Educating for a shared society

School children in class (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
School children in class
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A few weeks ago, Education Minister Naftali Bennett announced his intention to expand Hebrew-language studies at Arab schools. The goal of the program, according the Education Ministry, is to improve Hebrew literacy to reduce inequality, improve Arab students’ access to higher education and advance integration in Israeli society.
But language learning is a two-way street, particularly where both Hebrew and Arabic are official languages of the state. Today, Jewish students are only required to learn Arabic in 7th through 9th grade, yet this is not an enforced by the ministry, and there is no Arabic instructional requirement in elementary schools at all. In Arab schools, students are required to learn Hebrew starting in 3rd grade for four hours a week. In a truly shared society, all students must learn each other’s language, with equal attention given to Arabic and Hebrew in both sectors.
Multi-cultural understanding starts with mutual language acquisition, but on its own this is not enough. Israeli society has become increasingly racist, with the Coalition to Combat Racism’s recent report indicating a significant rise in incendiary remarks and nationalistically motivated violent incidents. Research has shown frightening trends among youth, with 20 percent of Arabs between the ages of 15-18 and 44% of Jews indicating outright refusal to befriend a member of the counter population, and social media rife with incitement and de-legitimization. We need look no further for evidence that our education system must undergo systemic change that includes values rooted in shared society and tolerance of the other.
Jews and Arabs live side by side but mostly separate from one another, each group with its own language, culture, religion, identity and narrative, further divided by history and ideology. Separate educational systems, with virtually no contact between the sectors, have led to widening fault lines and the chasm separating them has exposed fertile ground for even more profound suspicions of one another. Even before the last round of violence in Gaza, the proposal of the Nationality Law, and comments made by politicians during the recent election season, public opinion polls among both Arabs and Jews have shown increased alienation and fear.
It has long been said that hatred is not taught but learned, and if so, then make the classroom a platform where it can be unlearned, an arena not only for language acquisition but a space where cultural tolerance and equality can be taught at a young age, breaking down stereotypes before they have a chance to take firm hold. In 2009, the Solomon-Issawie Committee recommended holistic educational changes to prepare Israel’s youth for shared society, among them including both the Jewish and Arab narrative throughout all classes and subjects, a transformation that starts with learning the language of the other. Never fully implemented, we urge the Education Ministry to lead the way in preparing the next generation for a shared society, starting with compulsory Arabic- and Hebrew-language instruction for all citizens, Arab and Jew, from first grade through high school.
From its most influential perch, the ministry can create a multi-cultural Israel where Jewish and Arab citizens forge shared living from an early age, where the official languages of the State – Arabic and Hebrew – are learned, heard and spoken by all, for the trust created today is the foundation of Israel’s tomorrow.
Amnon Be’eri Sulizeanu and Dr. Thabet Abu Rass are co-CEO’s of The Abraham Fund Initiatives that promotes coexistence and equality among Israel’s Jewish and Arab-Palestinian citizens, advancing policies based on largescale innovative social models and advocacy in action.