Last week, I had an exciting day observing one of The Abraham Initiatives’ education programs in action, as well as meeting one of Israel’s most famous actors.
The Abraham Initiatives has many projects devoted to advancing equality and cooperation among Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens, including several projects that fall under the ‘Education for a Shared Society’ Initiative, an initiative aimed at counter balancing the separation of Jews and Arabs in Israeli schools. Arab and Jewish youth attend separate schools and live divided lives in which there is minimal exposure to each others’ culture, language, or historic narratives. The divisive and distrustful relations between Jews and Arabs are exacerbated as a result of these linguistic and cultural barriers. As a result, the Jewish and Arab youth of Israel understand one another through the context of conflict and hostility.
I attended the ‘Living in One Land’ project, a program designed to combat the worrying deterioration in tolerance and values of democracy held by Jewish youth. Studies have found that Jewish youth have become more nationalistic, but at the same time Arab youth have become more engaged in attaining equal status; with both groups reporting a high level of concern for Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. In fact, recent research shows a deterioration of Jewish-Arab relations in the past few years, with Jews being less willing to allow their children to study with Arab children, or to live next to an Arab neighbor. To address these concerns, the Abraham Initiatives operates courses for 10-11th grade students at Jewish high schools across Israel. This project uses a variety of methods to bridge the gap by teaching Jewish students about Arab society.
The day of my visit, the project was at a Jewish high school in Jerusalem. On this day, a guest speaker was invited to speak to the students. This guest speaker just so happened to be the star of one of Israel’s hit TV shows. I remember wondering if the students would walk in with any negative attitudes towards him, based on the sole fact that he was Arab. I was relieved however, to see that the students were entering the room with excitement bursting through their pores. They hurried to greet him and take as many selfies as they could before the teacher instructed them to sit down.
Before the actor began his presentation, Angham, the project’s coordinator, greeted the group with a traditional greeting in Arabic- Marhaba, keef halkum? (Hello, how are you). The group was visibly happy to see her again.
This was the second ‘Living in One Land’ session for the students. Prior to this, the students had their first session of the course with Angham and Yaacub, an employee of the Abraham Initiatives, working in the Education department. . Both Arab citizens of Israel, the two led this first session by speaking about themselves, and their experiences of being an Arab citizen of Israel. They discussed challenges, misconceptions, stereotypes, and answered questions that the students had about Arabs. I once observed one of these sessions, at a Mechina (pre-army academy), and it was clear that Angham and Yaacub knew how to connect with the teenagers despite the sensitive subject.
The actor began his presentation by prefacing that he wanted this time to be used as an open discussion, not a one-sided talk. This seemed to empower the students, giving them the sense that they were equals in this session- not just audience members. He then told his story, the story of an Arab Israeli who found success in Israel. Challenges within the education system, cultural differences, and language barriers, all were themes in his life story. He didn’t mention politics or controversy, didn’t accuse Israel of state led discriminatory legislation or racist rhetoric, and the topics of the West Bank and Gaza were not brought up. By simply telling his story, he was able to build a personal connection with the students, and without bringing up a controversial topic that would surely bring tension, the room remained a safe space. This is supported by research showing that it is unproductive to attempt to create change through a confrontational conversation. According to Alana Conner, the executive director of Stanford University’s Social Psychological Answers to Real World Questions Center, when people feel their narrative is threatened, they close themselves from listening and cannot change their attitudes.
The class’s coordinator agreed, telling me that she thought that the session reached the most desired impact by remaining personal and positive.
“They learn everything about tolerance from the books, on paper, but when it comes to real life, do they know it? They know not to say things that don’t sound politically correct, but that doesn’t mean they don’t think it,” she said.
She expressed that the students are rarely in an environment where they would have conversations with Arabs. This supports interesting findings that state that a majority of Jewish citizens of Israel take measures to avoid entering Arab localities (Hermann, 2017).
“Meeting someone who breaks stereotypes and shows them, ‘hey- I’m an Arab, and I’m cool and interesting’ is more powerful than anything they could read on paper,” she said.
And the students agreed. I spoke with a few students after the lecture to gain some insight into how they perceived the lecture, as well as the entirety of the project. They told me that throughout the duration of their cultural awareness learning, it’s clear that some of the students are just not engaged. However, they felt that this lecture was different; it was a celebrity speaking, so everyone listened.
The Abraham Initiatives’, ‘Living in One Land’ project is only one part of the school’s large scale effort to implement cultural awareness to high school students. In Israel, 10th and11th grade students are required to take civics classes, studying Israeli law and democracy. As an extension of this program, this school has chosen to attempt to expose students to members of different communities in Israel. Arab society is one part, but they also devote time to learning about LGBTQ, olim chadashim, Haredim, and Ethiopian society.
The school’s coordinator told me that she hopes the takeaway from this project will be for students to have a deeper sense of appreciation for other cultures and realize that Israeli society is not homogeneous.
“The differences are there,” she said. “You can block your eyes as much as you want, but they are still there. Maybe they will hear someone saying racist things, and now they will be able to say ‘no, no, I met someone and they are not at all like you say’, that is what I hope”.
To hear dedication and enthusiasm about this program from this school coordinator, left me hopeful for the future. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, the power and influence of school staff on future generations cannot be understated. There is no doubt in my mind, this program and this teacher, have made an impact on these children. Hearing about programs like these and meeting supportive staff, like this coordinator, reinforce the themes that encompass my entire social-change fellowship in Israel. Working in different capacities with Arab, Ethiopian, and Eritrean communities, I am reminded of the need for more cultural awareness and acceptance every day.