by Jenn Lindsay
In Beersheva we visited Hagar, an Israeli public school with an educational experiment of bilingual instruction, employing the Israeli Hebrew curriculum and supplementing it with Arabic instruction. The school is pre-K through 5th grade and was founded in 2006. The present director, Uri, is a social psychologist specializing in intercultural dialogue and worked for a while with another famous intercultural education program Neve Shalom.
The need for such a school in Israel, outside the green line, starts with demographics. Inside the green line, all of the people are Arab and Palestinian. Inside the green line, only 1/5th of the people are Palestinian. The drastic nature of this minority, and the segregation policies enforced through the government in the form of unequal resource distribution to Israeli Palestinian localities, creates deep social tensions. There are different struggles inside and outside the green line. Inside the green line, Palestinians in Israel suffered drastic segregation measures beginning in the founding of the state in 1948 through 1966. Such segregations are constituted by physical separation, and also different standards and levels of civil services. According to conditions, you can tell if you are in a Jewish or Arab neighborhood. Since 1948, 700 Jewish localities have been built and developed; but there are only two Bedouin localities and several unrecognized, unregistered Palestinian localities.
The Hagar school was built to help people cope with the fact of two different coexisting nationalities. The state public school system does not support or fund bilingual education, as Hebrew is the national language and Arabic is not generally endorsed as a useful second language (English is the first foreign language taught). So Hagar raises money to fund the Arabic half of its curriculum. They try to concretely apply their peace and tolerance theories to childhood education. The foundation of this is developing in students the means of coping with and educating their sense of “the other,” cultivating their empathy and tolerance of the unfamiliar, and also helping participants acknowledge their responsibility and historical complicity in violent events.
Without an immersive environment, even if people are interested in the theory of doing this, it is very hard to sustain the effort. Hagar offers this sustained immersion, and is a place Palestinian families can give students something they cannot get in regular schools—namely, the bilingual Hebrew/Arabic education and daily friendship with the other nationals. The students are all from very different areas so they know they are involved in an atypical experiment. But their friendships become natural very quickly.
Hagar is not just an educational experiment but also social and cultural. There is plenty of dialogue between faculty and parents and a high rate of voluntarism among parents. The school teaches about the value of diversity, encouraging heterogeneity and free expression, and they never ask all the children to confirm to a particular idea of student. Despite all of these pursuits of friendship and unity, there is also a space for difficult and heated discussions
amongst students. This commitment reflects a change in the national curriculum for young children, which up until 2000 ignored the more difficult issues of violence and conflict in the region. But at the beginning of the second Intifada it emerged as valuable for discussions to shift from idealism to honest dialogue, focusing on ethical, respectful, difficult diversity and expression. For instance, in handling national Israeli holidays, which mourn Israeli soldiers fallen in conflicts against Palestinians, or singing the national anthem, which speaks of Jewish dreams for the land, the teachers are trained to lead honest and open discussions based in facts and allowing students to express pain or concern. Hagar is a public school with national curriculum requirements and they have to negotiate the expectation that a primary school will plant and reinforce the dominant national narrative. But this narrative can be alienating for some children. Hagar teachers do not avoid these uncomfortable moments; instead they provide a space for the students to argue and face painful facts and remain as friends. The teachers help the students argue about identities, to be honest, to cope with feeling threatened, and to trust that the friendship will resume. This commitment creates a foundation for real friendship, real communication, facing the truth together, and authentic self-expression. This genuine connection helps students develop psychological confidence and resilience. Uri said, “When people feel very confident of what they are worth, they can take the heat.”
Being involved with Hagar is a risk for both Palestinian Israelis and Israeli Jews. Palestinians resist the “normalization” process (the word for integration into Israeli society) because they don’t want to be accused by their community of being cooperative with Israel. The risks for Jews is that they will be marginalized and delegitimated in the eyes of other Jews, be accused of being “traitors” or disloyal to the mission of Israel, and, as a problem of privilege, when they have so many choices for good education, in choosing to send their children to Hagar they are risking something much more experimental. It takes a level of courage for Arabs and Jews to raise their voices and take a stand. While no unifying ideology is imparted to parents the programming and community are very strong and they receive support from one another.
Hagar struggles to deliver a balanced bilingual education; since Hebrew is spoken in the streets, it is hard to imbue the Jewish students with an equally strong grasp of Arabic. Moreover, Hagar is located in a country that is not yet post-conflict. It is assisting the national and transnational reconciliation process. Uri understands that they must strive to maintain awareness of how they might be complicit in marginalization of Palestinian people. But he persist with his larger vision to incorporate the Hagar bilingual model into national Israeli education policy. Despite some challenges gaining legal approval for Hagar to expand beyond the 5th grade level, they continue to develop their broad plan, with Uri insisting, “There’s a lot to learn from failure, so I’m not afraid of failing.”