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Israel’s Arab Minority Jerusalem School’s Bilingual Model Helps Arabs, Jews Break Stereotypes

November 11, 2002
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A 6-year-old student runs into Ala Hatib’s office at the Jerusalem Bilingual School to tell the principal that he hurt his back, with half the sentence in Hebrew, half in Arabic.

Hatib chuckles at the bilingual jumble.

“I see it every day, every minute, every hour,” says Hatib, who joined the school as co-principal this summer.

But what still surprises him is how quickly he has become attached to the school and its ideals. After a Jew and an Arab founded the nonprofit organization in 1997, the organization established its first school in the Galilee in 1998 and the Jerusalem school a year later.

Bilingual skills form a major component of the school curriculum — all subjects are taught in both Arabic and Hebrew by Arab and Jewish co-teachers — but what most attracts parents is the educational opportunities of a multicultural school in a city that is holy to several religions.

“We want our son to grow up without stigmas, without stereotypes,” said Rema Jebara, a Muslim whose son is in the second grade. “For us, it was important for him to go to a liberal school where he can say what he wants to say and accept others who are different from him. I want the school to help sculpt his personality.”

Indeed, that’s the goal for both students and parents. The school fosters close relationships among the families as well.

“Our students learn to see things in a non-narrow-minded manner,” said Dalia Peretz, Hatib’s Jewish co-principal. “They learn to think differently; they can’t run away to black-and-white options. They grow up realizing that isn’t an option.”

While the demands of bilingualism mean the school needs twice as many teachers as normal, the Education Ministry covers nearly 75 percent of the school’s budget.

The state support is “incredible,” says Paul Leventhal, associate director for resource development at the Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel, a nonprofit organization based in Jerusalem.

The other 25 percent comes from coexistence funds, North American Jewish federations, the Jewish Agency for Israel and other private donors.

“I don’t think there’s one Jewish organization that doesn’t give,” Leventhal says.

No Arab groups or donors have given to the school.

Each class is comprised of an equal number of Arab and Jewish students, which hasn’t always been easy to achieve. Last February, only a handful of Jewish students had signed up for kindergarten. But an ambitious parent set out to sign up the full allotment of Jewish students, and succeeded.

That’s a reflection of the times, Peretz says.

“It’s not Oslo and the peace accords now,” Peretz says. “It’s a tough time to make people believe in coexistence.”

There have been problems, including a 5 percent dropout rate in the first year because of a crisis over how to observe Israeli and Palestinian national holidays. The Jewish and Arab children were separated and confused, and the process was a failure.

Almost everything in the school is an experiment. There are no books, because none exist that would be appropriate for the mixed population. Instead, the teachers create their own materials, using books from the Jewish and Arab school systems as sources.

Israeli flags fly outside the school. That makes the Arab parents and students — many of whom, though Israeli citizens, identify primarily as Palestinians — feel excluded. However, as an Israeli school supervised by the Education Ministry, Palestinian flags are not allowed.

Hatib and Peretz are so consumed with running the school that they don’t have time to worry about whether or not it will succeed in the long run. The parents’ association, which helped get the school started, takes an active role.

George Roessler, a German Jewish immigrant to Israel, put his daughter Dana, a first-grader, and son, Michael, a fourth-grader, in the school.

He and his wife liked the school’s small classes and two teachers per classroom, the emphasis on Arab-Jewish equality and the idea that their children would gain Arabic-language skills, Roessler says.

“We live in an area with quite a few Arabs around us,” he said. “All of a sudden, my son realized that we’re an island of Hebrew-speaking people, surrounded by an Arab-speaking world.”

Yet it’s the parents who are concerned about issues of national identification and about making sure their children learn from this experience; the kids just want to play soccer and sleep over at each other’s houses, Roessler says.

They get to play plenty of soccer in the school’s cement playground. But this is the kind of school that even kids like to attend.

The school’s first-grade classroom is a cozy, carpeted room whose walls are lined with brightly colored letters of the alphabet in Arabic and Hebrew. Inside, 15 children sprawl on the floor with their teachers after having written out a series of words in Arabic.

They speak to their Arabic teacher in Arabic and their Jewish teacher in Hebrew. They begin learning both languages in kindergarten, and it takes about three months for them to adjust to the bilingual classroom, administrators say.

In October, the kindergarteners are still getting used to both languages. Their Hebrew-speaking teacher asks the students to close their eyes and put one hand out.

Eyes closed tightly, they each stick out a small hand, in which the teacher places one of four pictures.

“I got a flower,” Na’ama yelps in Hebrew. Kareem rushes up to the teacher to show her his flower, but he doesn’t know how to say it in Hebrew.

“It takes time,” Hatib says. “They get confused, but eventually they figure it out.”

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