School of hard knocks

Amid rocket fire from Gaza, the only mixed Arab-Jewish school in the Negev works to maintain its single, singular community.

Children at the Hadar school in Negev 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Children at the Hadar school in Negev 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It’s a Sunday morning at Beersheba’s Hagar School, and the second-grade children are actively engaged in a math lesson. They sit around small clusters of tables and work in pairs or seek out the help of the teacher for the task at hand.
While the class of around 25 pupils looks pretty much like any other of its kind countrywide, what sets this group of children apart and makes this school unique, especially in the South, is that half of the children are Arab residents of Beersheba and half are Jews, even though it’s almost impossible to tell who is who.
“We are not two communities, we are one community, and it’s called Hagar,” states Hagit Damri, executive director of the Arabic-Hebrew bilingual school, which started as a kindergarten in 2007 and opened its doors as an elementary school at the end of 2009.
The school, which currently extends through third grade only but will eventually expand to highschool level, has some 140 children enrolled in its framework, including a pre-school for children as young as one.
“The school is a part of the Hagar community, and most of the children who learn here have parents who are involved in our community, too,” explains Damri, who was among the institution’s founding parents. The school was set up by a nonprofit organization of the same name, made up of Jewish and Arab parents, teachers, community organizers and other concerned residents of Beersheba who hope to create successful relations and equal opportunities for Arabs and Jews in the Negev region.
Accredited by the Education Ministry, the school relies heavily on the parents’ participation and on donations from outside to fund many of its extracurricular activities.
“We have many people in the area involved in this community. Not all are parents – some are students – and we try to get together once a month for activities and picnics, we celebrate the holidays together, and it’s a very strong community,” says Damri.
Despite its distinct ideology and commitment to coexistence, Damri and her staff are not blind to the challenges of making a school of this kind work against the backdrop of ongoing rocket attacks in the region, suicide bombings throughout the country, threats of war and growing racism from both sides.
“We do not live in a bubble,” acknowledges Damri, who says she is familiar with a recent Macro Center for Political Economics poll on Israeli youth showing that interaction and trust between Arabs and Jews are at an all-time low. “We live in Israel, and there will always be different things happening that will create difficulties, but that is why it is so important for us to continue to create this space so that there can be dialogue – dialogue between parents and the teachers.”
She adds, “With the children, it is a little different. They are still young, and we want to protect them and teach them how to be empathetic to each other’s suffering, even if it is something that did not happen to themselves or their family. At Hagar, we teach them to respect others without losing their own story and identity.”
AS THIS story goes to print, the situation in cities and towns, including Beersheba, around the Hamascontrolled Gaza Strip continues to escalate. Over this past weekend, more than 120 rockets fired from Gaza rained down on the South, with a handful hitting Beersheba. This action follows similar rocket attacks two weeks ago – in which one fell directly in a neighborhood not far from Hagar’s kindergarten – and ongoing actions that send residents fleeing into bomb shelters and sealed rooms.
On Sunday, both the kindergarten and the elementary school – which are located on two different sites – were open for classes. Unlike solely Jewish schools, which are now closed for the Pessah holiday, Hagar has a slightly different school vacation calendar to accommodate Muslim and Christian festivals as well.
“We are open today because according to guidelines from the municipality and the [IDF] Home Front Command, schools with shelters or protected areas can carry on as usual,” explains Damri. “At the moment, it is not like Operation Cast Lead, where the school was closed for a month.”
During the last Gaza conflict in 2008-2009, tensions within the Hagar community grew to an all-time high as the children and parents were forced to stay home and could not get their frustrations out in the dialogue of which the school is so proud, according to a report the school filed to one of its US funders.
“In the months following Israel’s war with Gaza, the Arab and Jewish communities of the Negev have faced an escalation in violence and hatred, which threatened the delicate balance and achievements of those who wish to see a future of peace in Israel,” asserts the school, which was seeking additional funding to conduct workshops to help parents and staff come to terms with what had happened in Gaza.
The report continues: “In order to cope with the latest outbreak of violence, we must continue to promote coexistence by strengthening Hagar’s initiative. These are tense moments for the Hagar community, but we are confident that we will be able not only to deal with the tension but also eventually overcome it by educating a new generation of Jews and Arabs – a generation for whom violence is simply not an option.”
Two years on, this is exactly what the school and its community have done, says Lauren Joseph, Hagar’s director of development.
“We were a different community back then; we were still new in terms of our members, and it is important to remember that most of the parents did not grow up in this coexistence environment,” she explains, adding that today, thanks to workshops and other interactions, the parents have learned how to hold back and not blame each other for what is happening around them.
“They realize that in order for their children to grow up and have success in a framework such as Hagar they need to behave differently,” says Joseph. “Our community is in a completely different place now, and we are much stronger than we were back then.”
Damri says that the testament to this was the parents’ reaction two weeks ago, when all of Beersheba’s schools were closed and families across the city were forced to head for shelters at 5 a.m. after rockets fell in a residential neighborhood.
“Parents were sending each other texts and e-mails to check up on each other without our encouragement,” she describes. “One mother, an Arab woman, sent an e-mail urging her Jewish friends to talk about their feelings, and she created a dialogue for everyone who was stuck at home in shelters with their children.”
“What you must understand is that we are now part of a community,” says Damri. “I have both Jewish friends and Arab friends, and when a rocket falls, I have no idea who out of them might be hurt – a rocket does not decide who it falls on – and then I have to send out messages to all my friends to make sure they are okay.”
KEEPING THE adults focused on Hagar’s goals might be the key to the school’s and the NGO’s success, but what about dealing with the fears and anxieties of Arab and Israeli children who have just spent the night in a bomb shelter or sealed room?
“When they came back to school, we got the children to talk about how they were feeling,” says Hagar’s Jewish first-grade teacher Ma’ayan Elimelech. “We did not try to hide any of the facts, and we explained to them that there are always bad people on both sides and that bad people are bad people.”
Amarat Zbedat, the school’s Arab first-grade teacher, adds that “all the children were scared, but we told them that we were a good example of how people who are different can be friends.”
Damri says that her own child, who is in first grade, asked what was happening and understands that there is a conflict.
“However, we have taught him that a conflict is about exchanging views,” she says. “He knows how important it is to hear what the other side has to say, and that the solution should be found with words and not with war.”
She continues: “We have 95 families in the school and 96 opinions; not all Jews agree with each other, and not all Arabs agree with each other. There are arguments here all the time, but as a community we have learned not to ignite the situation, and as parents we all realize that the our main goal is education and not politics.”
According to Damri, “all the parents, Jewish or Arab, want a school that will provide a good education for our children and we are trying to do this together, so overall it is not very complicated for us.”
She adds, “The conflict around us and the violence only strengthen why this school is so important. A child who is brought up in Hagar is not just a slogan of coexistence, it is real friendship, and I hope that we are giving the children the tools they need to deal with all people who are different and hold different beliefs from them. Our generation failed to find a solution because we did not have the chance, like these children, to meet each other, but maybe their generation will succeed.”