When President Obama lit a menorah in the White House last week, it was a colorful olive wood menorah made by Hand in Hand students after arsonists burned down a first grade classroom. Labeled in Hebrew and Arabic, the menorah listed values such as equality, peace, education, friendship and freedom that characterize the school. Two ninth-graders, one Jewish and one Arab, were on hand to light the menorah.
Jews and Arabs in Israel attend separate schools and study mostly in their native language. But one network of schools in Israel is trying to change that. The Hand in Hand bilingual schools teach two languages, two cultures, and three religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Each classroom has two teachers, one who teaches in Hebrew and the other in Arabic.
“We try to include all of the children in a conversation between myself, my co-teacher and the students themselves,” Yaffa Shira Grossberg, a long-time second-grade teacher at the school in Jerusalem told The Media Line. “When I speak, I speak in Hebrew and my co-teacher speaks in Arabic, but I don’t translate what she says, I continue the conversation, so the children have to understand.”
She said that by the time students reach second grade, the children really are bilingual, able to speak, read, and write in both languages. However, in the upper grades it becomes more difficult for the students to be equally comfortable in Arabic and Hebrew.
“Mostly the Arabs know better Hebrew than the Jews know Arabic,” Ayelet Roth, the director of the Hand in Hand network told The Media Line. “The surrounding and the atmosphere are all in Hebrew. Learning Hebrew is a necessity for Arabs, while it is a privilege for Jews.”
Hand in Hand runs five schools. The school in Jerusalem, where extremist Jews torched a first-grade classroom last month, is the only one that continues until 12th grade. There is another school in Kibbutz Eshbal in the Galilee that offers grades 1 through 6, and two pre-schools in Haifa and Jaffa. Both hope to have first grades next year. There is one school in the Arab village of Kfar Kara in the lower Galilee.
All of the schools, except the one in Kfar Kara, are under the control of the Israeli Jewish stream of the Ministry of Education. In all, says Roth, there are 1,100 students in all of the Hand in Hand schools. Another 500 learn in two other bilingual frameworks – Hagar, which has a school in the southern city of Be'er Sheva, and the school at Neve Shalom, the joint Arab-Jewish community outside Jerusalem.
Until this year, almost all of the Jewish students at the Hand in Hand school in Jerusalem left to attend high school elsewhere. This is the first year that 10th grade has an equal number of Jewish and Arab students. The Arab teachers in the upper grades say the Jewish students fall behind in Arabic.
“We really try for the students to understand spoken Arabic,” Hanin Dabbash, an 8th grade history and homeroom teacher told The Media Line. “The Jewish students often need help. We prefer that the Arab students help them or translate for them.”
Another challenge offered by Arabic is that the spoken language differs significantly from the written language, meaning students are in effect, learning three languages. The grammar in Arabic is more complicated than Hebrew grammar, as is the written alphabet which has several letters which change form depending on their position in the word.
Amal Mattar, 18, graduated from Hand in Hand in Jerusalem last year and plans to start film school next year. Her father, Hatem Mattar, is the co-president of the Hand in Hand Parents Association. She says that her Hebrew is even better than her Arabic, which is her native tongue.
“I found the bagrut (matriculation exams) harder in Arabic than in Hebrew,” she told The Media Line. “Everything around us here is in Hebrew and I’ve learned Hebrew since I was five years old.”
Amal says that having both languages is a clear advantage and she has no regrets about attending the school.
Dr. Inas Deeb, the head of pedagogy for the Hand in Hand network, did her doctoral research on ethnic identity in the bilingual school versus traditional Israeli schools which are separate for Arabs and Jews.
“Jewish and Arab kids who go to integrated schools are more aware of their own ethnicity earlier than the other groups,” Deeb told The Media Line. “They become more curious about their own culture, religion, ethnicity and identity.”
She said the schools are taking steps to balance the Hebrew dominance at the school. All new teachers will be required to study Arabic, and veteran teachers encouraged to do so. She said 17 Jewish teachers are currently attending an intensive Arabic class on Fridays, paid for by the school, and others are studying privately. She also said that the school is succeeding in keeping more of the Jewish children through high school.
The parents who choose the school tend to skew liberal, both religiously and politically, with a large proportion of “Anglos.” After the arson attack last month, the Jerusalem municipality has increased the hours of the security guards at the gate. Several parents said they did worry that their children could be vulnerable to an attack.
“The notion that it is not safe is not completely off the radar,” Ophir Yarden, who has a child in 1st grade, told The Media Line. “We had a previous incident with some anti-Arab graffiti. It is possible that the violence could escalate. There are moments when I shudder to think I’m making my children suffer on the altar of my own ideology.”
Most Israeli schools are classified as either secular, national religious, ultra-Orthodox, or Arab. The Arab schools in Israel teach Hebrew, but as a second language. Arab students often need extensive tutoring to be able to manage in a Hebrew-language university in Israel. In the Jewish schools, a year of Arabic is supposed to be compulsory but many schools do not fulfill this requirement. Those that do teach Arabic emphasize reading and writing skills, and students rarely get much farther than the alphabet.
At the Hand in Hand preschool in Jaffa, founder Anat Itzhaki says teachers try to use even more Arabic than Hebrew to make up for the dominance of Hebrew outside the school.
“Both languages are supposed to be present, and we know the Arab kids come with some Hebrew but the Jewish kids rarely come with any Arabic,” Itzhaki told The Media Line. “So we use more Arabic because we know the kids will be using more Hebrew in their daily lives.”
By the end of kindergarten, she says, the Arab children speak Hebrew fluently, while the Jewish kids understand Arabic very well, but not all of them speak it. Writing is not yet taught, but the school will open a first grade next year.
Jaffa, like Jerusalem, is a mixed city with about 30 percent of its population Arab. That means that Arabs and Jews interact on the streets, in the stores and on public transportation. Yet Itzhaki says there is little mixing beyond the superficial. She says that many Jews have negative attitudes toward the Arabic language.
“For many Israelis it is considered the language of the enemy,” she said. “But we want them to see both Arabic and Hebrew as the language of songs and love and happiness.”
The school is evenly divided between Arabic and Hebrew speakers. She says that among the Arabic speakers about 40 percent are Christian and 60 percent are Muslim. The school celebrates the holidays of all three faiths.
Studies in the United States show that bilingual education is good for the brain. Those who speak two languages fluently are better able to handle ambiguity and resolve conflict. They are apparently even able to resist Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. The studies have led to an increase in American schools offering bilingual English-Chinese, English-Spanish, and English-French curricula.
Until now, Hand in Hand has followed the curriculum for a Jewish secular school, although Jewish, Christian and Muslim holidays are marked. There have been few students from observant Jewish families who usually want a more intensive religious program. Now, a group of parents has gotten together to offer supplemental religious studies on Fridays, equivalent to a “Sunday school” for Jewish education in the US.
Parent Ophir Yarden said his two older children had studied at a Hand in Hand preschool.
“When it came time to first grade, we felt we needed to make a decision between Arabic and Arab culture, and a Jewish education which is very important to us,” Yarden told The Media Line. They sent their two other children to state-run religious schools.
Now Yarden, along with several other families, has hired a teacher for Jewish studies on Friday. The classes take place at the school, and parents pay a supplemental fee, although part of the cost is covered by a grant from the Swedish Lutheran Church. Yarden hopes it will convince more observant Jewish parents to send their children to the school.
Most of the parents say they believe their children are getting the best education possible. Gili Re’i, who has a 12-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter at the school, says her son has begun studying the oud, a traditional Arab musical instrument.
“I sent my kids here because I believe in living together,” she told The Media Line. “I believe in the idea of learning and getting to know the other, including their narrative, their religion and their point of view.”
Article written by Linda Gradstein.
Reprinted with permission from The Media Line.