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Bar-Ilan program: unique encounters between Jewish and Arab high school students in Israel

A unique program bringing together high school students from Arab and Jewish schools came to its exciting and moving end last week at Bar-Ilan University. The program, named the High School Program for Leadership and Law, is hosted by the Menomadim Center for Jewish and Democratic Law, headquartered at the faculty of law at Bar-Ilan University.

According to Elad Caplan, a lawyer from a modern-orthodox background and director of the Menomadin Center, the program aims to bring together different groups in Israeli society in an atmosphere of learning and discussion, and thus create agents for change. “We are trying to create a bridge between the Jewish and democratic identities of Israel – as well as a bridge between the academic sphere and Israeli society.”

In an educational scheme divided into four separate school systems for the different sectors of Israeli society, encounters between the different groups in a school environment are not very common. “This is probably not going to change in the near future,” Caplan adds, “but when it comes to the field of citizenship studies, it becomes absurd. This study field is the very essence of our joint Israeli identity, yet it’s all carried out in closed echo chambers. Our idea here is to shatter those echo chambers and develop dialogue from a shared perspective.”

“The program is mediated by students from our law faculty, who themselves enroll in training sessions on issues regarding Judaism and democracy and group mediation. This means that our university students are also empowered in the process, in addition to the high school students brought here. They acquire tools, knowledge, and experience, and all become agents for change” adds Caplan.

Dr. Manal Totry Jubran, an Arab lawyer and academic from Haifa who serves as the academic head of the program, adds that “some of the most shaping and moving encounters were those of our faculty students. Such encounters during a war are never simple, but all of them felt the need to meet and discuss.

“The idea of the program is to hold an insightful academic discussion, not just a social encounter,” she adds. “We work with texts, study them together, reflect, and then create the grounds for dialogue. Our goal is that people will engage in meaningful conversation.”

“This unique combination of study and communication enables us to discuss difficult issues. We can always use the texts to moderate the discussion and focus on understanding the different perspectives, even when there are fundamental disagreements,” adds Caplan. He holds that this kind of discourse is relevant and important for any kind of intellectual discourse: “We can disagree, but we must understand each other.”

The Arab-Jewish program

The high school program was first aimed at bringing together schools from the secular and religious sectors of Jewish society; but since last year, the center has developed an additional program that brings together Jewish and Arab high school students.

“This year the program was supposed to be even larger, but for obvious reasons, it became a great challenge. There were times when we thought of canceling this year’s program, but we are happy that we managed to carry it out, especially this year and in this situation,” explains Caplan.

“We were surprised that the schools themselves insisted on coming and holding these sessions,” adds Totry Jubran. This includes an Arab school from Sakhnin and a Jewish school, Ankory Rishon Letziyon, both of which were determined to see this program happen this year."

In the end, over 300 high school students from 5 schools, as well as 40 students from the Bar-Ilan law faculty, took part in the program this year. Two mediators were present in each group, a Jewish one and an Arab one. “For some, it was the first interaction with a student from the other group –even those who have met people from the other group rarely have the chance to have a meaningful conversation” Caplan comments.

The program includes full school days, from 9:00-13:00. First, the students are gathered for a joint general session, then they split into smaller groups of fourteen students and two mediators, where they delve into significant legal texts, such as the Declaration of Independence, religious sources, court verdicts, conventions, and more. Following that, students go through a reflection session in which they are asked to perform joint intellectual exercises such as attempting to formulate guidelines for a shared covenant. Finally, they reconvene and listen to a lecture by public figures.

“We show the students examples of past agreements and urge them to work together to find solutions. Legal language and thought are involved in fundamental social issues and can be a source of conflict, but also a basis for thinking a shared basis for our society,” Caplan elaborates.

Challenges along the way

The war brought with it many technical challenges, such as the recurring postponement of the academic year in Israel; the fact that some students were not even present due to their being in reserve duty, and more. “We had to shorten the program and, following the advice of experts on the issue of mediation and group facilitation, we decided to hold inward preparation sessions for each of the groups before meeting the other groups,” adds Totry Jubran.

And then there were also content-related challenges. Some students from the university had just come back from weeks of reserve duty, while others were fearful or hesitant, thinking it wasn’t the right time for such encounters.

“It was not simple, but we have no other choice but to work together as much as we can within the situation. By the final session we had with the faculty students, the mediators expressed gratitude for taking part in the program. Many of them had gotten to know each other so well that they completed each other’s thoughts. Some brave friendships were created,” says Caplan gladly.

“The program usually makes a point of not evading delicate issues, and our goals were always twofold: in-depth learning and creating an atmosphere which allows participants to leave with a positive feeling,” explains Caplan. “This year we put a larger emphasis on the second goal, focusing on a respectful discussion and space to discuss difficult issues within the identity group.”

Totry Jobran added that this year they chose to focus on the issues of the nation state and the Nation-State Law, as well as collective rights in Israel. “We chose complex subjects but focused on those which can be discussed during times of war,” Caplan elaborated.

There were times when the discourse was on edge. One Arab student said she didn’t want to speak Hebrew to the Jewish mediator in the first inward meeting. Then the group processed what happened inwardly and the student came back even more active than before.

Is there a way to gauge the success of this program?

“Oh yes, we evaluate everything,” adds Caplan with a smile. “Students and mediators receive a feedback form which they must fill out. We measure the effectiveness of the learning process, asking for instance if it added to their knowledge regarding the issues discussed; and we can also measure the significance of the encounter by asking whether they would like to continue the discussion, or if their belief in sustaining a joint society strengthened.”

“Feedback was exceptional,” adds Totry Jubran. “We were told that the experience was positive and empowering; the encounter was natural, and the youth generally enjoyed it. It was actually less challenging and emotionally charged than we thought it would be.”

How do Arab students view a program whose name explicitly refers to a Jewish and Democratic state?

“Arab society has a role to play in discourse about Israel’s identity as a Jewish and Democratic state, and should not be excluded,” says Caplan.

Totry Jubran ads: “The state is defined as Jewish and Democratic everywhere. While it might not be easy or compelling for some parts of society, it would not prevent me from trying to promote positive encounters such as this program.”

Caplan added that studies led by the Center showed that following October 7th, Arab society in Israel is showing more openness to strengthening ties with the Jewish Israeli public, as well as more sympathy with the state, and a greater willingness for dialogue. On the other hand, they also showed that Jewish Israeli society has grown more suspicious, falsely believing that most Arabs support Hamas. “It would be a shame if we miss out on this opportunity to strengthen the connection between the Arab sector and the State of Israel.”

“Even before the war started, I knew that this program is the future of the country,” adds Totry Jubran. She brings up her childhood, growing up in the mixed city of Haifa and participating in encounter programs as a teenager herself; also reminding that her research field deals with encounters and mixed cities.

“There’s no alternative for a real encounter. It’s something you acquire that you can’t get from any other source – news, research, nothing. When you bring together people to one place, they realize that all are human beings who both share and differ in traits, interests and even pain. I wish these meetings would become more frequent and thus contribute to a common future.

Ohad Merlin