Arab schools get a cinematic taste of Jewish culture

Short films will be part of the curriculum in Arab schools in northern Israel.

‘Ya Salaam’ program (photo credit: Courtesy Abraham Fund)
‘Ya Salaam’ program
(photo credit: Courtesy Abraham Fund)
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 studies.
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 Arabic.
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 conversation.
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 dieting.
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 poet.
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 other.
“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 was done.
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 violent.
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.”