Shalom Salam Peace

Jewish and Arab pupils at Hand in Hand schools throughout Israel are challenged to learn in both Hebrew and Arabic – but outside the classroom, they also stand up for the right to study together.

Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama as they light a Hanukka made by pupils from Jerusalem’s Hand in Hand school, at the White House. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama as they light a Hanukka made by pupils from Jerusalem’s Hand in Hand school, at the White House.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When US President Barack Obama lit a hanukkia in the White House last week, it was a colorful olivewood version made by children from the Hand in Hand school.
Labeled in Hebrew and Arabic, the hanukkia listed values such as equality, peace, education, friendship and freedom, which characterize the school. Two ninth-graders, one Jewish and one Arab, were on hand to light it.
Israel’s Jews and Arabs attend separate schools and study mostly in their native language. But one network of schools in the country is trying to change that. Hand in Hand’s bilingual schools teach two languages, two cultures and three religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Each classroom has two teachers, one who teaches in Hebrew and the other in Arabic.
“We try to include all of the children in a conversation between myself, my co-teacher and the pupils themselves,” says Yaffa Shira Grossberg, a longtime second-grade teacher at the Jerusalem school. “When I speak, I speak in Hebrew and my co-teacher speaks in Arabic, but I don’t translate what she says; I continue the conversation, so the children have to understand.”
She says that by the time children reach second grade, they really are bilingual – able to speak, read and write in both languages. However, in the upper grades it becomes more difficult for them to be equally comfortable in Arabic and Hebrew.
“Mostly, the Arabs know better Hebrew than the Jews know Arabic,” explains Ayelet Roth, director of the Hand in Hand network. “The surroundings and the atmosphere are all in Hebrew. Learning Hebrew is a necessity for Arabs, while it is a privilege for Jews.”
Hand in Hand runs five schools. The school in Jerusalem, where extremist Jews torched a first-grade classroom last month, is the only one that continues until 12th grade. There is another school in Kibbutz Eshbal in the Galilee that offers grades 1 through 6, and two preschools in Haifa and Jaffa; both hope to have first grades next year. There is also one school in the Arab village of Kafr Kara in the Lower Galilee.
All of the schools, except the one in Kafr Kara, are under the control of the Israeli Jewish stream of the Education Ministry. In total, says Roth, there are 1,100 pupils in Hand in Hand schools.
Another 500 learn in two other bilingual frameworks – Hagar, which has a school in the southern city of Beersheba, and the school at Neveh Shalom, the joint Arab- Jewish community outside Jerusalem.
Until this year, almost all of the Jewish students at Jerusalem’s Hand in Hand school left to attend high school elsewhere; this is the first year that 10th grade has an equal number of Jewish and Arab students. The Arab teachers in the upper grades say the Jewish students fall behind in Arabic.
“We really try for the students to understand spoken Arabic,” says Hanin Dabbash, an eighth-grade history and homeroom teacher. “The Jewish students often need help. We prefer that the Arab students help them or translate for them.”
Another challenge offered by Arabic is that the spoken language differs significantly from the written language – meaning children are, in effect, learning three languages. Arabic grammar is more complicated than Hebrew grammar, as is the written alphabet, which has several letters that change form depending on their position in the word.
Amal Mattar, 18, graduated from Hand in Hand in Jerusalem last year and plans to start film school next year. Her father, Hatem Mattar, is co-president of the Hand in Hand Parents Association. She says her Hebrew is even better than her Arabic – her native tongue.
“I found the bagrut [matriculation] exams harder in Arabic than in Hebrew. Everything around us here is in Hebrew, and I’ve learned Hebrew since I was five years old,” recalls Mattar, adding that having both languages is a clear advantage and she has no regrets about attending the school.
Dr. Inas Deeb, the Hand in Hand network’s education director, did her doctoral research on ethnic identity in the bilingual school versus traditional Israeli schools, which are separate for Arabs and Jews.
“Jewish and Arab kids who go to integrated schools are more aware of their own ethnicity earlier than the other groups,” notes Deeb. “They become more curious about their own culture, religion, ethnicity and identity.”
She says the schools are taking steps to balance the Hebrew dominance: All new teachers will be required to study Arabic, with veteran teachers encouraged to do so. Currently, 17 Jewish teachers are attending an intensive Arabic class on Fridays, paid for by the school; others are studying privately. The network is also succeeding in keeping more of the Jewish children through high school.
The parents who choose a Hand in Hand school tend to be liberal, both religiously and politically, with a large proportion of Anglos. After the arson attack last month, the Jerusalem Municipality increased the hours of the security guards at the gate; several parents say they do worry their children could be vulnerable to an attack.
“The notion that it is not safe is not completely off the radar,” says Ophir Yarden, who has a child in the first grade. “We had a previous incident with some anti-Arab graffiti. It is possible that the violence could escalate.
There are moments when I shudder to think I’m making my children suffer on the altar of my own ideology.”
MOST ISRAELI schools are classified as either secular, state religious, haredi or Arab. The Arab schools teach Hebrew, but as a second language. Arab students often need extensive tutoring to be able to manage in a Hebrew- language university in Israel.
In the Jewish schools, a year of Arabic is supposed to be compulsory, but many schools do not fulfill this requirement. Those that do teach Arabic emphasize reading and writing skills, and students rarely get much farther than the alphabet.
At the Hand in Hand preschool in Jaffa, founder Anat Itzhaki says teachers try to use even more Arabic than Hebrew to make up for the dominance of Hebrew outside the school.
“Both languages are supposed to be present, and we know the Arab kids come with some Hebrew – but the Jewish kids rarely come with any Arabic,” explains Itzhaki. “So we use more Arabic because we know the kids will be using more Hebrew in their daily lives.”
By the end of kindergarten, she says, the Arab children speak Hebrew fluently, while the Jewish kids understand Arabic very well, but not all of them speak it.
Writing is not yet taught, but the school will open a first grade next year.
Jaffa, like Jerusalem, is a mixed city with about 30 percent of its population comprised of Arabs. This means Arabs and Jews interact on the streets, in the stores and on public transportation. Yet Itzhaki says there is little mixing beyond the superficial, and many Jews have negative attitudes toward the Arabic language.
“For many Israelis, it is considered the language of the enemy,” she maintains. “But we want them to see both Arabic and Hebrew as the language of songs and love and happiness.”
The school is evenly divided between Arabic and Hebrew speakers; among the Arabic speakers, about 40% are Christian and 60% are Muslim. The school celebrates the holidays of all three faiths.
US studies show that bilingual education is good for the brain. Those who speak two languages fluently are better able to handle ambiguity and resolve conflict; they are apparently even better able to resist Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. The studies have led to an increase in American schools offering bilingual Chinese, Spanish and French curricula alongside the standard English.
Until now, Hand in Hand has followed the curriculum of a Jewish secular school, although Jewish, Christian and Muslim holidays are marked. There have been a few pupils from observant Jewish families who usually want a more intensive religious program. Now, a group of parents has gotten together to offer supplemental religious studies on Fridays, equivalent to a “Sunday school” for Jewish education in the US.
Parent Ophir Yarden says his two older children studied at a Hand in Hand preschool. “When it came time for first grade, we felt we needed to make a decision between Arabic and Arab culture, and a Jewish education – which is very important to us,” he recounts. They ended up sending the older children to state-run religious schools.
Now Yarden, along with several other parents, has hired a teacher for Jewish studies on Friday. The classes take place at the school and parents pay a supplemental fee, although part of the cost is covered by a grant from the Swedish Lutheran Church. Yarden hopes it will convince more observant Jewish parents to send their children to the school.
Most of the parents say they believe their children are getting the best education possible. Gili Re’i, who has a 12-year-old son and a seven-year-old daughter at the school, says her son has begun studying the oud, a traditional Arab musical instrument.
“I sent my kids here because I believe in living together,” she says. “I believe in the idea of learning and getting to know the other, including their narrative, religion and point of view.”