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 , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Hand in Hand: The Bridge Over the Wadi Jewish-Arab school in Kfar Kara in northern Israel.
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    A teacher at the Hand in Hand high school in Jerusalem talks with a 10th-grader.
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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."

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.

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"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.

In addition, schools cannot fully divorce themselves from the wider sociopolitical context. But the fact that the schools have made it through some tense political times, such as the eruption of the second Palestinian intifada, which started in 2000, is considered an achievement in itself, he says.

"The fact that these schools still exist and still struggle, with all its complexities, with all these ups and downs, is fascinating," Professor Bekerman says. "In that sense, well, something is going on here."

The struggle for Hand in Hand, in addition to branching out into starting a high school, is to maintain enrollment at its other schools, particularly among Jewish students. The Jerusalem school, where the high school is located, boasts 256 Arab and 205 Jewish and other students. At least five Jewish pupils from the sixth and seventh grades have left the school this year.

This is due, in part, to competition with other strong schools. Some parents also prefer to send their children to a high school with a proven track record in matriculation exam success.

But over time, say school organizers, Hand in Hand will have this sort of track record, too. But the bigger success, so far, for the school is that they have achieved much of what they set out to accomplish.

The children speak both Hebrew and Arabic, play together without thinking "I am a Jew" and "you are an Arab," and visit one another at their homes, says Yochanan Eshchar, the former Jewish coprincipal at the Bridge over the Wadi Hand in Hand school in the northern Arab village of Kfar Kara.

"We are teaching both sides both stories," says Mr. Eshchar. "They know this is the Jewish story and this is the Palestinian story. We teach to be empathic to the pain of the other and that both sides have a right to be here and we teach that right."

It is precisely these traits that make the school so attractive to parents Rajaa Massalha and Yochai Cohen Benveniste.

Mr. Benveniste, a Jewish resident of Givat Ada whose two sons attend the Kfar Kara school, admires the school's high level of education and the opportunity it affords his children to mix with both Jewish and Arab children

"I've seen a complete understanding of the human race and not just the Jewish race and not just the Jewish story," he says, speaking of his 8-year-old son, Yonatan, who is in the fourth grade. "They get a complete picture."

Ms. Massalha, an Arab resident of Kfar Kara whose four children attend the school, is thankful that the school is instilling in her children a strong sense of identity and helping them to feel proud that they are Arab, a minority in Israel. She also loves the idea of a school "for two peoples and two cultures" that promotes equality, respect, and nonviolence.

"It gives you a broader view," she says.

Cofounder Khalaf says he'll continue to push to have the Hand in Hand high school in Jerusalem officially recognized. He submitted additional paperwork for the high school and hopes the ministry will reconsider. If not, he says, they will try again next year. A few years ago, it took two years and a Supreme Court petition before their middle school received its license.

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