s article “There is a big problem in my children’s school,”  I was both happy and sad: Happy that she recognized the need for bilingual and co-existence education in Israel, and saddened that she does not know that it already exists.

For those of us looking to expand our world, open up to those around us and educate our children in an acceptance and understanding of people from other religions and cultures, there is an outstanding opportunity standing right in of us: The Hand in Hand (Yad beYad) bilingual schools.

We decided to send our two younger children to the Yad BeYad school in Jerusalem last year and we have been profoundly impacted by the experience.

Firstly, I had to shift my perception of our family from (what I considered) mainstream to living on the edge of liberal Jewish experience. I say edge not necessarily because people are opposed to co-existence education, but because it is unfamiliar and outside of people’s frame of reference.

My initial feelings were of hesitancy and fear of the unknown. I was moving my older son from a religious Jewish school to a secular one. There were religious families, but primarily either Muslim or Christian. I was also scared of what people would think of me; neighbors, friends, family.

One of the most difficult moments was trying to explain our choice to the “Shas” affiliated parents of my son’s best friend. They tried to talk me out of it, arguing that I am tainting my son’s purity and putting him at risk for assimilation and worse intermarriage (!). It was a difficult conversation. I tried to explain to them that in North America there are many religious people who studied in mixed public schools with students of other religions and they come out just fine; actually, in many cases even stronger in their own sense of identity (as I did). In fact, it is known that kids at the Yad beYad school come out with a very strong sense of their own cultural identity and traditions — there is no attempt to blur identities there; everyone is respected for who they are and where they come from.

My claims didn’t convince them, of course, and since then their son does not call to play with mine. But the vast majority of people we know are accepting and even enthusiastic. Many parents have said something along the lines of: “Wow! That’s great! So your children learn Arabic? I wish my kids could learn Arabic. I just wouldn’t send them to a secular school…”

Now, a year in, I feel much more comfortable with our decision. A big part of that has been the Yom Hashishi Jewish enrichment program that we were blessed to establish at the school, along with another religious family at the school. The program, as the name suggests, runs on Fridays outside of school hours and is strongly supported by the elementary school principal, Nadia Kenani. We have a wonderful teacher who prays, learns Oral and Written Torah, and celebrates holidays with an increasingly large group of Yad beYad kids from grades 1-3. To me, this is a dream come true and I just wish that more people knew about it. We have the opportunity today to educate our children both in Torah and in the appreciation and acceptance of our Muslim and Christian Arab neighbors, people who share responsibility with us for the future of this city and this country.

The other aspect of the school that has impacted us is the incredible strength of the Yad beYad community. Class gatherings are much more meaningful here than just meeting the parents of our kids’ friends. From the simplest picnics to challenging meetings to discuss the “matzav”, the school community makes a conscious effort to bridge gaps and to create a culture of mutual understanding and respect. We have parents from all walks of life at the school, many mothers with full hijab, along with believing Christians, religious Jews like myself and ardent secularists.

Despite our differences in religion and culture, as parents at Yad beYad, we recognize that we are on the forefront of the fight against racism on both sides, and this motivates us to make the school the best it can be both as a school and as a community. Especially during times like these when we cannot prevent our subconscious fear of the other from coming to the forefront, it is so comforting to be in a community where Arabs and Jews sit together as brothers and sisters in hope and peace.

Yet another impact of this experience on our family is the bridge that Arabic language has been between us and the Palestinians we meet along our way. The incredible appreciation that Palestinians have when they hear in my broken Arabic that I send my kids to Yad beYad is priceless. Studying Arabic on my own in addition to sending my children to a bilingual school is a statement that I care about connecting to my Arab neighbors in Jerusalem with respect and with a sense of equality between us. Time after time, I see my husband, who is fluent, speaking with an Arab taxi driver and within minutes all inhibitions between us as Jews and Muslim are gone, and the two men sitting at the front of the taxi part as brothers wishing each other well in life. We would be one step closer to the trust that needs to be nurtured between Jews and Arabs in this holy city and country if we could make the kind of effort to meet them through language as they do with us.

It is unfortunate that the kind of Arabic taught today by the Education Ministry is literary Arabic with absolutely no emphasis on spoken Arabic, which would actually help people communicate with each other. The innovation of the Yad beYad schools is that they offer total bilingual education, with each class taught by two teachers, one Jewish and one Arab, each teaching in their native language (including both literary and spoke Arabic). Kids at the school are taught from age three that speaking Arabic or Hebrew is normal, that being friends with Jews or Palestinians is normal; that we may live in different neighborhoods, speak different languages and celebrate different holidays, but that at the end of the day we are all really the same — just people.

It’s not easy to put this out publicly when there is so much fear and animosity in the air, but the fear and animosity will never dissipate if we don’t encounter the humanity of the other and create a sense of trust, as Sarah Tuttle-Singer suggests.

We can choose another way. We can choose bi-lingual and multicultural education for our children as a path towards mutual trust and coexistence.

INFO: There are three Yad beYad, public schools in Israel — one in Jerusalem, one in the Galilee and one in Wadi Ara. All three start from kindergarten for ages 3 and up, and go until grade 12. There are also Yad beYad day care centers in Yafo-Tel Aviv and Haifa.
Additionally, there is an Arab-Jewish school in Neve Shalom Jewish-Arab kindergarten in Beer Sheva connected to the Yad beYad network).

About the Author
Ilana Nelson is a resident of the katamonim in Jerusalem and is an active parent at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand bilingual school in Jerusalem, as well as the co-founder and director of the Yom Hashishi Jewish Enrichment program at the school.
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