The cost of specialized schools on Israeli society

In educating our children according to their demography are we also educating them to fear the 'other'?

Arab students 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Arab students 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
While waiting for the bus in Be’er Sheva one afternoon, I witnessed two women warmly embracing each other at the bus stop. What was so incredible was that one woman wore the head covering of a married, Orthodox Jew, while the other wore the traditional hijab head covering of an observant Muslim. Diligent eavesdropping – using my basic understanding of the Hebrew language – revealed the two hadn’t seen one another since their last university course together. Evidently, their interaction was a byproduct of their integrated university classrooms.
I watched the interaction with stunned pleasure, reminded of childhood best friends reuniting after a long period of separation. These were two people who, if stereotypes are to be believed, should fear—or at least dislike—one another immensely. The level of respect each woman afforded the other had me wishing more of Israel’s citizens would be engaged in this kind of behavior – particularly between Jewish and Arab populations. Integrated classes provide a vehicle for interfaith and intercultural friendships. It is unfortunate, however, that this only occurs for those who are already fully formed individuals. In order to strengthen relations between Israel’s Arab and Jewish populations, integrated schooling should be introduced into primary and secondary education.
Broadly speaking, Israel’s current public education system seeks to meet the needs of four general population groups: Jewish Orthodox, Jewish ultra-Orthodox, Arab, and secular. Jewish Orthodox schools focus on the national curriculum in addition to religious texts and practices, while ultra-Orthodox schools focus only on religious texts and practices. Arab schools focus on national curricula in addition to Arab history, religions, and cultures (all taught in Arabic) while secular schools focus only on the national curriculum. The fact that parents have so many publicly funded educational opportunities that also include the option of religious studies appears on the surface to be a positive thing: it’s an opportunity to study with similar, like-minded individuals to each student. However, a diversified system comes with a heavy price tag: it underscores an “us versus them” mentality that is arguably one of the most detrimental things to Israeli society that far outweighs the benefits of specialized education.
As one may expect, the largest amount of integration between Jewish and Arab student populations occurs in secular schools with mixed populations. For the vast majority of students not attending schools with mixed populations, there is zero interaction with peers from other populations. The current system is built so as meet the different needs of all students, but at the same time it serves to increase societal chasms rather than bridging divides. At a young age, children become accustomed to not interacting with cross-cultural counterparts. 
The status quo of separate learning tracks cannot continue if Israel is to have any hope of building bridges. The Ministry of Education should work towards creating an integrated curriculum for all students – whether or not the school in question provides a religious curriculum in addition to adhering to national standards. One option would be to offer religious education (Torah or Koran studies respectively) as an extra-curricular activity in addition to the national curriculum.
In the past, Be’er Sheva served as a model for integrated schooling. Even the local ‘Tali’ schools welcomed Jewish and Arab students, despite the fact that the Tali curriculum includes biblical studies. However, the city recently made the decision to discontinue Arab enrollment in all Tali schools because the focus on Torah study did not meet the needs of Arab students. The new policy only allows new Arab students to enroll in Tali schools if they have current family members in attendance. This change in policy may keep Arab students from being forced into compulsory Torah studies, but it also keeps Arab and Jewish students separate from one another. The policy also goes against Israel’s Pupils’ Rights Law, which prohibits discrimination of students both in regards to admission or expulsion from any particular school. The law calls the current educational system into question because it’s difficult to define where attempting to meet the needs of a specific group becomes discrimination.
Simply removing barriers between Jewish and Arab education won’t necessarily create automatic harmony between Israel’s citizens, but it will certainly improve cross-cultural discourse. By encouraging various populations to get to know one another, much can be done to reduce fear of the unknown. Integrated schools do exist, though they are few in number. For example, the schools in Neve Shalom/Wahat as-Salam community and the Hand in Hand schools not only provide courses in Hebrew and Arabic, they discuss Jewish-Arab perspectives in history and current affairs. This model tends to be more secular and isn’t a perfect system, but at least it recognizes the need for intercultural and interfaith exposure. Students from these schools continue to engage in intercultural conversation long after graduation, in an effort to encourage and embrace coexistence.
The opportunity to study in a mentally, spiritually, and physically safe environment of homogenous peer groups is an attractive one, but why does one have to wait until adulthood in order to experience heterogeneity? Surely Israel can develop similarly safe cross-cultural educational environments. It’s time for Israel to stop denying its children exposure to the ‘other’. It’s time to teach them to celebrate diversity so that scenes like the one I witnessed at the bus stop would occur with much more frequency and at a much younger age. The writer is an Arizona native and holds a B.A. in English from Arizona State University. She is a Masa Media Fellow who spent the last year teaching at Renanot School in Be’er Sheva, Israel.