The deep separation between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel often results in a lack of understanding, and sometimes even tension, around cultural and lifestyle differences. This knowledge gap frequently manifests in racist attitudes and discrimination against Israel’s minorities. These attitudes have been widely accepted as a norm, and the lack of serious government efforts has left the situation unchecked. I was able to observe the results of this trend firsthand on December 5th, when I attended a hearing at the Knesset about tackling intolerance through education. Yakov Margi, a Member of Knesset from the Shas party and Chairman of the Education Committee, heard testimony about efforts to design a curriculum to educate students about prejudice, the goal being to combat racism from an early age. The Ministry said it plans to have teachers devote one class to issues relating to racism as part of the mandatory citizenship course taught in Israeli schools. The Members of Knesset present at the hearing from the Joint List of Arab Parties argued that the Ministry of Education is not doing enough to combat rising levels of racism among students. They believe issues surrounding racism should be taught as a separate curriculum, outside of the citizenship course.
Laurence Rosengart, Director of Education at the Abraham Fund (TAFI) gave testimony during the hearing about TAFI’s efforts to promote understanding, and described TAFI’s school encounter program. The program pairs an Arab school with a Jewish school in neighboring towns and the students participate in fun activities together several times per year. She argued that actual contact-based encounters between students, designed to supplement separated classroom learning, are crucial to mitigating racism and segregation in society.
Last week, I was able to observe one such encounter with sixth graders from the Arab town of Kfar Yasif and Jewish school from Kibbutz Kabri, neighboring towns located in the north of Israel. The students gathered at the elementary school in Kfar Yasif for their second meeting. The children in this particular encounter may see each other in local malls and grocery stores, but this activity provided them with an opportunity for meaningful interaction.
The encounter was facilitated in Hebrew and Arabic, and focused on activities in small groups. Two trained facilitators led each group, one from an Arab background and one from a Jewish background. Throughout the day, the students were interacting with one-another even outside of the planned activity. They sat with each other at snack-time, and played soccer together at break time. One girl from the Arab school asked for a translation of a Hebrew word during recess, illustrating the students’ concerted efforts to communicate. During the activity, each small group was presented with the scenario that they were to travel to the moon together, to create a new community, and had to decide collectively what to bring. Throughout the activity, similarities between the students came into focus for them. As one of the teachers from the Jewish school told me, the students were surprised they had so many traits in common; they wore the same clothes, liked the same music, and valued their family and friends.
These encounters also provide an opportunity to alleviate blanketed cultural assumptions. One of the Arab facilitators named Sonia, shared that in her experience, the Arab students were more excited for the encounters than the Jewish students were. Their culture values generosity, motivating them to present gifts and write a special song for the Jewish students. These are the types of realizations that can challenge stereotypes, both among students and among teachers.
One of the other Arab facilitators named Antiaz said she was surprised to see how enthusiastic the children were to meet each other. They look forward to the encounters, and are eager to see their new friends. Sonia thought that this could be explained by the children’s naïve and unadulterated way of looking at the world. They don’t have preconceived notions about each other at a young age, and don’t have the same stigma associated with the “other” as their parents do.
The younger generation should not have to mimic the biases of their parents. What if the Ministry of Education could not only educate about racism as an overall problem, but also challenge a new generation to think differently about their peers? If interactions between Jewish and Arab citizens begin at an early age, these children will have the opportunity learn from and interact with a group of diverse students throughout their adolescence and hopefully into adulthood. This hands-on approach ultimately teaches students to challenge the status quo. The encounters give coordinator Antiaz hope for a more equitable society for Arab citizens of Israel. She believes the only way to make change and reduce racism is through these young students. Israel is not a perfect country, but examples like these help to create optimism for the future.