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Hagar: Jewish-Arab Education for Equality, Creating a Common Future in Israel

By Catherine Rottenberg Published 2013

Children of the Hagar School and their families plant a community garden. The students learn to work as partners, using an array of skills.

Although I came to the Institute to research twentieth-century African-American and Jewish-American fiction, I would actually like to share with you a formative experience I have had as a parent. It all began in 2005, when my oldest child was turning one. My partner and I were living in Be’er-Sheva, a city in southern Israel, and, like many new parents, we began to worry about our child’s education. So one evening we invited a few friends, Jewish and Palestinian couples with young children, to our home to discuss daycare and school options for our toddlers. Like many parents around the world, we scouted the city to see what kinds of nurseries and kindergartens were available. The reality we found was depressing, since it was a reality of strict segregation between Arab and Jewish children.

Except for a handful of mixed cities like Haifa (which are also segregated by neighborhood), the 1,180 settlements in Israel are ethnically divided: they are either Jewish or Arab. This means that even though twenty percent of Israel’s population is Arab, Jewish and Arab children rarely if ever get to know each other as they grow up. They go to separate schools, play in different neighborhood playgrounds, and really don’t have an opportunity to meet one other until, perhaps, university. This segregation is not a result of legislation. There are no Jim Crow laws prohibiting Jews and Palestinians from learning together. Rather, the lack of contact has to do with, among other things, the way space has been organized.

Thus, what this small group of parents in Be’er-Sheva had in common was that we all wanted an educational institution in which our toddlers, Arabs and Jews, would meet and study together. We all wanted our children to be exposed to the other’s language, customs, traditions, and narratives. We wanted a space where our children would not be indoctrinated by a hyper-nationalistic ideology that erases the history of the “other.” Moreover, we were all convinced that one of the most important ways of countering the rising prejudices in Israel and instilling in our children the importance of respecting everyone’s humanity was to create a space in which Jews and Arabs would meet each other—day in and day out—in an atmosphere of equality and tolerance, in which they would be encouraged to think critically about their environment and their society, and, perhaps most importantly, in which empathy for others would be considered one of the greatest human values.

We decided to establish an association called Hagar: Jewish-Arab Education for Equality whose goal was to create a school that would embody these principles. Before the Hagar School was created, there were only four other integrated Jewish-Arab schools in all of Israel (in which about 1,200 children were enrolled, out of more than 1.8 million school-age children). In September 2006, Hagar became the fifth and the newest of these integrated schools.

Hagar is located in Be’er-Sheva, which is in the Negev, a region that is home to about 627,000 people, about thirty percent of whom are Arab citizens of Israel, mostly Bedouins. Yet Hagar is the only nonsegregated school in the Negev. It is a public school recognized by the Ministry of Education. Its uniqueness stems from the fact that it has created a space in which Jewish and Palestinian children not only mix (each group makes up fifty percent of the student body) but learn together every day in a bilingual atmosphere of mutual respect. 

In the 2012–13 school year, 225 children from nursery through fifth grade (it is a growing school) are attending this bilingual school, whose commitment to equality informs every aspect of its educational agenda. To ensure that Hebrew and Arabic are awarded equal status, for example, two teachers, one Jewish and the other Arab, are present in each and every classroom. There is not supposed to be any translation, and the two teachers work as a team—what in the United States is called team or co-teaching. The Arab teacher always speaks in Arabic and the Jewish one in Hebrew.

It is well known that language can be both a bridge and a barrier, and Hagar attempts to use language as a bridge. But language is only one aspect of our pedagogical endeavor. Within this bilingual space, Hagar encourages direct contact with the heritage, customs, and historical narratives of each of the different ethnic groups. The teachers aim to promote tolerance and empathy, while being sensitive to nurture the personal identity of each child and each tradition. 

Indeed, already by the age of two, children are celebrating the holidays and memorial days of both peoples and of the three monotheistic religions—since there are Jews, Muslims, and Christians in the Hagar community. On Israeli Independence Day, Hagar emphasizes the notion of independence and its relation to responsibility. The community feels that these are the values young children should be exposed to during their first few encounters with these highly charged national days. On Nakba Day, the school emphasizes the idea of loss and suffering, accentuating the importance of empathy for the other. Everyone has experienced some kind of injury and grief. In the kindergarten, the children play out various scenarios about what it means to lose something precious, like a toy, and how it might make them feel. They also talk about what living together in a big house with many different kinds of children might look like. What kinds of compromises might they have to make? What kind of house could hold so many different children? And from the religious holidays we try to draw out their universal messages, like the meaning of liberation from slavery, which is commemorated during Passover.

The assumption is that by the time the children are old enough to learn that there are two conflicting national narratives, both of which are taught in the higher grades, they already have the necessary emotional and intellectual tools to deal with conflict through dialogue.

Hagar’s educational objective, though, is not only to bring together Jews and Palestinians, teach both languages, and broaden the existing historical script, but also to create a pedagogy that fits the school’s philosophy. The school’s pedagogical team, of which I am part, believes it is crucial to alter basic pedagogical methods: from frontal teaching, which is the method used in the majority of Israeli public schools, to project-based and meaningful learning, where students are active participants in their own learning process. Last year, for example, the fourth graders were asked to build their own neighborhood. As part of their project, they went on field trips and visited various historical sites in Be’er-Sheva; they learned about the city’s history, took pictures, and then broke up into groups of four—each group responsible for planning a certain section of the neighborhood. Thus, these children were writing their own texts while carrying out complicated measurements and conversions. They were also asked, once their neighborhood was near completion, to explain why they created their section in the way they had. The end-of- the-year presentations, in which these students explained their work to parents and younger students in both Arabic and Hebrew, were phenomenal.

In this way, these students learn to work together as partners, using an array of skills. They develop math, history, and linguistic skills through creative and meaningful projects—usually at a much higher level than their counterparts in other public schools. 

Finally, the school has itself created a community. Approximately 150 Jewish and Arab families join monthly community outings, where they hike and break bread together. Today, it is not unusual to hear that the Hagar community has its own school rather than the other way around.

In Israel, a self-declared Jewish state, the need for integrated schools like Hagar might seem obvious, and yet most Israeli Jews are unwilling to send their children to such schools. This is tragic because within a segregated, highly charged, ideological context, meaningful education that exposes children to a common sense of humanity is not a luxury but a necessity. The Hagar School reveals that educational spaces can be transformed into sites that help create a more democratic and just society. And we desperately need more spaces like Hagar. Otherwise, the dominant narratives of hate and violence will ultimately destroy any hope of a common future in Israel.

Catherine Rottenberg, a Visitor (2012–13) in the School of Social Science, is Assistant Professor in the Department of Foreign Literatures and Linguistics and the Gender Studies Program at Ben-Gurion University, Israel. Her research bridges the fields of Jewish-American Studies and African-American Studies, focusing on early twentieth-century Jewish-American and African-American fiction. Her current project utilizes “the city” as an analytical category for examining the transformation of Jewish-American and African-American female identity during the Jazz Age.

Published in The Institute Letter Summer 2013