Seven years ago the "Hand in Hand – Bridge over the Wadi" school in Kafr Qara in Wadi Ara opened its doors as an innovative Jewish-Arab project that was meant to promote co-existence between the two populations living in the area.
Studies at the institution were to be bilingual as launch day saw a more or less equal number of students from each of the nations.
Except that from the school's third year and on, the number of Jews registering took a downward turn - 23 at the latest count, versus 105 Arabs. Neither the school nor the parents are hiding the fact that the political situation and rising crime levels in the area, led Jewish students to head back to education institutions in their towns.
'Bridge over the Wadi' launched operations at the end of the second Intifada with
the wounds of the terror attacks and the schism between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews, in the shadow of the October riots still fresh and bleeding.
In spite of everything, they hoped that precisely because of the difficult time the initiative would aid in bringing Arab students from the surrounding towns and villages and their Jewish friends who came from Katzir, Pardes Hanna and Givat Ada, closer together.
But today, different voices are being heard in an area where quiet has reigned for the past few years. "I won't send my son to a school operating in the Arab sector because of the violence and the political situation," the mother of one of the Jewish former students, who now studies in his home town, told Ynet.
"I have nothing against the school, but recently, the violence and shooting incidents that spread to Kafr Qana started to affect my son. I preferred to remove him from the school so that he would be in a safe environment, without fears or concerns. Just last month I read media reports about out of control shooting incidents that endangered the residents and the students. I won't take chances with my son."
In light of the ongoing Jewish exodus from the school, the mother said that the school was losing the special character for which it was established. "The number of Jewish students is down by nearly 75%.
"This means that each class has around two Jews and the rest are Arabs. Some classes don't even have one Jew, which indicates that the school is in danger of losing its main purpose. You need to remember that the political situation is deteriorating daily and we don't know how things will end. These claims don't stem from racism, they stem from concern for my son's welfare."
Hand in Hand, Bridge over Wadi school (Photo: George Ginsberg)
Indeed, the issues raised by the mother are well known to the Arab parents at the school as well as the school's administration, who is at its wits' end over the situation. "There is a drop in the number of Jewish children in the school due to the stiff competition between schools in the region, but also due to the political situation and the violence.
"It makes it very hard for us to fulfill the goals for which the school was established, chief among which is working towards co-existence," said Husam Abu-Bachar, a former principal at the school.
Abu-Bachar isn't ready to throw in the towel just yet but he's attentive to the changing reality in the school. "There is o doubt that we have succeeded in maintaining the quality and high level of achievement and we continue to do everything we can to succeed. I remain optimistic and hope that a strategic program for absorbing more students in to the school is in the works.
Yet even Abu-Bachar isn't denying that the school's character underwent significant changes. "In the current situation we are confronted with a real crisis that requires attention from all sides. Today, there are classes that only have Arab students; other classes have only two or three Jews and the rest are Arabs."
Abu-Bachar's colleague, Nurit Maor-Shavit from Pardes Hanna, believes that tremors that rocked the school's administration were responsible for the current situation and not other issues. "The parents and the municipality have been battling for years. The school principals were replaced a number of times which caused instability. Each move created confusion and a trend of dropouts which affected the balance in the number of students.
"Today, the school staff is cooperating and working together beautifully and there are Jewish families who have shown interest next year's enrollment."
Maor-Shavit disagrees with those who believe that the political situation or violence led to the drop in Jewish enrollment: "To say that students dropout because if the political situation or violence is nonsensical. It's true that some families were affected by violent incidents outside of the school walls, and some are affected by other issues. Two years ago during Operation Cast Lead our
school was actually the sanest place you could find."
As for the possibility of the school making it official and becoming an Arab school, Maor-Shavit said: "I don't think that will happen and I don't believe that the political situation will affect the students and their families. These are issues that we always discuss in order to increase awareness."
Education Ministry Spokesman for the non-Jewish sector Kamal Atilla stated that the "downward trend in the number of Jewish students exists in all bilingual schools and constitutional measures are being taken in response.