Child’s play, by the golden rule

How a bilingual Arab-Jewish school in Beersheba stands the southern heat

311_hagar school (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_hagar school
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Debbie Troen-Mathias’s youngest daughter, Shakked, was in kindergarten when the Gaza war began at the end of 2008. “When the rockets were coming in,” she recalls, “Shakked really wanted to be at kindergarten because she feels safe there.”
Troen-Mathias seems well-prepared when it comes to explaining the political situation to her children, all three of whom attend Hagar, the only bilingual Arab-Jewish school in the Negev region. During the war, Shakked, impressively inquisitive for her young age, says Troen-Mathias, “did know that the war was with the Palestinians, and we openly explained it to her to make sure she understood that it’s not black and white, and that war is painful on both sides.”
Shakked clearly understood the message when she said to her mother, “You know, when there’s a siren, I say ‘Shema Yisrael,’ and for the Muslims, Muhammad calls them and they take off their shoes and they bow.”
Troen-Mathias believes in the type of education that allows for knowledge of, and respect for, the other’s practices, even – and perhaps especially – during times of war. She says of Hagar’s teaching practices, “I don’t think it threatens her individuality and beliefs; she knows who she is.
“We are a traditional family, when I put them to sleep, we say Shema Yisrael. We come from a pluralistic home, and we keep kosher in the house.”
Above all, Troen-Mathias says, she wants her children to “feel comfortable with the people who believe differently than them and who look different than them, and not to believe everything that’s said to them.”
THE FOUNDING of Hagar was set in motion by a group of Jewish and Arab parents, academics, teachers, community organizers and others who decided that the status quo of public education in the Negev was insufficient in a large number of ways.
Catherine Rottenberg, a lecturer of literature and gender studies at Ben-Gurion University, is one of the founding parents of Hagar and sits on the pedagogic committee. She says Hagar fulfills a need for a platform where not only children, but also parents come together in an effort to pacify many of the fears associated with quality education through bilingualism and mutual acceptance of one another’s cultures, religions and historical narratives.
Another prime motivating factor for Rottenberg’s involvement is the existing inequality of education offered to Jewish versus Arab schools.
“In comparison to their Jewish counterparts,” she says, “Arab schools receive half the per-capita budget. It is therefore not very surprising that Arab students have the highest dropout rates and lowest achievement levels in the country.”
Sarab Abu-Rabia-Queder, a lecturer at Ben-Gurion University, has two children at Hagar, Mohammad in first grade and Yazan in pre-kindergarten. She also sits on the pedagogic committee. Sending her children to Hagar was a decision motivated less by the ideology of coexistence and multiculturalism, and more by the level of education and the opportunity for her children to learn about where they’re from and the traditions of their background.
“There are more than 8,000 Arab families in Beersheba,” she says, “and there is not one quality education system in the Negev that serves the Arab population.”
Abu-Rabia-Queder believes that Arab language and identity are crucial aspects of her children’s education.
“At home,” she says, “I want to emphasize our own narrative, our own culture. What is theirs is theirs and ours is ours, and my children have to know the difference. The language at home is Arabic. Some Arab families speak Hebrew at home.”
AS WITH Abu-Rabia-Queder, the fact that Arabic is taught alongside Hebrew at Hagar is one of the central reasons why many Arab parents send their children there. Such exposure to their native language, they believe, will help them to create an identity separate from – yet equal to – the one according to the widely-maintained Jewish narrative.
Sending an Arab child to a Jewish school is a move that has some obvious drawbacks, says Abu-Rabia- Queder. Such a situation, she explains, “means that Arab children study in a different language, culture and religion than their own. They are not exposed to their own culture.”
Having studied in a Jewish high school, she speaks from her own difficult experience. “Arab students in Jewish schools suffer not only from marginalization but from discrimination and the feeling of being a stranger.” Refusing to take the risk of putting her children in an environment “saturated with alienation and prejudice,” she chose Hagar.
The biblical story of Hagar exposes the deep historical relationship between the different populations in Israel, and uncovers the different ways that land and memory can be simultaneously contested as well as shared.
Hagar, the biblical figure who appears both in the Bible and in Islamic texts (as Hajar), is an Egyptian maid who initially served Sarah and later became Abraham’s wife and mother of his first child. Subsequently, she was expelled with her young son Ishmael to Beersheba.
“During her life,” explains Rottenberg, “Hagar crossed several cultural and geographical boundaries. Hagar’s story calls upon us to adopt a critical point of view toward conflicting relations and practices in our society. The same desert region which she passed through thousands of years ago currently accommodates Jews and Arabs, who often find themselves in similar positions of marginality and strife.”
The kinship relations between Hagar, Abraham, Sarah, Ishmael and Isaac, Rottenberg remarks, “all invoke the inevitably close if often fraught relations between Muslims and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs and Hebrews. Hagar’s story thus continues to be timely.”
What the majority of Israel’s population on both sides may call blind ideology in the face of past and present conflicts, the parents and teachers at Hagar call rational thinking. Indeed, for members of the school’s community, it is not only important to “create a community of co-existence through multicultural education,” as Hagar’s director of development Lauren Joseph puts it, but, in fact, “you can’t have one without the other.”
For these reasons, and the conclusion that, according to Rottenberg,“such inequality in education does not bode well for the future of the Jewish-Arab relationship,” several individuals in Beersheba took matters into their own hands when, in 2006, they opened Hagar, a bilingual kindergarten school whose focus is, as Joseph explains, “not only the creation of equality in the quality of education between Jews and Arabs, but also the creation of equality for Jews and Arabs living specifically in the Negev.”
And what began three years ago as two classrooms – one kindergarten and one pre-kindergarten with approximately 25 children in each grade – has turned into a fully recognized institution, supported by the Ministry of Education, the Beersheba Municipality, the Hand-in-Hand Association and outside donors who help fund additional attributes of Hagar unseen at any other Israeli school.
NOW HOUSED in two separate buildings in Beersheba, Hagar currently has an enrollment of 72 students and 11 teachers. Next year, with the opening of a second- and third-grade class, as well as two nursery school groups, the total number of children enrolled will reach about 150. The class sizes and teacher-to-student ratio are motivating factors for many parents.
“We have small classes,” says Joseph, “and two teachers per class – a Jewish teacher and an Arab teacher, and then an additional teacher’s aide. It’s important that the children learn two languages, and that they learn not only through direct learning of one another’s language, but through acquisition.”
The teachers speak in their native languages, rarely translating one another and instead teaching different lessons in each language.
Unlike in the regular school system, where classrooms hold up to 35 or 40 children and one teacher, Hagar limits its classes to no more than 30.
The walls of the classrooms are adorned with the typical alphabet letters and pictures of people in different professions, such as doctors, police officers, athletes and so on. But because one of Hagar’s missions is to challenge the norms of gender taught in regular schools and the larger society, many of the pictures feature women in these roles. All of the words on the bulletin boards around the room are written in both Arabic and Hebrew, side by side.
First-graders sit in clusters of tables facing one another and kindergarteners generally learn in a circle formation, as opposed to the frontal-style teaching found in most other public schools.
Insaf Shart, whose four- and five-year-old children attend Hagar, was motivated by such a progressive structure of education.
“There are no other educational frameworks in Beersheba that are like this. And it was very important for me that the kids will also study in their native language and that they will get an education in Arabic.”
Shart, who grew up in an unrecognized Beduin settlement, points also to the Hagar community, where “every child is a child for himself. So they have Jewish friends who come to visit, and I have very good relationships with the Jewish parents. Through Hagar, the parents get to meet, not only inside the institution but outside as well.”
All of this is certainly not to say that there aren’t challenges to overcome when teaching two languages, nationalities, cultures and often contradicting versions of history to children who will grow up in the larger society outside Hagar – in an education system where cross-cultural learning between Arabs and Jews is not generally the status quo and national narratives clash, sometimes violently.
Olga Kuminova, whose two sons, Israel and Alexander, are in kindergarten and first grade, also knows that “Jewish parents are very hesitant [about sending their children to Hagar]. Most of them are determined that this is not an option for them.”
As in so many other areas of Israeli society, fear of the other dominates the feasibility of cross-cultural relations.
What undoubtedly concerns both Jewish and Arab parents who are considering sending their children to Hagar is the potential for religiously and politically biased teaching, especially when it comes to national days, holy days and history lessons.
Aware that this is a prime issue for many parents, Joseph explains that through Hagar’s model, “history is taught mostly via the holy days of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian religions.
“Teachers explain and tell stories, but it’s more to learn about identity, and also to learn who the other is and how to respect the other’s identity.”
A special program has been created to deal with national days – Holocaust Remembrance Day, Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers, Independence Day, Land Day – during which, says Joseph, “the kids learn the basics, things like ‘This is what happened on this day, someone’s feelings were hurt at this time.’ On a very basic level, there is the explaining of the story. This is also done to emphasize what it means to be free – personal freedom. And about what it means to be able to think what you want to think.
“Questions like ‘What does Independence Day mean? Does it mean to have a house and a home and a place to live?’ or ‘How would you feel if that was taken away?’ are looked at. The real emphasis is not on what happened in the past, but on moving into the future.”
Parents seem to agree.
WHEN IT comes to learning in what many parents may fear is a religiously biased or left-wing environment, Kuminova says, “I don’t feel that [leftist ideology] is very dominant, or that it shapes the curriculum, or that our kids are indoctrinated in some way that would bother me.
“I mean, I’m not really a left-wing person, though I guess it depends who’s looking.” Confirming the sentiment expressed by Joseph and Kuminova, Rottenberg explains, “Hagar’s community also includes families that are not necessarily leftist or have a different world view, but that still believe in quality education and in equality of education.”
As for the kind of religious education children receive at Hagar, parents such as Liat Nesher, whose two daughters are in the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classes, are not concerned that Jewish education will be outweighed by what is taught about Islam or Christianity.
Of her older daughter, Yael, Nesher explained in a recent interview with the Jerusalem Post: “Maybe if she was in a different kind of kindergarten, there would be a larger influence religiously. But I think what is being exposed to her at Hagar is enough.”
Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy days, she points out, “are taught everywhere else in the world the same way. That’s the way the world goes.” She sees no need for something other than what most other democratically run public schools teach about religion.
Yet another difficult challenge Hagar faces is the need for outside funding. The school receives approximately 50 percent of its funds from within Israel, but this amount does not cover the costs of added benefits of Hagar’s program, including three extra hours of schooling per day, a fresh, hot lunch prepared daily, and extra activities that help bring the larger community of Arabs and Jews in the Negev together, including outings and picnics.
THE MINISTRY of Education and the Beersheba Municipality are among the school’s major supporters. Support also comes from Hand-in-Hand, a network of bilingual schools, of which Hagar is the youngest. Unlike the other three Hand-in-Hand schools, however, Hagar is administered by its own board of directors and raises its own funds. Support from within Israel is generally allotted toward teacher training programs and books.
The remaining funds come from outside sources, including the Jewish Foundation of San Francisco, the United States Embassy, the Sobell Foundation and other organizations from the US, Europe and Japan.
The teachers at Hagar, all certified public educators, have been re-trained according to the principles set forth by the association.
Rada el-Ubra, an Arab teacher of one of Hagar’s kindergarten classes, gladly reports that “the children do not distinguish between Jewish and Arab when it comes to friendship. They live together.
They know that there are Jewish, Muslim and Christian religions, and everyone maintains his or her own identity and nationality. But, again, they get along well – they play together and they learn together.”
At Hagar, says Abu-Rabia-Queder, “the children grow up together as human beings, but without giving up each child’s personal narrative. They get to know each other’s side.
Growing up together helps them know each other, and not [see each other] through prejudice masks.”
She believes that Jewish and Arab parents, “if they try to look at Hagar from the inside, they will see it is a better system.
“It’s education for peace and love, not education for hate between nations. And because of the bad situation in which we live today, this is the best way toward coexistence. And coexistence is the only real existence.”