Jewish teachers enter Arab classrooms in bid to break down barriers

For the second year running, Givat Haviva program seeks to up the level of Hebrew-speaking among Arab students with the aim of helping them integrate fully into Israeli society.

Arab students learning Hebrew (photo credit: COURTESY GIVAT HAVIVA)
Arab students learning Hebrew
Most Arab students in Israel can go through 12 years of school without meeting a Jew, according to Yaniv Sagee, CEO of an Arab-Israeli education program called "Yehiye Beseder," Hebrew for “It will be OK." The program has Jewish teachers giving Hebrew lessons to students in Arab schools and is the fruit of a collaboration between the Education Ministry and the Givat Haviva Non Profit Organization, which is dedicated to promoting civic equality and cooperation between divided groups in Israel.
The program began its second year this month, expanding to 23 schools, on the heels of last year’s success. It is based on the model of an eight-year-old online program called ‘Ya Salam’ which has Arab teachers teaching spoken Arabic to Jewish children. "The aim of Yehiye Beseder is to teach Arab children to discuss issues pertaining to jobs, higher education and society," states Eleh Velestra, the pedagogical director of Yihyeh Beseder, who also manages Ya Salam and who developed the educational software.
CEO of Givat Haviva, Yaniv Sagee, explains that the program was developed in response to two major obstacles faced by young Arab Israelis: "Difficulties in going into higher education in Israel and into the workforce in Israel, or into any kind of Jewish-owned firm of business." Sagee says that a major aspect of this is a lack of good Hebrew in the Arab sector, which is a major reason why most of the students end up taking on higher education in the West Bank, Jordan or Eastern Europe. Only 40 percent of Arab Israelis who go into higher education do so in Israel, he notes, saying that this in turn causes problems of integration into Israeli society when they return.
This subsequently leads to economic challenges, and he says this all stems from the Hebrew education they receive in school, which is mostly Israeli or Jewish literature, or Bible rather than spoken day-to-day Hebrew. On a more basic level, Velstra says that often young Arabs aren’t equipped with conversational skills at the shopping mall or with the necessary comprehension skills to understand Israeli TV. “We try to bring Israeli culture to them,” in the framework of the program, she tells The Jerusalem Post.
Moreover, having Jewish teachers come into all-Arab schools gives extra meaning to the program as it provides Arab students with a continuous relationship with a Jew.  The interaction can initially be daunting to both teachers and students alike, but the program has proven that fears are quickly allayed. “Before I started working on this program I had never been to Umm al-Fahm because I had all sorts of stigmas and beliefs and I didn’t think it was safe to go there,” recounts Yifat Ben-Dror, from Hadera, who is the only Jew in the school she teaches at in the Arab city, as are all the teachers involved in the program.
Ben-Dror comes from a background of Education and Music and started dabbling in co-existence -- or shared society, as Givat Haviva calls it -- work through music and theater. "It charmed me, and I felt I connected to the whole idea in the context of what is happening in our country, and all the extremism and negative events we see here, incitement by our leaders and alienation," she tells The Jerusalem Post.
She explains that this encouraged her to teach children who are “different to her.” No matter what religion one is, we live here together and we can live here together, Ben-Dror asserts, adding that she jumped at the opportunity to teach in the Arab sector.
She says her students were curious, and quickly accepted her after initial suspicions quickly disappeared. There were other challenges too - some children didn't know any Hebrew at all and Ben-Dror's Arabic knowledge was weak, though she is learning the language slowly and learned how to break these barriers. "Language can be a barrier but also a bridge," she notes. "It's interesting to be the minority - to be the other," says the teachers, who is currently undertaking an MA degree in anthropology.
Ben-Dror grew up in Michmoret, which is not far away from the Arab village but she acknowledges that residents there "don’t know the Arab community at all." She opines that it is important that Jewish teachers teach Hebrew in the Arab community and vice versa.
“Personally, I think that everyone who lives here in israel should know Hebrew, English and Arabic at a high level - it’s not just one way,” she elaborates. “Jews should learn Arabic but we have a mental barrier to learn the language because we have negative connotations, but if you teach a kid from a young age you can fix this and build a more tolerant society.”
In Ben-Dror's opinion, the Israeli government should have a budget for the issue of coexistence, to strengthen relations between Arabs and Jews in the country. "Just like kids learn History, there should also be classes on Shared Society," she states. "It’s important for us to learn their narrative and them to learn ours. There's no other way."
Sabreen Msarwi is someone who has worked to actualize part of this vision, having taught Arabic in the Jewish sector for the past ten years. Msarwi is also the pedagogical director of the Yihiye Beseder program, helping the Jewish teachers in giving language lessons  to the “other.”
Msarwi, a Taybe resident, says this work is her vocation. "To put 20 [Jewish] teachers into the Arab sector, in my eyes it's a calling." She echoes Sagee's remarks that normal Hebrew classes focus on reading, not placing enough emphasis on speaking and thus hold back Arabs in academia and work. She says the emphasis on spoken Hebrew enables Arabs to be: "citizens who can influence, impact and be involved. As soon as you know the language you can express yourself better  and be active, you can feel like you're a part of what is happening, you can change points of view and people can hear you."
She recounts a moving moment during the last school year, when an Arab student brought his Hebrew teacher an etrog (yellow citron) on the Jewish holiday Sukkot. "He understands Jewish celebrations - for me this is important," she comments, saying that it shows a level of comfort which isn't usually there.
The benefits of her work as an Arabic teacher stretch further than the classroom. "In the years, when you meet parents, planning lessons and special events and holidays- I'm stepping closer to the other and the other is coming closer to me via language."