Noa and Asaf, pupils in a Tel Aviv middle school, clearly have a crush on each
other. But Noa is from a religious family, and when Asaf, who is secular,
invites her to a dance party on a Friday night, Noa finds herself torn between
Shabbat and social pressures.
It’s a touching if typical Israeli story –
that is, for Jewish Israelis. For the approximately 20 percent of Israeli
society which is Arab, it’s a story full of unfamiliar cultural references. This
year, for the first time, short films like this one will be part of the
curriculum in Arab schools in northern Israel, and will include an accompanying
curriculum taught by a native Hebrew speaker with a background in cinema
The groundbreaking program is being launched by the Abraham Fund
Initiatives, an organization dedicated to coexistence, equality and cooperation
among Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens. It’s a new extension of an existing
program called “Ya Salaam,” which brings Arabs into Jewish schools to teach
Though it would seem like a no-brainer, until that program was
launched in 2005, there were almost no Arabs teaching Arabic in Jewish schools,
and the curriculum focused on stilted, formal Arabic that bored students to
tears and left a precious few with the ability to have an actual
That program, now funded in conjunction with the Education
Ministry, will be in more than 200 schools this fall. But what its creators came
to realize is that there also needs to be more access in the other direction.
Not only are many Jewish Israelis strangers to Arab culture and therefore the
rest of the Middle East, save the usual stereotypes they pick up along the way,
but many Arab schoolchildren are totally cut off from the majority culture
around them in Israel. Whereas 20 years ago, Israeli Arab children would
generally watch a lot of television programs in Hebrew as well as Arabic, the
proliferation of satellite channels and the Internet means that the average
child or teenager might never turn to anything Israeli for entertainment or
information – and some are becoming more alienated as result.
“A kid from
Rahat or Nazareth today is exposed to culture from Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon,
Qatar, all of which ties him to the Arab world, and that’s natural. But as a
result, the kids have no exposure to Israeli culture. Kids hear the siren go off
on Remembrance Day and they have no idea why,” says Amnon Be’eri- Sulitzeanu,
the co-executive director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives. “They see Jews
lighting bonfires once a year and but they don’t know what it symbolizes and
they’ve never heard of Lag Ba’omer.” Their parents snap up boxes of matza in the
supermarket because it’s fun to eat, he adds, but there is very little knowledge
about the meaning of Passover.
The series of films, like the one
described above, was made by Tel Aviv students on issues that they find
interesting, in conjunction with the Children’s Channel. Each one deals with
some aspect of Israeli-Jewish culture, though some of the topics are clearly
cross-cultural. In one, for example, a middle-school girl becomes aware of being
slightly overweight when she can’t fit into a costume for the Purim performance,
and has to struggle to keep up her selfesteem and not engage in crash
The idea of bringing more Israeli culture to Arab pupils is a
potentially controversial one, the program’s founders admit. Some Israeli Arabs
say that their children are inundated with Hebrew culture and have poor Arabic.
Some Arabs who have been through the school system complain that they had to
read Israeli national poet Haim Nahman Bialik in high school, but not Mahmoud
Darwish, who was from the Galilee and is considered the greatest Palestinian
But this program, aimed at fifth- and sixthgraders, avoids politics
and focuses on cultural literacy. It is something that is desperately needed,
says Reda Jaber, a lawyer from the village of Taiba and a father of five. When
he took his children to a mall in Ra’anana recently, he noticed how big the gaps
are between Jews and Arabs, and how they essentially avoid each
“It’s not just about one side needing to learn more about the
other, that Jews need to be taught or that Arabs need to be taught,” says Jaber,
who works for the Abraham Fund as well as other organizations. “These both need
to be done much better than they were before, because until now, almost nothing
You need to add something meaningful to the idea of
coexistence,” he says.
“As a parent of small children, I see the greater
importance of the need to live together, and I want my kids to understand Jewish
culture in depth. This can change the negative picture that exists,” Jaber says.
“We’ve been told by people that until we were in one of your programs, we
thought of Arabs as not trustworthy, as violent.
On the Arab side, it’s
the same thing. Jews are seen as occupiers, as soldiers, and also as
Kids have absorbed all of these images from their surroundings.
Changing that can’t be achieved in a month or two, but if we can get them to
connect to something deeper, to see maybe some of the positive things, I think
we can see some change.”
Dr. Hani Mussa, who is the director of the
language department for the Education Ministry, says this program is different
because of the use of film rather than only books. Moreover, pupils from the 68
Arab schools involved in the program will have meetings throughout the year with
Jewish pupils in nearby communities.
“You can’t teach the language
without bringing the culture along with it,” Mussa says. “We’re going to bring
it in small servings, about once a month, especially towards holidays. There was
a specific gap and we’re trying to fill it.”