November 10th, Day #9

Hagar School, Jewish-Arab Education for Equality, Bilingual School, Beer Sheva

Hannah Rendell

Teacher teams are like a marriage

Teacher teams are like a marriage

Welcome to Hagar School. We’re sitting in what used to be a rundown bomb shelter that has been renovated. It’s a ship – an oasis in the middle of the desert. It was very important for us to have a library that contains Hebrew and Arabic books. While the children are in here, they can continue with their lessons. It’s very calming. It’s a sad reality but – while we are in here, they’re allowed to continue being normal.

Hagar is eight years old. We were started by four sets of Jewish and Arab parents who were doctors and professors at Ben-Gurion University and Siroka hospital. They were friends, and they wanted their children to go to school together.

We meet the students

We meet the students

In Israel, there are three kinds of state education. Secular Jewish, religious Jewish, and Arab. There are a lot of options for Jewish children. Arab children can go to a Jewish school and many do. But there are no Arab schools in Beersheva. There are Arab schools on the periphery and in Bedouin villages, but they are grossly underfunded. The teaching quality is poor. Arab parents have to choose between their children retaining their culture and enjoying being with other Arab children, or compromising this and sending them to Jewish secular schools, where their narratives are completely and utterly ignored.

So these four Arab and Jewish professional couples decided that they wanted a good level of education and they wanted their children to grow up in an atmosphere where they could continue to be Arab or Jewish. They could continue with their own identity but side-by-side.

Today we have a daycare for 1 to 3-year-olds, two kindergarten classes, an early childhood learning center, and elementary classes up to sixth-grade. We are currently teaching 240 children. And we’re still growing.

We partner with the Ministry of education, which means we’re a public state school. Our founders could have created a private school that would be self-sustaining. But because the area we’re in is very poor, our board wanted to accept local kids from Beersheva, both Arab and Jewish. The state gave us the building, teachers, the Ministry of education curriculum, everything.

We took it and said, thanks very much. Now we’re going to make it equal. So we hired a second teacher for every class. There is an Arab and Jewish teacher side-by-side in each class. They each teach in their own language. The idea is that the children will grow up to be bilingual. We are pioneers, just like Yad b‘Yad [Hand in Hand]. They and we are the only ones doing this in Israel.

The classes are 50-50, Jewish and Arab. In the beginning, it was hard to get Jewish students. That was unsurprising. But there were no good Arab schools for Arab students, so Hagar was a very good solution to their problems. Whereas Jewish parents had to have a good reason to want to come here. In the beginning, the classes were small and there were more Arabs than Jews. Today we have waiting lists on both sides.

We looked at the curriculum from the education ministry and said, okay, we will make sure our kids pass your tests. But the kids are from such different levels with such different backgrounds that this curriculum doesn’t apply to all of them. We need to find a new model. Most of all, for gender studies. We have big challenges with gender issues here. We really wanted to make that a part of our curriculum.

There are no exams other than the state-imposed tests, which are important to evaluate our success in teaching the children mathematics, science, and English and the things their parents are worried about. The children score very well in these tests. But the children know that these tests are of little importance other than to mark the school, not them.

I made Aliyah to Israel with a very naïve Zionist view. My husband is from Sweden. We met in England. We came to Beersheva because we wanted to contribute to the development of the Negev desert. We sent our children to a secular Jewish kindergarten.

Wall artwork

Wall artwork

I had heard about Hagar from a friend who worked here. I said, it sounds lovely. But I’ll bet it’s all about peace, peace, peace and it forgets about the education. Then I started to work here and get to know the school. I went home to my husband and said, how can I talk about how wonderful it is and not move the children? He was more nervous than me. He probably never had a meaningful conversation with an Arab in his life. I was having daily relationships with Arabs.

One day when my six-year-old Rafael was three, he came home holding a toy gun. He was crying. I asked, why are you crying? He said, “because I was at a friend’s birthday party and they gave all the girls fairy wands and all the boys guns. I wanted the fairy wand, and they told me I couldn’t have a fairy wand because I’m a boy.” I looked at my husband and said, final straw, that’s it! He said okay, fine – I don’t stand a chance now. I took Raphael to the shop and said, I’m going to buy you the biggest fairy wand in Beersheva. You can wave gender equality on everyone.

Now both my children are here. They’re speaking really good Arabic, fluent Hebrew, and Swedish and English.

In the first week my kids are in Hagar, it’s Eīd al-aḍḥā, the Muslim sacrifice feast. Jews and Muslims have a different take on the story of the sacrifice. For Muslims, Abraham was to sacrifice Ishmael, and for Jews it was Isaac. I said – okay, my husband is going to love this. It’s a huge celebration. Unlike Jews, Muslims don’t have a lot of religious holidays.

There’s lot of dancing, a lot of food. All the Arab children are wearing white gowns and all the Jewish children have white flowers in their hair. The children don’t end up confused. They know who they are, but they do know about the other celebration.

The Arab teacher takes center stage. The kids are singing in Arabic. I asked my husband, how are you? When we walked out, he said, I don’t know about this. I said, I understand, let’s just see.

The next celebration was Chanukah. The Jewish teacher took the lead. They invited my husband to light the Chanukah candles and he felt better. Everything was in Hebrew, and he heard the teacher telling the story of Chanukah, and all the kids were interested. When he walked out he said, you know, Hannah – if they did Eīd al-aḍḥā now, I would probably enjoy it. Because now I know that they’re also doing my narrative. I wouldn’t be so scared. I wouldn’t feel marginalized and ignored.

I said to him, you feel like that – you’re 35! Imagine how a five-year-old feels in class. Sitting there and everything is not about him or her. Over the last four years that we’ve been at Hagar, my husband absolutely loves it.

How do we cope with the holidays? [What Jews celebrate as Israel Independence Day, Arabs mourn as “the Nakba”, the Catastrophe.] Commemoration of the Nakba by more than five people is illegal in Israel. You can be arrested. It’s very difficult to talk only about one side’s narrative. We sing the national anthem and completely ignore the Arab perspective.

We came to an agreement with the Ministry of Education. We can’t acknowledge Nakba Day outside of school, but we can acknowledge it in the classroom. In every classroom on Nakba day, we have a picture, a poem, and a story. The teachers use it as part of their daily lesson. Then comes Yom Ha-zicharon (Memorial Day) or Yom Ha-shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), and in that corner we have a picture, a poem, story. The reason is to say, when it’s Holocaust day, as a Jew, I look at this board, the people there look like my family. This poem is familiar to me, this narrative is familiar to me, and I feel sad. When it’s Nakba Day – different people, different narrative. I might not even agree with it, but I remember the feeling I had when my holiday was on the board. I know that some of my friends in the class might be feeling sad today. I need to give them the space to have their own feelings.

We think we really do this well. We have 1000 members supporting our school. All across the political and economic spectrum. Political views are set aside. Everybody wants the same thing in the long run. There’s no hatred here.


Lakia, Israeli Negev, Homestays with Bedouin Families

Feast prepared for group and served under the tent

Feast prepared for group and served under the tent

Our Bedouin hosts are gracious and welcoming. I’m surprised by the spaciousness of their lovely home. Split level, with porches and balconies. But what they don’t have, based on the consistent narrative of our host and hostess, is basic human respect from many people in the larger Israeli society with whom they have

Abeed al-Kareem (Abu Salman

Sheikh Abeed al-Kareem (Abu Salman)

 

 

chance encounters – checkpoint guards, policemen, and fellow citizens they randomly interact with throughout each day. They also don’t have their traditional way of life and the centuries-old roles that formed the fabric of their society. We learned a little yesterday about the effect of the eradication of their culture on everyone in their village. It’s apparent that no amount of financial compensation can make up for that.

bedouin homestay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Photo: Joanie Levine with her Bedouin host family. )

 

 

 

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