Israel Journal: Language Barrier


Misgav, Galilee — It is the second week of first grade, and 6-year-old Faidi Mohammed looks as if he’d like to be anywhere but this classroom, listening to a teacher describe in Hebrew the Jewish holiday of Rosh HaShanah.

Like most of the 32 children enrolled in Israel’s first fully accredited bilingual school, Faidi, a dark-haired boy with an engaging smile, is in the grips of culture shock.

Sitting in the classroom, brightly colored Hebrew and Arabic alphabets hanging from the walls, Faidi and the other 15 Arab students try to focus on the foreign language that has been inundating their senses for the past two hours. Eager to learn but frustrated by their inability to understand the lesson, their minds often wander and their eyes glaze over. They can’t wait for the class periods when Arabic is the sole language of instruction.

During the two hours every day when only Arabic is spoken, it is the Jewish children who must play catch up.

Watching his fidgety son from the doorway, Diab Mohammed wonders aloud whether this experiment in bilingual education will actually reap results.

“I don’t know if it will work, but I hope that it does,” says the X-ray technician, whose two older children attended local Arab schools. “I remember my own problems with Hebrew, which I learned in school but didn’t use until I was an adult. I want things to be different for Faidi.”

The desire to give their children a better, brighter future is the motivating force behind the Misgav Jewish-Arab School, which opened recently in this central Galilee town. The school consists only of the first-grade class housed in a building belonging to a nearby Jewish elementary school, but hopes to add a grade every year, culminating in a fully operational bilingual facility by early next century.

Established by the Jerusalem-based Center for Bilingual Education in Israel, a nonprofit organization devoted to Jewish-Arab equality and coexistence, the school is being funded by a wide range of international organizations, as well as the Ministry of Education.

Although not the first Hebrew-Arabic school in Israel — the Jewish-Arab cooperative at Neve Shalom was the groundbreaker, and there is a bilingual kindergarten program at the Experimental School in Jerusalem — Misgav is the first Jewish-Arab school ever established in a mainstream community. It’s also the first to receive official recognition from the Israeli government.

Lee Gordon, the American immigrant who founded the Center for Bilingual Education with his Israeli Arab partner, Amin Khalef, in early 1997, asserts that “integrated education” is long overdue in Israel.

“For 50 years Jews and Arabs have been in separate educational systems, and this has increased both the linguistic and cultural barriers. We really believe in building a society where Jews and Arabs can identify and share,” he said. “Israel is a Jewish state but within it, there are numerous structures, forums, projects, youth groups, environmental groups where Jews and Arabs can work together as Israeli citizens. The key is to start mixing at a young age.”

While Khalef is all for improved relations between Israeli Jews and Arabs, he has an even more pressing agenda in his quest for widespread integrated education: to give Israeli Arab children a better education.

Noting that Israeli Arab schools receive considerably less funding from the Ministry Education than their Jewish counterparts (some Bedouin schools have no running water or electricity, and a large number of Arab schools are structurally unsound), Khalef says, “I think no one in Israel will tell you that Arabs have equality with Jews. For example, Jewish schools have school psychologists. Arab schools don’t.”

Speaking from experience, Khalef maintains that a fluent command of Hebrew, coupled with an understanding of Jewish Israelis, is the key to success for Israeli Arabs.

“At Israeli universities, the language of instruction is Hebrew. The government operates in Hebrew. Most citizens are Jewish. Yet most Arabs do not study with Jews or work with Jews, and that’s a big problem,” he said.

While the Misgav school emphasizes foreign-language skills three or four years earlier than other Israel schools, language isn’t everything, Gordon stresses. “We’re trying to build a school that is integrated, mixed, without sacrificing the cultural identities of either community.”

To achieve this goal, the school has three teachers — two Arab and one Jewish. The Arab teachers are fluent in Hebrew, while the Jewish teacher understands some Arabic but does not speak it. The children are learning both alphabets and scores of vocabulary words, as well as the special script used for Arabic numbers. This month they learned about the customs associated with Rosh HaShanah; later this year they will learn the rituals related to the Arab holy month of Ramadan.

As often as possible, the 32 children sit together, using the vocabulary words they have just learned to listen to the same book read aloud or to a puppet show.

At other times, recognizing the limits of bilingual education, the teachers divide the class into groups of native- and non-native speakers. They still share the same classroom, however. Today, for example, the Arabic speakers learn the Hebrew words for honey, apple and Rosh HaShanah (“dvash,” “tapuach,” and “New Year”), while the Hebrew speakers listen to a holiday story.

The school’s energetic Jewish teacher, Yafta Granby, says that “already I can see that some of the Jewish children are understanding what’s going on in Arabic, though not all the nuances. I see the same in the Arab children. We’re on new ground here, but I think by the end of December, most of the children will understand most of what is being spoken.”

In the meantime, Granby says, there are frustrations. “The Arab children come to me and they want me so much to understand what they’re saying. I understand some Arabic but need to learn much more.”

There is frustration, too, in the playground, where the children can’t always communicate with each other. In soccer, Jews stick with Jews, Arabs with Arabs. That, their teachers believe, will change as the children master a shared vocabulary.

Sitting on a bench in the playground, where the children constantly approach her for kisses on bruised knees or to simply translate, Ghaida Rinawie-Zoabi, one of the Arab teachers, notes that “there is virtually no difference between the Jewish and Arab students.” With a laugh, she says, “Arab children tend to show more respect to their elders, but not in this class.”

While he probably didn’t consider the behavioral consequences of placing his son in a school full of unruly Israeli schoolchildren, Diab Mohammed, Faidi’s father, doesn’t seem concerned.

“I want Faidi to get a good education,” he says. “That’s the only thing that matters.”