A two school solution? Segregated education in Israel

ISRAEL — Bashar Abouliel gets easily bored in class and wishes his high school offered more sports and took more creative approaches to learning.

But some of 17-year-old Abouliel’s qualms about his school in the Israeli town of Ein-Mahel are more profound than extracurriculars or standardized testing.

In fact, if he could, he said he would “change the whole education system.”

Abouliel’s school is comprised solely of Arab students, like himself. Most are Muslims. None, according to Abouliel, are Jews.

Abouliel has attended a segregated public school his entire life, despite the fact that he holds an Israeli passport and the Israeli government oversees his campus in Ein Mahel.

School segregation is the standard in Israel’s public education system. For Jewish students, there are state-run secular schools, state-run religious schools and independently-run religious schools (known as haredi). Arab students go to state-run schools of their own.

(Private schools and international schools are alternative options.)

Even the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics collects separate data on “Hebrew” and “Arab” students, as displayed on the Jewish Virtual Library. In 2013, there were 1,999 Jewish primary schools and 519 Arab primary schools, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

It’s not only a matter of separation. Access to resources is often inequitable, and the students take note.

“The Jewish schools are getting more budget than ours,” Abouliel said. “Our school doesn’t have many important equipments that are required for learning.”

According to the Jerusalem municipality’s budget in 2016, a pupil in East Jerusalem, the Arab side of the city, gets less than half the funding granted their counterpart in West Jerusalem, the predominantly Jewish side of the city.

Differences in their primary and secondary education can impact Arab students’ futures. In 2018, Arab students accounted for less than seven percent of doctoral students in Israel, according to a survey conducted by the Israeli government’s Council for Higher Education.

Although Abouliel wants to overhaul the segregated system, the chances he will work for the Ministry of Education are slim. Although he is a full citizen of the Jewish state, the Arab minority is often subjugated.

According to Haaretz, the newly elected 21st Knesset (Israeli parliament) saw a decrease in Arab lawmakers from 13 to 10. The Arab minority now only accounts for 8.3 percent of Knesset, despite making up 20 percent of the Israeli population.

Although the introspective Abouliel has only ever been schooled in a segregated classroom, the teenager wishes he went to school alongside his Jewish peers.

“I will be happy if there are schools like that because I believe in coexistence,” he said.

From an outsider’s perspective, Abouliel has the tools to connect with his Jewish peers: his first language is Arabic, but he also speaks Hebrew and English. However, he said he only meets with Jewish students on occasional class field trips.

“We go to seminars and we talk with Jewish people,” he said. “It was exciting to hear the other’s point of view.”

In public schools, all Arab-Israeli students study Hebrew. Arabic was an official language in Israel until 2018, when Hebrew was declared the solitary official language. Jewish students take up Arabic as part of the public curriculum in middle school, but pursuing it in high school is optional.  

There are only seven integrated schools, where Jewish and Arab students learn side-by-side, in bilingual settings.

The School for Peace in Neve Shalom, which opened in 1984, was the first school of an integrated nature. Today, it is formally recognized and receives some financial support by the state.

The School for Peace is an anomaly, one of only seven intentionally integrated schools in Israel. The six others are run by Hand in Hand, a program founded in 1997.

According to its mission statement, Hand in Hand aims to “create a strong, inclusive, shared society in Israel through a network of Jewish-Arab integrated bilingual schools.” It currently serves about 1900 Jewish and Arab students at six different school locations, and intends to open more over the next ten years.

Although there are about one million students enrolled in the Israeli education system, less than 3000 students attend these seven integrated schools.

Abouliel said he did not even know where the nearest integrated school was. For his family, an integrated school was not a consideration.

Lee Gordon, an Israeli Jew, co-founded Hand in Hand alongside partner Amin Khalaf, an Israeli Arab. Gordon said there are notable benefits to putting Jewish and Arab students in a classroom together beginning in pre-school, when they are still impressionable.

“If you’re 18 and you’ve never met someone from the other community or hardly met someone from the other community, never really engaged with someone from the other community, it’s hard then to build bridges,” Gordon said.

According to Gordon, who now resides in the States, securing a spot at a Hand in Hand school is no easy feat. There are waiting lists with hundreds of names on them. Gordon said it’s easier to recruit Arab students than Jewish students, but they strive to maintain a 50/50 balance in the classroom.

“If people see that Jewish and Arab kids can go to school together, they can envision other things,” Gordon said. “They can think, well maybe Jews and Arabs can work together and create a business together. Or maybe they can make peace together.”

Gordon said that Hand in Hand also encourages interaction outside of the classroom. When students want to have sleepovers with their classmates or go to birthday parties, for example, their parents have the chance to become acquainted, too.

That’s not to say everyone is eager to attend an integrated school.

Hussein Habib Allah, one of Abouliel’s friends and classmates, prefers to learn alongside other Palestinians.

“We are the same and it’s easier to communicate with them,” he said. “It will be hard to communicate with the Jews.”

Unlike Abouliel, Habib Allah does not like broaching the conflict at school. He prefers to focus on academic skills that will help him someday get a master’s degree in computer science.

The “two-school” situation might offer a glimpse as to what life would look like with a “two-state” solution.

However, separating students beginning in early childhood might also prevent them from ever hearing the opposing narrative, especially when they do not live in metropolitan areas. Small towns or villages, according to Haaretz, are often as segregated as the schools within them.

Rick Rosenfeld runs Hands of Peace, a non-profit program that brings Israeli Jewish and Palestinian teenagers to the United States for 19 days over the summer.

According to Rosenfeld, it’s sometimes the first face-to-face conversations these young people have ever had, despite growing up mere miles from one another.

“They grow up with the narrative as they know it,” he said. “The Israeli hears through his family, friends, school and media the narrative or the reality from the Jewish Israeli perspective. And the Palestinian on the other side of the Green Line hears [her] version of the truth. They both have their sole understanding of what the truth is, never having had the opportunity to meet the other.”

The physical and metaphorical barrier between them, Rosenfeld said, can delay peace, as the two students don’t know how to communicate or debate.

According to Rosenfeld, there are educational programs in Israel that attempt to provide hubs for dialogue between Jewish and Palestinian students. However, he said being close to the action can make productive conversations difficult. It is also challenging, he said, to find a physical space where both Israeli citizens and Palestinians from the West Bank have easy access.

The situation does not differ depending on location. Within the West Bank, where Jewish Israelis are forbidden from entering, Palestinian students go to school amongst themselves. Depending on the “area” in which these young people live, their schools could be governed by Palestinian or Israeli municipalities.

Even in major cities, students are typically segregated.

Most teachers at the public schools reflect the demographics of the students. An article in Haaretz last month says the number of Arab teachers in Jewish schools is increasing, although still “miniscule.”

Eve Halimi, who is Jewish, graduated in 2015 from an international school in Even Yahuda, where she estimates about half the students were Jewish. She appreciates that her classmates offered a variety of lived experiences.

“I was exposed to all different kinds of people and cultures which made me learn a lot and be challenged to adapt and be friends with everyone,” she said. “I got a different perspective.”

Halimi is working on her thesis at Barnard College in New York City.

When Abouliel graduates, he intends to “travel all over the world” and settle abroad.

“I have no problem with living in a diverse community,” he said.

It will be the first time in his life he studies alongside people who don’t look like him or share his religious beliefs.

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Joey spent a week in the Middle East in March 2019, reporting from Israel and the West Bank.