Language as a cultural bridge

‘Ya Salam’ program trains Arabs teaching Arabic to Jewish kids; implemented in every elementary school in Haifa.

teacher370 (photo credit: Courtesy, The Abraham Fund)
(photo credit: Courtesy, The Abraham Fund)
The Education Ministry along with The Abraham Fund Initiatives, which seeks the integration and equality of Arab citizens in Israel, held a two-day seminar on Sunday and Monday in Acre for Arab Arabic teachers from all over the country working in Jewish schools.
The Abraham Fund started the program, called “Ya Salam,” from scratch in 2005 with cooperation from the Education Ministry, completely funding the program in Israeli elementary schools, until the government saw the value in the program and adopted it.
Ya Salam has 85 Arab and 15 Jewish Arabic teachers, who teach both written and spoken Arabic along with aspects of Arab culture to 5th and 6th graders.
The seminar in Acre allowed the teachers, the Education Ministry and The Abraham Fund to share experiences and work to improve the program. Participants also discussed teaching methods and how to deal with issues that come up for Arabs working in Jewish schools.
In 2009, after a trial period, Ya Salam was implemented in every elementary school in Haifa and the northern sector of Israel.
The program began with 15 schools participating in Haifa and Karmiel, and a year later it grew to 22, with the help of the Education Ministry and the local mayors.
Today there are 155 participating schools in the North.
The program has not been uniformly adopted yet in the rest of the country, but it is operating in 13 schools in Tel Aviv and 10 in Jerusalem and Beersheba, with more sought to be added in other regions in the future.
Dadi Komem, the Director of Education for the Abraham Fund, who  joined the Abraham Fund in 2007, when the program was experimentally implemented in 15 schools, told The Jerusalem Post that the end goal of the program is to "have it instituted throughout the country and fully run by the government."
“The Ya Salam program is not purely about professional Arabic” but also “about coexistence,” said Komem.
He adds that most of the Arabic teachers are Muslim, though there are some Christians and a few Druse as well. At the seminar, there were very few women wearing a hijab (head covering).
Orly Nahum, an Arabic teacher by profession and the Education Ministry’s Arabic language coordinator for the northern region of Israel, told the Post that the advantage of using Arab teachers is that they are native speakers and also understand the culture in a way a Jewish teacher usually does not. She said that Dr. Orna Simchon, the manager for the northern region in the Education Ministry, deserves credit for pushing for the acceptance of the program.
She told a short story that illustrates the benefits of the program. On the first day of class for one of the Arab teachers, the Jewish students told her that they did not see the Arab teacher after searching the school for her.
“They were looking for a woman in a hijab, but ended up discovering that she was dressed in jeans and had her hair hanging in a stylish fashion,” she said, adding that so far there have been no problems for the program.
“The teachers not only influence the students but also the other Jewish teachers in the school and its management,” she said.
Nahum also says that the teachers undergo a rigorous selection process and are assigned a guide who meets them for continual individual guidance. In regards to politics in the classroom, she says that she tells them "not to enter political discussion."
The program has become so successful that now, she said, parents and doctors are requesting courses.
Heba Kassis, one of the Arab teachers taking part in the program, is from the village of Mi’ilya in the Galilee. She has been working for six years at the Shazar Jewish elementary school in Acre.
“At first it was more difficult, and I did not know much about Jewish culture, but now I have a great relationship with everybody at the school, and I don’t see myself leaving,” she tells the Post.
Another Arab teacher, Shiran Nabwani, is Druse and comes from the village of Julis.
She began teaching this school year in the Rambam religious school in Nahariya, having worked in Jewish religious schools for the past three years.
She said that the people at the school and the parents treat her very well, and that parents contact her because they want her to teach their children more Arabic.
She even took the students in her class on a trip to her village.
“At first, many parents did not want their children to learn Arabic, but after some time they changed their minds,” said Nabwani.
She said that during the Gaza war last year the atmosphere in the class “completely changed and was tense.”
Nabwani said that she does not shy away from discussing politics with her students, explaining her position by emphasizing that her husband serves in the army, and that it is necessary to see things “from the other side.”
“I feel like an ambassador of Arab culture.
The students are eager to learn and ask lots of questions and even call me on my personal phone,” she adds.
The program also involves work with Jewish Arabic teachers in order to make them more acquainted with contemporary local Arab culture and to improve their spoken Arabic since most of them mainly only speak and understand the written language.
Historically, the Education Ministry had solely promoted written Arabic, believing that the spoken dialect was best learned afterward. There are signs of change as the Ya Salam program tries to integrate the spoken and written learning of the language from the very first class.
Komem sees no contradiction in the fact that many of the students are motivated to learn the language in order to get a position in military intelligence, because the goal of promoting the teaching of Arab culture and coexistence is also advanced.
In regards to the idea of introducing Jewish Hebrew teachers in Arab schools , he says that this is a good idea and that he is sure that it would advance both Hebrew language skills of Arab students and coexistence.