Israel cultivates integration of Arab teachers


Respect for "the other" is part and parcel of respecting oneself, said Sarah Silberstrom, a representative from the Ministry of Education at a recent conference aimed at addressing the dilemmas facing Arab teachers working in Israeli schools.

"But what about Yom HaNakba," interrupted an audience member, Lubna Hadija, referring to the day on which Palestinians commemorate the Nakba - "catastrophe" - of the creation of Israel, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes. The word "Nakba" is officially banned from Israeli textbooks.

Her question triggered mumbling among the crowd, which was made up of a diverse group of Jewish and Arab teachers, some in jeans and T-shirts and others in colourful hijabs or the more conservative black abaya.

"You speak about respect, but… it's a question of just recognising the other's pain, not of identifying with it," added Ms Hadija.

Although the exchange sparked palpable tension, the organisers said that such encounters, no matter how uncomfortable, were precisely the point of the Arab Teacher Integration programme.

Former director general of the Interior Ministry Oscar Abu-Rizek said that the government's coexistence experiment was a necessary process.

"I think we need to deal with this as a process, and realise the importance of events such as when President Reuven Rivlin goes to the ceremony at Kfar Kassem," he said, referring to the Israeli president's presence at a memorial event for the killing of 49 members of one Arab village by Israeli border police in 1956. "In my opinion this visit couldn't have happened in the 1950s."

The programme aims to deploy 500 Arab teachers in the Israeli school system by the end of 2015. They will teach the core subjects of English, maths and science, in addition to Arabic.

The conference - entitled "The Classroom as a Meeting Place of Identities and Cultures", held at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya - is a joint initiative of the Merchavim Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel and the Ministry of Education.

"This wonderful project recognises that shared life here is a purpose, and is a blessing - not, God forbid, a curse," said President Rivlin in a pre-recorded address to the conference. The programme has so far trained and employed 91 Arab - mostly female - teachers in the Israeli school system.

Arab Israelis make up 20 per cent of Israel's population, and many complain of being treated as second-class citizens. They make up ten per cent of educators, despite the fact that Israeli schools are in dire need of qualified teachers.

The initiative is a "win-win" both for unemployed yet highly skilled Arab teachers, and for Jewish families, who may have had little personal contact with Arab citizens.

Regardless of the optimism, schools are still subject to the ongoing conflict. Tensions between teachers reached their height during last summer's Gaza war, with a number of Arab teachers sending accusatory, some say "provocative", messages on Facebook to their Jewish colleagues.

However, Arab teachers have also worked to bridge the divide in deeply segregated towns such as Ramlah, said Samora Bayuk, an Arabic teacher at Reut elementary school.

After a number of fights between Jewish and Arab children, the school took its Jewish students to the Arab neighbourhood of Jawarish, and on another day, the Arab students were hosted for Passover Seder. Then, on "Good Deeds Day", Arabs and Jews came together to clean up the streets.

"We explained to them that we are all human beings, and that everyone deserves respect," said Ms Bayuk, adding that after three years the school had managed to create understanding between the two groups.

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