Lessons in tolerance

Bilingual school in Jerusalem works towards coexistence between Jews and Arabs.

max rayne school521 (photo credit: Kobe Gideon/ Flash90)
max rayne school521
(photo credit: Kobe Gideon/ Flash90)
Samira Halaq, a pretty girl with long, dark brown hair, sounds like any enthusiastic Israeli fourth-grader who loves her school.
“I have good friends who know how to help one another and don’t get into arguments all the time,” she says in fluent Hebrew. “We’re all human beings.”
Halaq’s native language is not Hebrew, but Arabic. She learns both languages at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Jerusalem school, also known as the bilingual school.
Founded in 1998, it began with just 20 students in a makeshift classroom and has grown to 530 students today. The school graduated its first high school class of seniors in 2011.
Students here, both Arabs and Jews, seem excited about their school and the opportunity to learn to speak both Arabic and Hebrew fluently.
“I like the idea of Jews and Arabs being together and it is very interesting to learn the language and play with all the children too,” says Halaq’s friend Ro’ee Khodir, who is a native Hebrew speaker.
The two girls speak after a class in which two of their teachers, one Arab and the other Jewish, take turns posing questions in their respective languages. The pupils answer in the language of their choice. The lively fourth graders readily reply in either language without any hesitation or difficulty.
They raise their hands Israeli style with their index fingers pointing upward as they vie for a chance to prove that they know the correct answers.
“Why is it called Shekhem Gate?” one of the teachers asks in Hebrew, referring to the busiest of the Old City’s seven gates that are open to the public. It is known in English as Damascus Gate and as Bab el-Amood in Arabic, which means the gate of the pillar.
“Because if you come out that way and keep going straight, you’ll get to Shekhem,” one of the Jewish pupils says in Hebrew,” referring to the northern West Bank city known as Nablus in Arabic. “And it’s called Damascus Gate in English because it also puts you on the way to Damascus.”
One of the most remarkable aspects of the bilingual school is that although the pupils belong to two different ethnic communities, it is impossible to distinguish between them either by language or appearance.
“They are familiar with another culture and a different lifestyle and that is a great attribute,” Paz Cohen, the head of the Parents Association, says.
There are five bilingual schools in Israel.
The sponsors, who belong to an idealistic international organization known as Hand in Hand, expect that there will be 20 bilingual schools in the country by the year 2022. In addition to the funding the existing network receives from the Ministry of Education, which also supervises it, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) also allocates a substantial sum. Most Hand in Hand supporters live in Europe and North America. The large modern school building was funded mainly by Jewish philanthropists from England, Switzerland and Austria.
The bilingual school was built between the Arab village of Beit Safafa and Katamon, which was abandoned by its prewar Arab population and subsequently became a Jewish neighborhood.
Like the student body, the faculty is composed of Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, as well as Palestinians from East Jerusalem.
Announcements are posted on the bulletin boards in both languages.
[bold] Against the stream In many ways, the philosophy of the bilingual school contradicts Israel’s educational principles. There have always been separate schools for Jewish and Arab citizens of the state, who study primarily in their native language. Arab students do learn Hebrew, and take the same matriculation exams as Jewish students, which are needed to enter university. Jewish students are supposed to have at least one year of Arabic.
At the bilingual school, the idea is for both Jewish and Arab students to study both languages simultaneously. Each class has two teachers – one who speaks to the children only in Hebrew, and one only in Arabic.
“We hope that our educational principles will be adopted by the state as a whole,” says Nadia Kilani, the principal, an Israeli Arab. “Our goal is to foster equality and cooperation.”
Yaffa Shira Grossberg, a Jewish second grade teacher who has been at the school for ten years, says that children who start in the preschool have no fears or misconceptions about the other side. Older children, she says, who start in elementary school can come with some suspicions, but quickly overcome them. She says politics and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot, and should not, be avoided.
“Politics definitely come into the school but in a way that is respectful and conducive to dialogue,” she says. “We don’t want to sweep it under the rug.”
Arik Saporta, who is responsible for the three secondary school classes at the bilingual school believes that he and his colleagues are nurturing “a new generation of future leaders.” He takes pride in the fact that there is no violence in the student body, despite Arab-Jewish tensions in the broader society.
Those tensions cannot always be kept outside the school. In February, unknown vandals defaced a soccer field next to the school with nationalist slogans such as “Arabs Out!” It was after a soccer game played by Beitar Jerusalem, and in the past fans have yelled anti-Arab slogans during games. It is not clear if the slogans were aimed at the school.
In any case, dozens of families of students and teachers responded with a rally against racism, in which they painted slogans of tolerance and coexistence on a large canvas.
“We are here to show and demonstrate our strength and our children’s strength,” says Shuli Dichter, the executive director of the Center for Jewish-Arab Coexistence in Israel, which helps run the school. “The answer to racism is more equality and partnership between citizens in more places in Israel.”
Other critics, like Bibi Hershkowitz, a member of Jerusalem’s Municipal Council from Yisrael Beiteinu, contend that the bilingual school blurs ethnic identity rather than helping Jews and Arabs learn to live together.
“Our national objective is the coexistence of Jewish and Arab citizens as equals in a democratic state,” he says. The respective ethnic and religious communities must maintain their identity and not lose it due to the cultural merger that results from the bilingual program.”
Some Orthodox Jews also fear that the bilingual school could increase the possibility of intermarriage between Jewish and Arab graduates.
All five of the existing bilingual schools attract more Arab students than Jewish ones. This could be because the schools have high academic standards, and students achieve relatively high grades on the compulsory matriculation exams, making it more likely for these students to attend university.
Unlike the Jewish students, most of whom live in nearby neighborhoods, the Arab students come from communities that are much further away and must commute to and from the school.
At the personal level, the scene at the bilingual school is quite intriguing. The Jewish and Arab pupils are virtually indistinguishable in appearance and behavior.
They mingle freely, alternate between Hebrew and Arabic and joke about the fact that they dress and look alike.
Grossberg says that she and her fellow teachers know that Israeli society tends to reinforce prejudices rather than try to overcome them. The school, she says, is a small step toward coexistence.
“I am 100 percent sure I’ve made a difference in my own life and in the lives of the children who have been in my class,” she says. “Little by little, we’re making a difference.”