Bridging the Gap Between Israeli & Palestinian Schoolchildren
By Itai Weiss and staff
The education system in Israel and the Palestinian Territories offers a glimpse into the mentality of future generations in the region. The schools in Israel are nonexclusive yet very segregated. Since, in Israel, there are no laws that restrict or reject students in public schools based on ethnicity or religion, this segregation is perpetuated by individuals, not institutions. In order to understand this division, we must first look back at the social problems plaguing the Israeli community and its children. Public schools in Israel are divided into mostly Jewish and almost exclusively Arab schools. “Mostly Jewish” because it is common to have a handful of Arab children among the student body. In contrast, at the Arab schools, one would be hard-pressed to find a single Jewish student. Arabs in Israel make up around 20% of the overall population; however, outside of the big metropolitan cities like Tel-Aviv or Haifa, residential divisions are the norm. Jews and Arabs tend to congregate with “their own”—a phenomenon called de facto segregation —which stigmatizes and, in many ways, prohibits the integration of Jewish and Arab students.
Resistance to Change
The situation in the West Bank, under the administration of the Palestinian Authority (PA), is even worse. Many of its schools teach brazen hatred and virulent anti-Semitism.
“At a conference on Israel education organized by the government,” reads an article from the Jerusalem Post, Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs Director-General “showed reporters an image culled from the Facebook page of the Palestinian Authority Education Ministry in which a snake with a Star of David on its forehead could be seen strangling a young Palestinian.”
Not only is this a vile message—venomous Jews strangling Palestinians—but it is coming from the top down. People in PA positions of power do not hesitate to demonize Jews; as a matter of fact, they encourage such behavior. Even normalization through seemingly harmless activities, such as sports, is met with hostility. As reported by the Palestinian Media Watch in early September of this year, Jibril Rajoub, one of the most powerful figures in the PA government, condemned a football match between Palestinian and Israeli children at the Peres Center for Peace. He called the game a “crime against humanity.”
Heart of the Conflict
Relations between Arabs and Jews in the West Bank are usually tense. Some of the only interactions Arab children in the West Bank have with other Jews are when they are bullied by settlers or tear-gassed by the IDF. It is therefore all the more important that what kids learn about Jews in school does not affirm this mistrust.
While there have been reports of incremental progress, PA textbooks still preach intolerance. Many Palestinian textbooks deny the Holocaust’s veracity; or they claim that the Jews orchestrated the Holocaust in order to acquire Israel. “In Arab schools [in Israel], children learn about the Holocaust as history, but they do not understand what it meant and means for the Jewish people,” said an Arab-Israeli school principal in an article published by the JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency). When lies and distortions are used to color a community’s perception of another population, it is inevitable that these prejudices will be passed on to the next generation.
Hope for Change
The Israeli curriculum also has room for improvement. However, in 1999, the introduction of new, updated textbooks marked a pivital shift in the way Israeli public education frames the conflict. As reported by the New York Times, classroom materials went from being virtually devoid of the word “Palestinian”, to liberally addressing both the Palestinian people and nationalist movement. In an exemplary attempt at mutual understanding, Israeli textbooks began using “the Arabic name for the 1948 war—the Nakba, or catastrophe—and [asking] the pupils to put themselves in the Arabs’ shoes and consider how they would have felt about Zionism.”
Ethnic vs. National Identity
Some particularly far-right Israelis argue that introducing “negative histories” to school children may hurt the strength of the Israeli identity. They strongly oppose giving concessions to the Arabs, including learning about their historical perspective, on grounds that it may be a threat to Zionism. They fear that it will undermine the case for Israel as the Jewish homeland.
Lee Gordon, of the school Hand In Hand in Israel, compared and contrasted Israel to America. While America is a melting pot of different cultures and ethnicities, Israel, with its own extraordinary diversity, is not. Israel remains divided.
“There is a fear in the Arab community of assimilating too much,” Lee expressed in an interview. Retaining the Arab ethnic identity as separate is important; which is crucial for understanding one of the reasons why there is de facto segregation between Jewish and Arab students.
Many Arab municipalities are also organized differently. A hamula, which, in Arabic, roughly translates to “clan”, is a system of patronage that favors nepotism over professionalism— making it harder to get good education for Arab children. This system hampers the financial growth of the city and, in effect, the schools.
Although there is evidence of a growing Arab middle class in Israel, their schools are taught in Arabic, and Hebrew remains their second language. As a result, integrating into Israeli society and going to a university presents another challenge.
In a New York Times article, a father describes the dilemma: “Should his school-age children learn the Palestinian Authority curriculum to reinforce their national identity as Palestinians, or the Israeli one to ensure them access to Israeli universities and job prospects in the Israeli world?”
Meeting in the Middle
Hand In Hand is succeeding at bridging this gap. The organization opened its first school in Jerusalem in 1998. It now has eight schools scattered throughout the country, and is expected to build more.
Each school follows the basic requirements of Israel’s education ministry, but adds its own twist. They teach a billingual, bicultural curriculum— emphasizing the importance of both narratives.
The three major religions are taught in depth; all members of these communities are present in the classroom. According to Lee, this model of coexistence fosters an “institution of partnership”.
This partnership profoundly impacts the children as well as their parents for the rest of their lives. This past summer, during the conflict in Gaza, “Deaths to Arabs” was spray painted on the walls of one of the schools. Jewish and Arab community members decided not to reciprocate with hate; instead working together to paint over the vandalism. They made a sign that read: “We refuse to be enemies.”