Joint Schools Can Repair Jewish-Arab Relations

The Nation-State Law makes the task of improving relations between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel infinitely harder.  The Nation-State Law, which the Israeli Knesset passed this summer late one hot July night, tries to bolster Jewish national and communal interests by undermining the status of the Arab community.  Increasing inequality and social divides harms both Arabs and Jews alike.

Negative effects of the law have followed rapidly.  Arab citizens feel the sting of this legal downgrade to their status, and question if they will ever be seen as legitimately equal in Israel. The Druze community, long appreciated by the state for their service in the IDF, felt disparaged and betrayed, bringing their objections immediately to the Supreme Court.  Thousands of citizens – Jews, Arabs, Druze – have protested in the streets and media.

It’s impossible to say what it will take to successfully challenge the Nation-State Law.  But in the meantime, a bunch of 3-year-olds and 3rd graders are proving that there is a way to immediately challenge the status quo and secure a better future between Jews and Arabs.

Or, to be more precise, their parents, teachers and city officials are doing so at a handful of Jewish-Arab preschools and schools dotted throughout Israel where Arab and Jewish children are growing up learning together, in each other’s languages, about each other’s cultures, histories and perspectives, in the hopes of building a viable shared future in this small country.

This is in stark contrast to the norm.  Most of Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens, 80% and 20% respectively, live, study and work separately.  Jews and Arabs generally live in separate cities and neighborhoods, and go to different schools, where Jews study in Hebrew and Arabs in Arabic.  Under these circumstances most children will never find themselves playing side by side in the same soccer league, in an afternoon dance class together, or running in around the same city park.

There is no later redress, as most Jewish and Arab adults will not meet and get to know each other in any substantial way at either university or the workplace.  Separation creates a vacuum filled by fear and mistrust, and exacerbated greatly by the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict.  Many Jews fear that Arab citizens are a permanent fifth column; many Arabs fear they will never be accepted as equal, with equal rights and opportunities.

But if done right, increasing the number of Jewish-Arab public schools can leverage a wider change in relations and help shift the paradigm from conflict to cooperation.  Schools that are integrated, bilingual, multicultural and part of the public school system can drive change.

At the individual level they build friendships and acceptance between students, their families and the teachers who work daily to build ties and inter-communal understanding.  Being part of the public school system catalyzes a process whereby local city officials come to see that mutual understanding and recognition contributes to the city’s welfare and this starts to impact and benefit the city in other ways as well.

This is what we have seen in the locations where Hand in Hand operates its Jewish-Arab schools.  As a parent and staff member at Hand in Hand, I have witnessed how Hand in Hand schools and communities not only create deep ties between those who join, but also impact their host cities and regions.  In cities like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv-Jaffa city officials consult with Hand in Hand about how to ease tensions in their school systems and acknowledge that the schools have helped ease tensions locally.  During the Israel-Gaza conflict of the summer of 2014, Hand in Hand’s community in Wadi Ara brought together thousands who spent the summer lining Route 65 with the message “Neighbors in Peace.”  This was to ensure that there would not be a repeat of the events of 2000 when violent protests shut down this major highway and caused significant damage to Jewish-Arab relations.  These are just a few examples of how shared schools and the communities which support them are proving that cooperative living is possible.

There is growing demand for such schools.  Over the past six years, new Jewish-Arab schools have opened in at least five new cities, three through Hand in Hand which has doubled in size and contends with long waiting lists and demand to open new schools.  All of this is driven by both Arabs and Jews fed up with conflict and who want to be part of changing that.  They believe in the possibility of shared society, and are willing to invest their most precious asset – their children – into making it so.

At the national level politicians are failing to bring about peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and only causing greater damage to Jewish-Arab relations within Israel through actions such as the Nation-State Law.  In contrast, at the local level joint Jewish-Arab schools and communities provide a constructive way for citizens and city officials to strengthen mutual understanding and cooperation on a daily basis.

Demand for such schools currently outstrips supply.  Imagine if thousands more children and adults developed the skills and expectations, practices and policies helping Jews and Arabs to live cooperatively – as neighbors in peace.

The status quo is giving way to a downward spiral.  That’s not good for anyone.  Those who care about Israel’s future should support shared schools.

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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