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The education system is one of the victims of violence in Israel's Arab communities

It wasn't meant to be like this. Sakhnin high school teacher Salim Abu Younis had been preparing to reunite with his students at the start of the new school year, not at a funeral. Encountering them at the burial of Ali Abu Salah, a resident of the city who had been gunned down, he was asked by one of his students, 'teacher, I'm in shock. I'm scared about my future. I could have been in the car with him, and then I would be dead now,' Abu Younis recounted. "Today, I am also afraid of being informed, 'sorry, your son was killed because of mistaken identity.'"

Like Abu Younis, many teachers in Israel's Arab community describe the hardship they face when confronting this solemn reality. As of Sunday, the number of Israeli Arabs killed in 2023 stands at 168 – and it's hard to find a school where the students don't have relatives or acquaintances who have fallen victim to the bloody violence.

Just this weekend, a 13-year-old boy what shot dead in Kafr Qara – the fourth minor this year to lose his life to conflicts between criminal gangs. School classrooms have become a space not merely for acquiring an education, but also a location filled with life overshadowed by death. And the school staff are left helpless.

"Everyone is aware of what is happening," said an elementary school teacher from Tamra, who – like many of those interviewed for this article – asked not to be identified in fear for her safety. "We went through some very difficult events during the summer. Violence, shootings, assassinations, fatalities. In all incidents in our area, relatives of children I teach were victims." An attempted murder took place right next to her house, she says, and the neighbor's son was gravely wounded.

Yusef Asfour, a history teacher in a high school in the central mixed Jewish-Arab city of Lod, said that "the crime is chipping away everywhere. First it was in Jaffa, then it expanded towards us, and now it's everywhere. Another case and another one – we hardly finish grieving and there's already another murder. There is always someone in the class whose father or other relative was shot to death."

The murders in the past several months have hit a peak, but Asfour's school has known death before. Two years ago, a gifted student named Anas Wahwah was killed. "The teachers and the students couldn't function for a period of time, it was terrible," he says. "But there's nothing you can do, you have to keep going. And this is one of the saddest things that have happened to us as teachers: In the beginning it's sad and painful, but you get used to it. It's becomes a norm."

"As a history and a civics teacher, we teach that in a democracy, the human being is at the center, you talk to the students about human and civil rights," adds Asfour. "It’s absurd – in the reality of my students, human life is expendable."

No protection

For Arab educators, the challenge in dealing with the growing circle of violence can't be handled with simple talks in the classroom. Many teachers who have spoken to Haaretz were not sure how to behave and express themselves on this issue, because if they work to root out the violence, they could also pay a price.

Although every teacher, regardless of the community to which they belong, must always weigh their words on social and political issues. However, this concern is more tangible in the Arab community. Since its inception, the Education Ministry has kept a close eye over the Arab school system, their curricula, and their teachers by maintaining a supervisor from the Shin Bet security service even though martial law was removed in 1966.

Furthermore, teachers could put themselves at risk from criminal organizations should anything they say be construed a criticism. As was the case of activist Johara Khanifs, who fought for women's rights and against crime and violence in the Arab community until she was murdered last year in a car bombing.
"People talk about those wounded or shot to death," says another high school principal. "But sometimes the threats take the shape of hints, of verbal threats or of torching a car."

Violent incidents are more prevalent than the shootings the police report on, and sometimes they take place inside the schools: In 2018, two masked men shot a 17-year-old student on the school grounds in Jaljulia, moderately wounding him. In many cases, the police provide no explanation on the motives, and the sense of uncertainty only continues to grow.

"We prefer not to touch this subject," said a high school teacher, adding that her colleagues and her "know that it's important to talk to the students, but we refrain because we're protecting ourselves." Nidaa, an elementary school teacher in Rahat, described "a fear to take a stand and talk to the students about their feelings, because there is no protection or a space in which to express oneself."

"What can you tell nine and ten-year-old children when you talk about a boy who was murdered?" she asked. "They come back after a summer during which most of them witnessed shootings… how are we supposed to deal with that? They ask a lot of questions – what happened, why was he murdered. It tears me apart."

According to the elementary teacher from Tamra, she and her colleagues have no tools to cope with this topic, it is completely disconnected from educating students of this age. "As we prepared for the start of the school year, we didn't touch the subject of violence. I don’t know how to talk to the students," she said. "For them, it's part of life, and at the end of the year I sensed they have developed an indifference."

An elementary school principal added that "what interests me, more than the crime itself, is to safeguard the students' hope. To formulate for them a picture of the future. I don’t want the teachers and students to feel helpless all the time."

But hope is a concept that is increasingly difficult to convey as personal safety deteriorates. "When my son leaves the house, I immediately think when and if he'll return," said Numeiri Abu Jabal, a civics teacher from Ilut. "That's also mostly what I do in school: In the classroom, instead of pedagogy, we deal with murders. And unfortunately we're already skilled at this, after such a long time in a state of emergency."

Although his school employs two advisors, Abu Jabal admits it's not enough: "The problem in the Arab community is comprehensive. Education is important, but we must bring about the intervention of all relevant ministries. It doesn’t matter how much I teach, they will go out to the street and see what is happening. The school does not exist in a sterile environment."

Nidaa, the elementary school teacher, says that shortage in resources make it harder to consistently address the students' hardships. In July, the Education Ministry presented the Knesset with data showing that due to the difficulty in recruiting suitable personnel, only 70 percent of school psychologist posts in the Arab community are staffed. Things are worse in the Bedouin communities, with only 58 percent of the posts filled.

Dr. Sharaf Hassan, head of the Follow-up Committee on Arab Education, said that "an entire society is in trauma, and the education system must prepare for this." According to Hassan, the shortage in trained personnel isn't the only problem; it is overshadowed by a long-standing policy of the Education Ministry, which focuses on academic achievements as a means to integrate into Israeli society, at the expense of exploring identity and belonging, essential ingredients for a healthy society. "They neglected teaching values," he says, adding that the neglect also encompasses "the emotional needs of the students, especially those who are experiencing hardship."

The Education Ministry said that it runs several programs for the prevention of violence in Arab communities, and for coping with it, including a 25-million-shekel ($6.5m) program that includes training, advising and courses. In addition, the ministry said it is working on a program called "From Violence to Leadership" which will include more tools for schools to employ.

And yet the scope and level of violence requires much more than what the ministry is offering. According to Abu Jabal, "the education system can't operate on its own; we can do a lot with the students, but without a comprehensive plan to stem the violence, it's not going to help." Hassan stresses the need to provide care for "the many families who have become bereaved, who are threatened or who are tending to wounded members."

Before the school year began, Education Minister Yoav Kisch met with Arab council heads promising budgets for additional schools and educational programs with both sides describing the discussion as "positive." As a result, the council heads decided to cancel a planned strike after the meeting ended. Ameer Bisharat, executive director of the National Council of Arab Mayors in Israel, said that the councils view the new school year as "an emergency year in education" and called for "greater involvement of parents, so that they convey, together with the students, a message against the [current] situation."

Both the Arab councils and the Education Ministry are also trying to cope with another problem: Lack of employment opportunities for many young people. "Someone from a criminal organization comes and promises 2,000 shekels for an assassination," says Salim Abu Younis from Sakhnin. "When there is no work, this leads to crime."

The school board, he added, tries to address the needs of low-income students in particular, with donations of uniforms, books, or money for events, but he's anxious about the results. "The responsibility lies with the government," he said. "It has to understand that the violence in the Arab communities must be rooted out. Don't think it will remain here with us. It will arrive in Haifa, in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem."

Shira Kadari-Ovadia, Sheren Falah Saab, Ran Shimoni