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Imagining the unimaginable: How shared education can help secure Israel’s future

What began with a few simple schoolhouses in the American south ultimately led to a better future for black and white citizens. Israel should try the approach
Pine Grove Rosenwald School Interior. Many schools were located in areas lacking electricity, so the fund designed architectural plans that made the most of natural light. (Wikipedia)
Pine Grove Rosenwald School Interior. Many schools were located in areas lacking electricity, so the fund designed architectural plans that made the most of natural light. (Wikipedia)

Booker T. Washington was 9 years old the day a Union soldier rode his horse onto the front lawn of the plantation where he and his family worked as slaves. The soldier called all to gather round while he read aloud from a document: they were free. Washington’s mother, tears streaming down her face, hugged and kissed her children, unable to believe that she had actually lived to see this day. And yet, a few hours later this band of the newly liberated were engulfed in deep gloom as they realized what a long, difficult path lay ahead of them.

On that historic day it would have been unimaginable that Washington would grow up to become one of the most respected advocates for black education and welfare in America. But he did. And it would have also been beyond imagining that he would befriend Julius Rosenwald, a man from a German Jewish immigrant family who started as a travelling salesman and eventually transformed Sears Roebuck into the Amazon of its time, and became one of the wealthiest businessmen and most visionary philanthropists in America.

Most inconceivable on that spring day in 1865 when Washington was freed from slavery, is that he and Rosenwald would join forces to tackle the terrible educational conditions of black schoolchildren in the segregated south. They started by building a few decent schoolhouses. Eventually their committed efforts not only dramatically improved schooling, but also launched a process of community empowerment that helped forge the leaders and activists of the civil rights movement.

Now, decades later, and across the ocean from where they helped change the lives of black and white Americans, the example set by Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald can offer a trajectory of hope for the Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, caught in the grip of a seemingly intractable conflict. Finding a way to live together peacefully seems as unimaginable as freedom must have felt to 9-year old Washington’s tearful mother. But in Israel too, schools may serve as critical stepping stones towards a future in which both Jews and Arabs can live together equally, with mutual acceptance, and without fear. How?

Mobilizing change through the schoolhouse

In the late 1800s Washington helped establish the Tuskegee Institute, a teachers’ training institute for African-Americans in the South. But without public funding or support most schoolhouses in the black communities were little better than shacks, lacking windows, light, electricity and plumbing. Washington quickly realized that without the most minimal conditions, even the best teacher would struggle to facilitate effective learning. And without learning, the students would not be able to build better lives.

“You need a schoolhouse!” he would urge his trainees. But that was easier said than done.

When the two first met, Washington presented this challenge to Rosenwald and persuaded him to help build decent schoolhouses. Rosenwald agreed, but on one condition: his philanthropic contribution would be matched. The local government had to provide funding, and fulfill its obligation to provide quality public education to black citizens. And the local black community where the schoolhouse would be built had to contribute with labor and their own fundraising efforts. This, Rosenwald reasoned, would make it truly their own.

The result was a beautiful, light-filled, functional schoolhouse where teachers could teach and students could learn. Equally important, the process of partnering to build the schools galvanized a community awakening. Once built, the schoolhouse often became a community center, the heart and home for the local black community, providing a much-needed space (and often the only of its kind) to enable community enrichment and civic activity. The combination of schools and community activity nurtured a sense of self-worth and human dignity which countered the dominant messages of the times.

The school initiative also created a spirit of cooperation between blacks and whites which had little other means of expression under the laws and norms of Jim Crow. And the partnership with the local and state government was critical in making black education far more widely accepted and accessible.

Booker T. Washington died only a few years after their partnership began, but Rosenwald carried on with the project. Over the course of two decades, what began as a tentative pilot swelled until some 5,000 schoolhouses were built. More than 30% of black children in the South attended a Rosenwald school, as they were nicknamed. This not only changed individual lives: studies show that the Rosenwald schools narrowed the education gap between blacks and whites in the South by some 40%. But it also changed the trajectory of the entire community, as the schools are also credited with birthing the future leaders and activists of the civil rights movement. Thus a project that began with a few simple schoolhouses, ultimately helped facilitate a historic impact in creating greater equality and a better future between black and white citizens.

Israel’s shared schools are building shared society

In Israel, most Arab and Jewish children grow up separately. Jews and Arabs generally live in different towns and villages; when they live in the same cities, it is often in different neighborhoods. They also study apart as, in a reflection of Israel’s major community groups, the school system has four tracks: Hebrew-language secular; national religious; ultra-orthodox; and Arabic-language. So most Jews and Arabs may have no opportunity to get to know each other in any educational or social setting until, at best, they are young adults.

Even then, their first encounter might be either in the army, when Israeli Jews serving as soldiers might have contact with Palestinians viewed only as an enemy. Or in university, where both Jewish and Arab citizens study, but enter at such different ages and life stages that there is little likelihood of really getting to know each other.

And of course, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict negatively affects the relations between Israel’s 80% Jewish and 20% Arab citizens, filling the vacuum created by separation with fear and mistrust, punctured all too often by violence.

The exception to this great divide are joint Jewish-Arab schools, which are intentionally integrated, bilingual and multicultural. There children study together and enjoy a curriculum which brings in the languages, traditions, cultures and histories of both communities, promoting equality as well as mutual understanding, respect and acceptance.

These schools are often oversubscribed; in some of the cities where there is no such school, there are groups of parents asking for one to open. In each case these schools are started by people fed up with the fear and hatred which dominates Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, and hungry for change. These parents often form an active community, both supporting the school and conveying to the general public the message that shared society is a viable option for Israel. And yet countrywide there are barely a dozen such schools and preschools.

I base this on my personal and professional experience, as I am a parent at one of these schools, run by Hand in Hand and the Jerusalem school authority, and I work at the Hand in Hand organization, to help expand its network of Jewish-Arab schools and communities. Doing so, we believe, will not only offer children an exceptional educational and social experience, but also help develop the norms, policies and practices of cooperation, rather than conflict between the two communities.

Lessons learned: The Rosenwald Schools show a pathway forward

Some may question whether a relatively small educational initiative such as a few integrated schools in Israel can really catalyze broad social and political change. But the electrifying example of Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald partnering to launch a network of schools throughout the segregated American South in the first half of the 20th century suggests the answer can be yes, and their initiative offers important lessons and insights for efforts to build-up Jewish-Arab relations in Israel.

In both cases, a three-way partnership between communities, government and philanthropy mobilizes the essential financial and social resources needed for change. Government is a critical partner to successfully scale up, and achieve sustainability and wider systemic change. Philanthropy provides essential financial resources, leverages government support and helps otherwise despairing communities initiate much-needed change. The symbiotic relationship between the school and community – whereby a community organizes to start the school, and, in turn, the school enriches and empowers the community — triggers a broader catalytic change.

While in both cases the macro-political situation feels beyond the power of a few individuals to change, the Washington-Rosenwald partnership shows how local action eventually catalyzed wide-spread change. Expanding joint education in Israel, city by city, has the potential to do the same. The commitment to a better future for your children is a tremendous motivating force to constructive civic action. It empowers parents and other key stakeholders to overcome despair and work against the quicksand of a seemingly unchangeable status quo.

When Washington and Rosenwald began to build their first schoolhouses, the needs must have been overwhelming. Their collaboration paved the pathway to challenging the extremes of rigid social divides and horrific violence. While black-white relations in today’s America still face deeply troubling challenges, this endeavor was significant in achieving relative progress, and offers valuable insights for achieving social change.

Through joint schools Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel are choosing a pathway of profound cooperation. Education can change not only individual trajectories but also community trajectories. Whatever political solution is reached between Israelis and Palestinians, the two communities must learn to accept each other and live together, whether as citizens of the same state or neighboring countries.

In his time, Booker T. Washington told the teachers he trained at his Tuskegee Training Center that they must: “Go out and be a center, a life-giving power as it were to the whole community, to give life where there is not life, hope where there is no hope.” The new schoolhouses and the process of their creation did just that, and helped break down seemingly insurmountable barriers in black-white relations.

Now in Israel, shared schools and communities are also a source of life-giving power, giving hope where there is no hope to both Jews and Arabs, that together we can build a better future for all those who call this place home.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Michael Varet, z”l, who turned to his wife Elizabeth as we met over lunch in Jerusalem one day and exclaimed, “Elizabeth, the work of Hand in Hand sounds just like your grandfather’s work!” This brought me to a deeply inspiring process of learning more about and from this extraordinary story.

About the Author
Rebecca Bardach oversees growth and strategy at Hand in Hand: the Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel. Prior to that she worked with international migration, conflict, relief and development efforts. She holds an MPA in Public Policy and International Development from NYU, and lives in Jerusalem.
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