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Diagnostic tests for learning disabilities in Israeli Arab schoolchildren have always been translated from Hebrew, producing inaccurate results because of cultural differences. But now a $1.5 million US government grant has financed a project that has produced the test in three versions: for Jewish Israelis, Arabic-speaking Israelis and Palestinians. The cooperative project is being conducted by the University of Haifa and Al-Quds University.
"We always talk about grandiose ideas of peace, justice, love, and we never make any progress," said Prof. Zvia Breznitz, director of the University of Haifa's Center for Brain Research and Learning Disabilities and one of the leading researchers involved in the project. "But if a connection starts with a specific, professional project, at the end of the day friendships are established. In my opinion, this is the recipe for coexistence."
Previous texts translated into Arabic didn't take into account the Arab culture and value system, Breznitz said, and therefore yielded inaccurate results.
"If test results found learning disabilities in 16 percent of the Jewish students tested, they would find disabilities in 50% of the Arabs, because the wrong tools were being used to test the children," she said. "In the Arab sector, the definition of learning disabilities may include difficulties and behavior problems that are not necessarily learning disabilities."
The project began in 2001 when the Wye River People-To-People Exchange Program, sponsored by the US government, allocated funds for a joint Israeli-Palestinian project.
Breznitz proposed using the funds to develop a diagnostic test that would be administered in schools in the Israeli Jewish, Arab, Beduin and Druse sectors and in the Palestinian school system.
When a team of researchers from Al-Quds University in eastern Jerusalem joined the team from the University of Haifa to advance the project, one stipulation the researchers made was not to discuss politics. Sometimes during joint staff meetings, which were held in Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, a researcher from Al-Quds University would call to say he was delayed at an IDF checkpoint. But the project continued and the agreement not to discuss politics was upheld.
In 2004, however, the agreement was challenged. The Rockefeller Foundation sent all the researchers involved in the project to Bellagio, Italy, for two weeks of intensive work.
"When you are with the same people all day, at night after work, conversations digress to different subjects and eventually we began to discuss politics," Breznitz said. "During the first few days, the Palestinians attacked us and we defended ourselves, and the opposite. But after a few days we began to understand each other. By the end of the project we developed deep friendships based on appreciation and trust."
A by-product of the project was the establishment of a center for children at risk at Al-Quds University.
Breznitz is already looking for a donor for the next cooperative project.
"We developed this test as the first milestone and now we have to move forward and develop intervention and remediation programs for the children who are diagnosed with learning disabilities." she said. "We are looking for a donor who is truly interested in peace and is willing to support our project."