Educating children in a conflict zone is no simple matter. More often than not, those responsible for the curricula succumb to the masters of war and adopt a pedagogical approach that exacerbates rather than diffuses strife. Israel, unfortunately, is no exception.
Consider the way Jewish and Palestinian children are educated. Segregation in the classroom is the rule so that Jewish and Palestinian children only rarely mix. This strict segregation exists despite the fact that the Palestinians are citizens of Israel, comprising 19.5 percent of Israel’s population—around 1.37 million people—and 25 percent of all school children. Unlike the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, these Palestinians vote and pay taxes like Jewish citizens.
Notwithstanding their incorporation into the citizen body, Palestinian citizens do not enjoy full equality. In comparison to their Jewish counterparts, Arab schools receive half the per capita budget. It is therefore not very surprising that Palestinian students have the highest dropout rates and lowest achievement levels in the country.
Equality in education is limited to the uniformity of the school curriculum, particularly the texts dedicated to teaching the history of the Israeli state. The existing history textbooks adopt the Zionist historical narrative, erasing all trace of the Palestinian nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”, referring to the events of 1948 when approximately 750,000 Palestinians out of a population of 900,000 either fled or were expelled from their homes). Furthermore, these textbooks emphasise the significance of the Land of Israel for Jews and attempt to prove that the State of Israel could only have been created in historical Palestine, while simultaneously portraying the connection between the Arabs and Palestine as purely incidental. Along similar lines, the study of literature in the Arab schools is oriented toward Zionist portrayals and is conspicuously lacking in any patriotic or nationalistic Palestinian sentiments.
It is, no doubt, a truism that public schools in modern liberal democracies inculcate their students with the dominant national worldview. In the United States, for example, children still recite the pledge of allegiance and in France children sing La Marseillaise. But while the public schools in these democracies are today more willing to provide students with a multicultural curriculum that includes the historical narratives of those who have been oppressed and marginalised over the centuries, Israel is arguably becoming less tolerant to any pedagogy that challenges the dominant Zionist national narrative.
This increasing intolerance does not bode well for the future of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. It has therefore become more urgent than ever to consider alternative educational models.
Since educating for tolerant thinking within a conflict zone is no easy task, there are very few such projects in Israel. The bilingual Arab-Jewish Hagar School in Beer-Sheba is the only one of its kind in Israel’s southern region—a region that is home to over half a million people, 25 percent of whom are Palestinian citizens. While Hagar is a public school supported by the Ministry of Education, it is also the exception that proves the rule.
Hagar’s uniqueness stems from the fact that it has created a venue in which Jewish and Arab children not only mix (each ethnic group makes up 50 percent of the student body) but learn together in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Currently 67 children, nursery through first grade, attend this bi-lingual school, whose commitment to equality informs every aspect of its educational agenda.
To ensure that Hebrew and Arabic are awarded equal status, for example, two teachers, one Jewish and the other Arab, are present in every classroom. By creating a bilingual space that encourages direct contact with the heritage and customs of the different cultures, Hagar promotes tolerance, while being sensitive to nurture the personal identity of each child and each tradition. Thus, by the time the children are old enough to learn that there are two conflicting national narratives, both of which will be taught, they already have the necessary emotional and intellectual tools to deal with conflict through dialogue.
Hagar is an educational island that is expanding against all odds. Indeed, the school’s achievements within the current political context—especially following the assault on Gaza and the sporadic missile attacks on Beer-Sheba—are astonishing. But ongoing local support and international financial assistance are necessary to guarantee the future success of this educational space—a space that is actively translating a pedagogy of mutual respect into practice within a conflict zone.
* Catherine Rottenberg is a founding member of Hagar and sits on its pedagogic committee. Neve Gordon is a founding member of Hagar and is the author of Israel’s Occupation. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).