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When Jewish schools have Arab teachers

A proven way to educate towards tolerance of "the other" is to hire "the other" as educators

Attacks against Arabs in public spaces have become increasingly common lately. They hold up a mirror to Israeli society that reflects a very worrisome image. The increase in hate crimes is testament to the strength of violence, xenophobia and an increasing legitimization of harming Arabs.

Violent discourse focused on hatred of “the other” has become commonplace in recent years and it is infiltrating into multiple spheres right before our eyes – on talkbacks on news sites, in the streets, at sporting events and even in statements by elected officials.

The latest attacks are a dangerous expression of this litigious discourse and perhaps are even more so an expression of the continuing silence of the State’s leaders and what is considered by many to be insufficient law enforcement. The responsibility placed upon us as a society cannot be fulfilled unless we approach the root of the issue: education.

Two teachers from the “Alumim” Middle School in Ramat Hasharon, who came to Jerusalem to pay their condolences to their school principal, were attacked near the “Mercaz Harav” Yeshiva. The attack itself is unfortunately similar to other incidents- it included physical and verbal abuse including very obscene harsh curses, stone throwing, which until the windshield of the car in which the teachers sat was shattered and puncturing its tires. This all occurred after the attackers noticed the head covering of Souhad – an Arab, Muslim teacher who teaches with her Jewish colleague at the middle school.

My attention was drawn to a report on the Israeli news site Ynet about the support shown for the attacked teachers on the part of the school and its students. Teachers discussed the incident with their students and at the entrance to the school a huge bulletin board was put up displaying dozens of messages of support from students: “to Souhad, we condemn racist behavior…hope you are being strong. Please know that everyone here respects and appreciates you”; “you are an amazing and supportive teacher, you are no different from us.” Other messages praised the Jewish teacher, Revital, for the way she defended her friend, which is not to be taken for granted.

While the 1953 state education law canceled the control of the many political sects that had been running various curricula and school systems until then, it left in their place separate education systems for different social sectors: public, public-religious, public- Arab and private Haredi education. This reality is a central cause of the lack of familiarity and the increasing disconnect among society’s different elements, and it creates fertile ground for stereotypical views. The schism among Jewish and Arab citizens is particularly conspicuous. Their first meaningful interaction often takes place at university or work, if ever.

Unfortunately, despite the many years that have gone by since the passing of the law, and despite significant recommendations made by various professional committees, the state has had extremely limited success in bridging these separate sectors and advancing a shared society. There are no programs at the state level for encounters between Jewish and Arab students (and teachers) and in the various Jewish education systems, Arab heritage, history and culture is barely taught. Even Arabic language studies, required by law for grades seven to ten, only take place in some schools and usually only for two to three years.

Seven years ago, the “Ya Salam” educational program began to provide Arabic language and culture lessons to fifth and sixth graders in Jewish schools. The program, developed by The Abraham Fund Initiatives, is implemented today by the Ministry of Education in approximately 200 schools across Israel (in Haifa and the Northern District it is mandatory). As part of this program, about 100 Arab teachers have been integrated into the teaching staff of Jewish schools. The professional success of these teachers has led to the assignment of additional Arab teachers to middle and high schools as well.

Principals and teachers maintain that personal acquaintance with an Arab teacher and her or his culture, language and daily life, leads to a real change in student attitudes toward Arabs. A comprehensive evaluation of the “Ya Salam” program, conducted by the Henrietta Szold Institute over the past three years, shows that 95 percent of the Arab teachers feel that the Jewish schools’ staff and students accept them, and 92 percent of principals recommend the inclusion of this program in the mandatory State curriculum.

The response of the students and teachers at Alumim Middle School, where Souhad teaches, represents a glimmer of hope in this saga. They signify the benefit of education for a shared society and integrating teachers into different sectors. This was beautifully expressed by an educator from the school who was interviewed and said: “We educate at this school for tolerance and preach against racism. Today we reaped the fruits of this effort.”

This article originally appeared on www.nrg.co.il in Hebrew and on www.alarab.net in Arabic

About the Author
Dadi Komem is the director of Education for Coexistence at The Abraham Fund Initiatives, a non-profit organization that works to promote equality and integration among Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens