Behind the Headlines: Druse Bent on Participating in Zionism Educational Programs
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Behind the Headlines: Druse Bent on Participating in Zionism Educational Programs

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How do you teach “100 Years of Zionism” to non-Jewish Israeli students? That was the challenge facing Saleh Alsheich, the Ministry of Education’s director of education for the country’s Druse community.

Instead of shying away from the ministry’s most recent “theme of the year,” marking the 100th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress, Alsheich tailored the theme to his students’ needs.

Alsheich instructed teachers in Druse schools to stress their community’s contribution to Israeli society, as well as the good relations Druse and Jews enjoyed in the years preceding statehood.

“The Druse of Israel have a connection with the state prior to 1948, but most Druse and Jews don’t know it,” Alsheich says. “So we created a workbook and a curriculum on the subject and offered courses to Druse teachers to acquaint them with the material.”

To encourage Druse and Jewish teen-agers to get to know each other, Alsheich helped develop a program that brings them together.

Participants met seven times last year to discuss a broad range of topics, including the Holocaust and the question of why Druse men serve in the Israeli army. The program calls for the students to continue meeting during the coming school year.

“The goal has been to provide materials and a framework appropriate for both groups, and it hasn’t been easy,” says Alsheich. “We don’t yet fully know each other, but we are learning.”

Dalia Goren, the Education Ministry official who supervises the annual “theme of the year” curriculum, says finding common ground in a topic as politically charged as Zionism “has been one of life’s great challenges.”

Israeli pupils come from “a vast variety of backgrounds, and we need to be sensitive when planning our programs,” says Goren. “Not all programs are appropriate for all students.”

Approximately 20 percent of Israel’s 1.5 million schoolchildren are Arab, including Druse, according to Goren.

Druse are a secret non-Muslim Arab sect that formed several hundred years ago.

Many Jewish students are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia and elsewhere, while approximately 30 percent of the Jewish students are Orthodox: 20 percent of them define themselves as “national religious,” while another 10 percent call themselves “haredi,” or fervently Orthodox.

The ministry encourages schools to use the curriculum developed for that particular year’s theme, but it is up to each principal to decide whether and how it will be taught.

It came as no surprise, Goren says, when the Israeli Arab and haredi school systems decided not to participate in the program commemorating Zionism’s 100th anniversary, called “Zionism 100.”

Referring to the Arab schools, she says, “It was a bit awkward for them. If you look at Zionism as a mirror, whatever we see as a positive Zionist act can be viewed as negative by an Arab.” The Druse community, on the other hand, “insisted that they are part of Israeli society and insisted on being part of the program.”

Although other Arab students did not celebrate Zionism this past year, Goren expects them to participate fully in what she calls the second installment of “Zionism 100” — Israel’s 50th anniversary, which will be celebrated next year.

Whether fervently Orthodox children will take part “is still under negotiation,” Goren says. “There are many groups within the haredi community and some want to join and others don’t. There is a minority who don’t want to celebrate 50 years of Israeli sovereignty.”

The goal of the ministry’s effort, Goren says, is to teach the nation’s schoolchildren not only about the State of Israel and its roots, but about its people.

“All segments of Israeli society contributed to Israel being what it is today. We want the children — all children — to know about their roots and to have pride in them.”

This goal was embraced by Rahamim Melamed Cohen, the coordinator of curriculum planning for the public religious school system.

“You read textbooks and don’t find any reference to Gush Etzion or the fact that there were religious people who settled in the Galilee,” says Cohen. “Even religious students don’t know enough about their heritage.”

Cohen, who stresses that the vast majority of his male students serve in the army after graduation, says that the challenge for the religious schools has been to show where religion and Zionism overlap.

“We see Zionism as 2,000 years old, as a backdrop for the Zionist Congress at Basel and everything that has come after it. Not all Israelis view things the same way.”

Like his counterparts in the non-religious and Druse school systems, Cohen encouraged students to talk to family members about their past.

“We asked students to ask their parents and grandparents whether they participated in a religious youth group or helped create a religious settlement,” he says. “This personal connection to the past gives them a sense of belonging.”

That sense of belonging is more tenuous in the Israeli Arab community, according to Ali Assadi, director of Arab education in Israel.

“Last year, when the other students were learning about Zionism, we decided to concentrate on pluralism and equal rights,” Assadi says. “Since our students learn Zionist history in school every year, we decided that pluralism was more timely.”

When studying Israel’s 50th anniversary in the coming year, Assadi says, “our emphasis will be on how we, Israeli Arabs, forged our way culturally, religiously, linguistically. Again, we will stress co-existence and the fact that we must learn to live together.”

Assadi stresses that the decision not to teach “Zionism 100” had nothing to do with national loyalty.

“Our students and teachers feel a dual identity. On the one side, we are Arabs and have relations with the Palestinian people. On the other, we are Israeli inhabitants and respect and obey the state. We want to live here.”

While Zionism 100 has prompted many non-Jewish students to examine their relationship to Zionism, it has encouraged many Jewish students to examine their relationship to the Diaspora.

In one successful pilot program, a group of American high school students studying in Israel for the year visited Tel Aviv high schools.

“Our students had a lot of questions about Jewish communities abroad and how they operate,” says Goren. “We encouraged them to look at the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora and to acknowledge the fact that many Jews will never move to Israel.”

With new questions come new perspectives.

For perhaps the first time, Goren says, “Israeli students aren’t asking, `What can the world do for Israel?’ but, `What can Israel contribute to the world?'”

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