Jaffa: Coeducation and coexistence

Stormy weather at Jaffa coast, January 2, 2014 (photo credit: NATHAN WISE)
Stormy weather at Jaffa coast, January 2, 2014
(photo credit: NATHAN WISE)
The port of Jaffa has had a colorful and complex history since biblical times, having been conquered by successive waves of invaders, each leaving their mark.
Today, the city is a melting pot of Jews, Christians and Muslims, living and working together in harmony. This is due, in part, to its education system, which goes back to the mid-19th century. At that time, a young Scotswoman, Jane Walker-Arnott, arrived as a volunteer at a Christian Mission in Jaffa and immediately became aware of the lack of educational opportunities for girls under Turkish rule. She wanted to give them more options in life and opened her home as a school for 14 female students. Here they learned reading, writing and Bible studies, plus sewing and lace-making to provide them with a trade.
After only 10 years, there was such a demand that Walker-Arnott decided to build a school.
She did so with the help of one Thomas Cook, who was finding fame through his pilgrimage tours to the Holy Land. He sold his house in Bethlehem and gave her half the proceeds (£45) to establish the school.
He laid the cornerstone for the Tabeetha School in 1875, and the number of students grew rapidly to around 60 boarders plus day pupils.
Walker-Arnott acted as head teacher for 48 years and was much loved. She was widely acknowledged as a woman of good works and affectionately known as “the tall lady with the blue eyes.” When she died, more than 3,000 people attended her funeral.
Since then, this school, supported by the Church of Scotland, has continued to provide education for youngsters of all faiths, and in 2013 it celebrated its 150th anniversary. Today some 330 students learn there in a non-political environment.
They are taught to respect each other’s beliefs and share in the celebration of holidays such as Purim, Christmas and Id al-Adha.
One-third of the places are reserved for expatriate families, resulting in an exotic mix of 40 nationalities including Colombians, Irish, Canadians and Chinese. The teachers also come from different countries, but all must demonstrate a high level of competence in English.
Unlike most Israeli schools, Tabeetha students wear uniforms in true British style. They address their teachers respectfully as “Miss” or “Mr.,” and there is equal emphasis on good manners as on academic achievement. Many older residents of Jaffa attended the school and have taken pride in seeing their children and grandchildren following in their footsteps. They share in the belief that sectarian differences can be set aside and lead to mutual respect and friendship.
IN 2013, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality opened a new preschool for Jewish and Arab children. They learn in both Hebrew and Arabic, and this approach reflects the community where both groups live and work alongside each other.
There is an emphasis on developing friendships, and day trips are arranged for these children and their families. The head of the Council for Higher Education complimented this initiative, calling it “a brave, interesting and pioneering experiment of outstanding pedagogical innovation.”
The Ajeal School is another institution of note in Jaffa. It is the first Arab high school funded by the municipality to cater to talented Muslim and Christian students. The curriculum, in Arabic, includes creative activities such as poetry and, perhaps surprisingly, lacrosse.
In 2010, a Lacrosse Association was established in Israel.
The game is now played throughout the country, and there are initiatives to encourage youngsters, often from difficult backgrounds, to enjoy the sport. Overseas teams regularly visit the country, and local groups attend sporting events abroad.
(I myself never experienced lacrosse at school, but we did play hockey, and I still shudder when I recall being forced out onto the windswept, muddy, icy fields. To this day I have nightmares of Dawn Thompson charging across the pitch in my direction, brandishing her hockey stick like a weapon while I, one of the smallest in the class, did my utmost to avoid contact with this Amazonian classmate. Such activities were encouraged in England in the belief that it developed “strength of character” – though in my case, it merely honed a “flight” rather than “fight” response.) Ajeal also has a great interest in the arts. In 2007, local ceramic artist Shamai Gibsh was invited to create a mural for the exterior of the school’s new building. He chose to emphasize the multicultural nature of the area by incorporating images of well-known local landmarks such as the Jaffa Port and lighthouse, the Ajami neighborhood with its distinctive water tower and Bauhaus architecture, and other representations of Jaffa’s history. He designed six panels, 6 by 5 feet (1.8 m. by 1.5 m.), each consisting of 56 tiles.
Gibsh faced the daunting task of completing the work in six months, including the initial design, production, painting, glazing and firing, while complying with rigorous technical specifications. When the installation date arrived, it was the hottest day of the year, more than 40 degrees Celsius, so the work had to be fixed in place under sun shades – not an ideal working environment.
His magnificent mural now adorns the school, a source of pride to students and residents alike. For Gibsh, it was a special challenge – as a Jew, he worked with Christians and Muslims to produce a piece of artwork with which everyone could identify, tangible proof that people from different backgrounds could work together for the common good.
While I was there, I asked local residents if this was indeed the case. They looked puzzled at my question.
“Of course,” they replied, “we have lived happily together here for many years and intend to do so for many more.”
The writer, who lives in both London and Jerusalem, is an art consultant and photographer.