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There needs to be shared education among Jews and Arabs in Israel

The Ministry of Education invested efforts in basic skills, social climate improvement, pedagogical dialogue and many other important things – but living together was not one of them.

I grew up in an immigrant neighborhood in the south of France. My parents came from Tunis ten years before I was born. They spoke Arabic at home. At school I studied with French children whose parents – like mine – came from distant and exotic places. It certainly played a role in my choice to engage in education for coexistence between the diverse groups that form the Israeli society.

Years later, I came to Ramle for the first time, at the invitation of the Ministry of Education in order to develop an educational program for nurturing mutual understanding and trust. Ramle immediately raised reminiscences of my childhood vibe.

The year was 2011. I saw unkempt brown dwellings, thirsty trees and some oleander bushes. I met the principals of the elementary and junior high schools. Some were locals, Jews and Arabs, others came from outside, whether from Kafr Kassem or Taiba, or from Modi’in or Tel Aviv.

The locals talked about living together as a natural thing in Ramle. One female principal told me that when her parents arrived from Morocco, they were given a house that used to belong to Arab tenants that left in 1948. She grew up with friends who lived on here street, who happened to be both Jews and Arabs.

That’s how I came to learn about the complex history of Ramle: only very few Palestinians remained in the city after 1948. Newcomers arrived in waves: Palestinians whose villages had been destroyed, and shortly after, new immigrants from North Africa that who carried with them painful displacement stories. During the seventies, Russian immigrants arrived. 

During the 90s, Palestinian families came from the West Bank (known as the “collaborators”) who were relocated to Ramle from the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) because their lives were in danger. Then, more immigrants came this time from the Caucasus and Ethiopia as well as families of the Amazon Jews (known as the “Peruvians”). Finally, in 2003, young religious families from settlements arrived to Ramle in order to “strengthen” the city social fabric, but mostly added to its complexity.

WHY WERE so many families in distress sent by the government to further burden one small city like Ramle? The answer is very simple: because it was possible.

In the city I live in, Hod Hasharon or in the neighboring Kfar Saba, the residents would raise a shout. But in Ramle, who will shout? The better-off families moved long ago to live in the new nearby cities of Modi’in or Shoham. Hence, the schools of Ramle are required to deal with poor children who do not master Hebrew as required, even years after they arrived in Israel.

So, in the fall of 2011 I rolled up my sleeves, raised philanthropic money and we started working. We initiated the Living Together in Ramle project with the Ministry of Education. The goals were clear: to create permanent connections between the Jewish and Arab schools in the city in order to foster trust and resilience in the relationship between the communities; to improve the quality of the education in the city.

We were inspired by the Northern Ireland Shared Education success story. Northern Ireland had previously experienced a bloody civil war, but a few years after the Good Friday Peace Agreement, the opposing political parties agreed to enact the Shared Education Act.

They envisioned education as the main tool for cultivating a shared society and improving the education of all children. Even though their education system is separate, as is ours, Catholic and Protestant pupils started to study a few classes together weekly. Following a pilot program led by Queens University in Belfast, the Education authority appointed pedagogical facilitators for clusters of Catholic and Protestant schools, initiated joint staff trainings, ensured regular funding for transportation and regular joint ventures such as prestigious majors in which students from several schools from the same area, study together.

In Ramle, the program began with dialogue sessions with the principals. We wanted to motivate, not take place another plan from headquarters to the field. The principals knew each other but never spoke from the heart together about their personal and family stories. We adopted the narrative approach of Prof. Dan Bar-On which allows for first-person storytelling to reduce anger and the sense of threat. For example, the Arab principals talked about their Palestinian identity and this was challenging for the Jewish principals. But the way it was conveyed, for example through the mention of family members in the West Bank or Jordan, reduced tensions and increased empathy.

It worked great. The Arab principals, especially, were thrilled by the unprecedented opportunity to share their personal story as it is woven into the national story without the risk of being summoned to a hearing, under the good auspices and encouragement of the Ministry of Education. The success was quickly recognized and led to connections and collaborations between the Jewish and Arab faculty on one level and on a wider level collaborations were created between Jewish and Arab schools. Teachers were trained together and initiated impressive projects with their students, moving from their own schools to their colleagues’ schools.

Among other things, they initiated a social program called The Key of the Heart with the participation of Jewish and Arab children. Joint lessons were held twice a month on a regular basis, once in the Jewish school and once in the Arab school. Later, they studied math together, and soon, the Municipal Center for English Studies joined in and weekly English classes were held jointly for Jewish and Arab children.

Thanks to the tremendous success of the program, we obtained funding from the municipality for some of the transportation and hurried to report this to our Jewish American donors who were thirsty to see “state investments.” We were “on the wave” and Ramle was on the right track to becoming a city that is a symbol of inclusive education and a successfully integrated community. But four years later, the excitement on the part of the donors diminished and they were looking for another, innovative and nationwide project.

The Ministry of Education tried to continue the project, yet – despite the goodwill – it did not succeed. In the twilight of the program, in the fall of 2017 the City of Ramle won the President’s Award for Partnership Education. I sat in the back row of the festive hall, excited by the enthusiasm on the faces of the teachers and principals, but aware that I was watching the beginning of a slow process of decline.

The Ministry of Education invested efforts in basic skills, social climate improvement, pedagogical dialogue and many other important things – but living together was not one of them. I am ashamed to write here that I too moved on, to new ventures for which we have received new philanthropic funding in Jerusalem, the Sharon and the Triangle area in Israel’s North.

I was hoping, even expecting, that the seeds we sowed would continue to develop on their own and that things would turn out okay. But today – even more than ever – I think otherwise.

In conversations with teachers and principals, they claim that they knew from the beginning that it was not enough to receive support and guidance, for three or four years. In a city like Ramle or like Lod, one has to invest efforts in living together all the time and not to let go.

Unfortunately, the impact of the program’s termination could already be seen in May. Starting on May 10, to be precise, set against the background of tensions in Jerusalem and the Hamas missile attacks, young Arabs in Ramle – especially those who dropped out of school and were unemployed – began to riot and attack Jewish homes. The next day, far right MK Itamar Ben-Gvir arrived in the city and was cheerily welcomed by an enthusiastic crowd that accompanied him.

This was the match that ignited the city.

A few days later, I met a veteran Arab director at an emergency conference of Israeli Hope in Education convened at the President’s House. She told me how a group of residents to which she belongs – Jews and Arabs – worked together with the municipality to lower the flames.

It takes a second to destroy trust that took years to build. Despite this, she and other principals have made it clear to the President and the Minister of Education, that they do not have the right to collapse in despair. Alone, they cannot do it; they need resources and political support.

The big question rises now, after last month’s chaos: Is newly appointed Minister of Education Yifat Shasha-Biton (who received a doctorate in Peace Education), ready to back up the plan and allocate resources for Jewish and Arab Israeli pupils – who meet and study in different schools – to study together a few lessons weekly?

Myriam Darmoni Charbit