Colleges and universities can be great equalizing venues. In Israel, the campus is often the place where Jews and Arabs interact for the first time. Of all Israel’s institutions of higher education, perhaps the most important are those that train teachers, for its graduates will directly influence the current and next generations.
“Education is the main force to meet the challenge of hearts and minds in ages three to 18,” Professor Tamar Ariav, president of Beit Berl College, told me when we recently met. “We want to be the force to enhance education in Israel.” Founded in 1940, Beit Berl today prepares 20% of the teachers in the country’s secular Jewish and Arab schools.
The campus population mirrors what President Reuven Rivlin has called Israel’s “four tribes,” though Beit Berl’s students and faculty reflected that demographic reality before Rivlin coined the term in his 2015 address to the Herzliya Conference. Today’s undergraduate student population is 72% Jewish and 27% Arab, with another 1% Orthodox Jews. Faculty members are 75% Jewish and 25% Arab.
“From its beginning Beit Berl has been multicultural and diverse,” says Ariav, who first came to the college, situated near Kfar Saba, 30 years ago as a lecturer, and was appointed president in 2008. Beit Berl’s “institutional DNA embraces diversity,” she says.
Beit Berl’s faculty and administrators are constantly seeking innovative ways to provide aspiring teachers with the knowledge and tools to enable their own students to succeed in their own education and careers and contribute to Israel’s continuing growth.
In this endeavor, special attention is paid to the “tribes” that are lagging in socio-economic terms. “Close ties between education and the economy requires investing in each to build human capital that is crucial to move Israel’s economy forward,” says Ariav.
With demographers projecting the haredi population to increase from 11% to a third of the population by 2065, Beit Berl has prioritized beefing up that community’s education. Today, the Jewish religious school curriculum “focuses almost exclusively on religious education. They don’t know basic math, English, science, geography, computer skills,” says Ariav.
Since Beit Berl launched its Center for Haredi Educators four years ago, nearly 300 haredi men and women have completed their undergraduate studies and are now teaching disciplines essential for future employment and integration in the workforce.
Building relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel is another integral part of the four-year Bachelor of Education program at Beit Berl. “Since becoming president of Beit Berl, shared society became key to my strategy,” Ariav told me.
There are several organizations and institutions that seek to deepen understanding between Arabs and Jews, expand their knowledge of each other, and develop the mutual respect necessary for a cohesive democratic society. But the Beit Berl approach is different because it focuses on teachers.
“Students don’t know the history of each other. We have to expand their knowledge about each other, to lessen the mutual fear,” says Ilana Paul-Benyamin, who teaches sociology of Israeli society and is co-director of the Center for Advancement of Shared Society at Beit Berl. “The Center is a vehicle to lead social change to strengthen democracy.”
For the Beit Berl students, this kind of coursework is new, as most of them likely did not encounter the other in meaningful ways during their pre-college school years. Including shared-society courses in the required curriculum and working together on projects equip students with the expertise to teach about shared society in classrooms in their own communities.
“Our graduates are the teachers of the future. We want them to lead shared-society efforts to improve Jewish-Arab relations,” says Wurud Jayusi, the Center’s co-director. “We are sharing this land together. Let’s have our lives together,” she says. “Even if we don’t agree, we can listen, learn our respective history, narrative.”
Another Beit Berl project, called Time Tunnel, involves collecting the histories of Jewish and Arab communities in Israel through interviews with family members and neighbors, and gathering photos and other artifacts.
“The main goal is to open eyes to the other,” says Guy Barak, who first came to the project five years ago as a student at Beit Berl and now, as a faculty member, is overseeing interviews with older people in Taybe and Kfar Saba.
By building a database of individuals, families and communities representative of Israel’s diverse citizenry, “we can develop a better understanding of the overlaps and junctions in relations going back many decades,” says Boaz Lev Tov, head of the History Department at Beit Berl and co-director of the Time Tunnel project. “Many times, there were connections between Jews and Palestinians, relations in everyday life, during the Ottoman and Mandate periods."
“It is important to have our history documented,” says Ruba Watad, who lives in Jatt and just completed her first year at Beit Berl. “Our history as Arabs is not well documented. We lack photos,” says Watad, who began her research for Time Tunnel by interviewing her mother, creating an oral journal of her family’s history that included accounts of interactions within Jatt and with neighboring communities.
“Your own history is legitimate. This is an important Beit Berl message,” says Lev Tov.The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.
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