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In Israel, a first attempt at high school integration

Fourteen students in Israel are taking part in an educational experiment that aims to teach Jewish and Arab high-schoolers together for the first time.

By Brenda GazzarContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / October 7, 2008

Hand in Hand: The Bridge Over the Wadi Jewish-Arab school in Kfar Kara in northern Israel.

Brenda Gazzar

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Yazan Khalaf has no shortage of big dreams. Aspiring to be a pilot, the young Arab-Israeli entering the 10th grade is also trying to "change the whole world."

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Yazan might not start any kind of global revolution, but he is taking part in an educational experiment that could profoundly affect Israel.

He's among 14 students who started this year in Israel's first bilingual Jewish-Arab high school. It's a radical development for a country where most schools are segregated and one that its founders hope will spark a national rethink about education. At a minimum, putting Jews and Arabs together in bilingual classrooms can foster greater understanding between both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It might be a model of the world they may live in someday.

"It has to succeed," says Lior Aviman, principal for the high school started by the Hand in Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education. "There are more than a few cynics and skeptics and we must prove that this is possible. For me, this is a big challenge … to show that Jews and Arabs can really study and live together."

Indeed, the school faces plenty of obstacles.

First, it's not officially approved by the Ministry of Education. A ministry official said the school did not submit all of its paperwork on time for this school year. Without a license, the school will miss out on government funding and it will become more difficult for students to take matriculation exams, which help determine university admission.

To further complicate matters, nearly all of the 14 students are Arab citizens of Israel, except for one who is half-Jewish.

But administrators say they are not deterred. Hand in Hand has overcome these sorts of obstacles before, they say.

"At the beginning, we didn't have anything," says Amin Khalaf, Yazan's father and Hand in Hand cofounder. "We didn't have offices, we didn't have money, only questions with good intentions."

The group started in 1997 and today operates four bilingual and bicultural schools and serves about 900 students. In addition to having a Jewish and an Arab coprincipal, nearly each class has a Jewish educator and an Arab one. The children are taught in both Arabic and Hebrew, learn about both cultures, and commemorate Jewish, Muslim, and Christian holidays.

Students in bilingual schools appear to have a more complex understanding of Israeli society, including of its minorities and of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, than their counterparts who attend monolingual schools, says Zvi Bekerman, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's school of education and an expert in peace education.

"The relationships and the appreciation and perceptions of each child toward the other are much better than in regular society," he says.

However, he adds, research indicates that these attitudes do not necessarily carry over outside the schools.