It is not often the case, but sometimes islands of hope coalesce to form a continent, solid enough to be marched upon. These were my thoughts on Friday morning on December 5th, as I watched masses of wonderful Arab and Jewish parents, children and staff of the Israeli bilingual schools, streaming into the Jerusalem junction that was our meeting place for a peaceful march of solidarity, following an arson attack on the Hand in Hand Bilingual School in Jerusalem earlier that week. Even the wintry December sun warmed up to us.
We marched by the thousands until we reached the site of the torched school, where a children-oriented festival of hope took place, from clowns to musical groups to arts and different cuisines, organized by volunteers of all ages.
The intent of the ‘Lehava’ activists, who came by night to set fire to the first-grade and kindergarten classes and spray racist graffiti, seemed self-evident. But it was against this backdrop of hate and suspicion that hope was sparked as we proudly marched in broad daylight. It was a day to cherish. For the first time since the emergence of Arab-Jewish bilingual schools across the country over the past decade, mixed Arab-Jewish communities that evolved from integrated schools and kindergartens — in the Galilee, Wadi Ara, Haifa, Jaffa, Jerusalem, Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam and Be’er Sheva — stood shoulder-to-shoulder in an awe-inspiring display of solidarity and optimism.
I was especially excited by the active involvement of ‘Hagar’, the Arab-Jewish community that I am a part of and proud to serve. Established in Be’er Sheva seven years ago as a single kindergarten class with twenty Arab and Jewish children, today it services more than 240 students and their families from day care to 6th grade. Hagar’s lively community answered the call and participated in the march in large numbers. We carried signs and colorful yellow and blue balloons that our parents and children prepared, which bore messages of hope and solidarity in Hebrew, Arabic and English.
Following the attack, not just the school but the bilingual stream of education itself seemed to have elicited warm public sentiments across boundaries, ideologies and geographies. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin entertained first-graders from the burned classroom at his presidential home. On Hanukkah, President Barack Obama lit a menorah made by students from Jerusalem’s bilingual school, telling visitors that “one act of faith, can make a miracle”.
If the idea of Arabs and Jews studying together from a young age is deemed laudable by many, why then are such schools so scarce in many places in Israel on the one hand, but continuously growing on the other?
Demographics may provide a partial answer. Gradually, Israeli cities and regions are becoming more and more mixed, a process about which I have written in the past. This is more a result of the neglectful handling of planning by the state for the Arab population in Israel, than any other reason. Consequently, according to latest reports, within a decade the number of children attending “mixed” schools increased by 59% to a total of 109,000, representing 6% of all pupils in Israel. But don’t let these figures fool you. In practice, there’s a world of a difference between ‘mixed’ and truly integrated schools. ‘Mixed’ is typically used to describe schools that have considerable numbers of the other religious or national group in them, but which are not formally integrated. The vast majority of the schools documented in the aforementioned report refer to schools in which fewer than 5% of the pupils are Arab. In sharp contrast, within the bilingual integrated schools, also referred to as ‘desegregated’, the ratio between Jewish and Arab students ranges between 40-60 percent. Teaching is conducted in both languages, diversity is celebrated and, unlike in the ‘mixed’ schools, the Arab students are not expected to forgo their collective identity and fully assimilate in ways that make them invisible to the educational system.
The changing demographics and their implications, however, are also threatening to some. The actions of Lehava activists, to which law enforcement in Israel have finally started to take notice, are an extreme manifestation of feeling threatened by the challenging of the ‘status-quo’ of separation in education as well as in some other areas. Lehava extremists use anti-intermarriage rhetoric to mask racism towards Arabs. Hagar should know, because it experienced it firsthand in May, when Hagar Bilingual School was broken into and its walls and schoolyard plastered with hate stickers by Lehava activists. Many are curious, though concerned, about the meaning of shared learning and the search for innovative solutions within bilingual schools to accommodate both Arabs and Jews. But there are others, also amongst moderate and progressive sectors in Israeli society, who are intimidated by integrative Arab-Jewish education precisely because it creates building blocks for a shared society.
Whether hateful, doubtful, or excited towards it, Jewish-Arab education is becoming more prevalent and the bilingual schools serve to pave the way. The bilingual communities consist of parents who were able to overcome the formidable and deeply entrenched barriers of prejudice and ethnocentrism in Israel and make a conscious and conscientious choice to have their children educated together from a very young age. While hate crimes and intimidation may jar our daily routine and peace of mind, it will not compromise our right to decide for ourselves what kind of education is best for the future of our children. If anything, such hate crimes only serve to reinforce our decision to walk this path together. Moreover, we take comfort in the sanctuary that we are creating, especially during these times of heightened tensions between Arabs and Jews in Israel. With the upcoming elections in Israel likely to increase these tensions, the parents of the bilingual schools’ communities have already made their choice for a more hopeful and promising education for their children. One that would enable children to become better equipped to understand, cope with and — yes — alter the contested Israeli reality into which they, their parents and their grandparents were born.
Uri Gopher, a Wexner Israel Fellowship alum (Class 23), serves as the executive director of Hagar, a nonprofit educational organization and community, based in the southern Israeli city of Be’er Sheva, which runs an Arab-Jewish integrated bilingual school and kindergartens. He is also the co-chair of the PTA board at the bilingual school in Neve Shalom – Wahat al Salam, where his daughter attends second grade. Uri can be reached at email@example.com.