What it's like studying in an Arab-Jewish school during a war

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Hashmonaim Elementary School in Jaffa is adorned with drawings by pupils. The colorful images are similar to those in other schools, full of birds, flowers and clowns. In a state education system that usually offers separate tracks for Jews and Arabs, the names of the young artists stick out here – Selim, Hani, Ma’ayan, Khaled, Nahum, Eva, Lea, Nicola, Toni, Adele – indicating a multicultural reality in which the native tongue of half the pupils is not Hebrew. Sixth-grader Liel Frenkel says she only realized that her school was unusual after she saw a TV report a few years ago about a school where the pupils were all Jews. That was strange to her, at the time.

One Arab pupil stayed home for a few days because his parents were afraid he’d be assaulted by Jews; another had to yell that he was Arab so that a mob of Arab youths would stop harassing him

The youngsters attending Hashmonaim come from the Jaffa Gimmel neighborhood, one of the southernmost areas belonging to the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality, not far from Bat Yam.

After the state was established in 1948, new immigrants moved into the houses of Arabs who had been living there. Many of the older dwellings were demolished in the 1970s, replaced by apartment blocks, some of which still overlook the school. In the 1990s, immigrants from the former Soviet Union started arriving in the neighborhood. Over the years, they were joined by immigrants from Ethiopia, migrant workers and Arabs who left other Jaffa neighborhoods whose character had changed, following an influx of Jewish residents.

The entrance to the Hashmonaim Elementary School in Jaffa, last week. Credit: Hadas Parush

Currently, 40 percent of Hashmonaim’s 220 pupils are Arabs. But there is nothing that goes on within the school’s walls, in any framework, that is not “mixed.” This is apparent in the purple signs hanging outside, posted by the municipality, that say: “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies,” in Hebrew and in Arabic.

Stories related by pupils regarding recent events in Jaffa – which included friction and violent clashes between Arabs and Jews, and harsh responses by the Israel Police – illustrate the complexities of their school: One Arab pupil stayed home for a few days because his parents were afraid he’d be assaulted by Jews; another had to yell that he was Arab so that a mob of Arab youths would stop harassing him; arguments erupted in the pupils’ WhatsApp groups about the display of a Palestinian flag and the resulting severe reactions; and children reported that their parents, Arabs and Jews, started talking to each other after guarding the area one night, in an attempt to prevent the torching of cars in the street. There were also more “routine” fears: of Hamas rockets being launched in the Gaza Strip, as part of Operation Guardian of the Walls last month.

Liel Frenkel, left, and Abdullah Ghallab, sixth-graders at Jaffa’s Hashmonaim school. “There are no wars here like there are outside,” Ghallab says.Credit: Hadas Parush

These fears had to be addressed in the classroom, often by teachers who were scared themselves. Mentions of any sweeping statements, by Jews against Arabs and vice versa, were always accompanied by clarifications that the words did not apply to one’s classmates in the other community. It is possible that the shared experiences in such a framework actually undermine, even if only partially or temporarily, certain entrenched categorizations.

“Children here are exposed to the same things pupils anywhere else are exposed to,” says Maya Arbeter, a teacher at Hashmonaim. “School cannot be an isolated island, but at least reality enters with less intensity. It’s more modified.”

One way she and other teachers contended with the tough events taking place outside was to focus on the neighborhood itself, a familiar point of reference. In the midst of the war in Gaza, for example, the school posted on its Facebook page clips in which pupils, parents and teachers were seen holding up signs they’d prepared at home, carrying messages of peace.

“We in Hashmonaim know that things can be different,” the post read. “My neighbor, the one I borrow a cup of sugar from and with whom I leave a key to my apartment in case of need, is not an enemy. She, like me, has to manage with children, a husband and work. She, like me, goes to the beach on the weekend with a full picnic basket. Together, we can teach differently.”

At the elementary school level, an emphasis on the local environment is natural and age-appropriate, say educators. But other approaches may be needed in high schools – such as inviting students to frank discussions on specific subjects such as the rewriting of the controversial nation-state law or the addition of a stanza to the “Hatikva” national anthem, as was suggested by teachers at several mixed Jewish-Arab high schools.

The Hashmonaim school. in Jaffa. “School cannot be an isolated island, but at least reality enters with less intensity. It’s more modified,” says teacher Maya Arbeter.Credit: Hadas Parush

“The aim is to create a space that enables discourse and the expression of fears, anger and identity-related issues,” says a teacher at one such school. “There is much work to be done, but this is the way to do it.”

The curriculum at Hashmonaim follows that used at state-run Hebrew-language schools. Arab parents tell principal Ronit Gampel Gal that knowledge of Hebrew is particularly important to them – especially being able to speak Hebrew with no accent. They undertake to foster their children’s Palestinian sense of identity after school hours.

“Arab schools don’t teach Hebrew as well as they should,” says one mother who’s come to pick up her son at Hashmonaim. “This is the only way for us to succeed.”

The desire among the local Arab community to have children start learning Hebrew as early as possible is apparently quite common. Another neighborhood in Jaffa has had trouble filling its Arabic-language kindergarten classes for some time now.

Principal Ronit Gampel Gal. Credit: Hadas Parush

School as a ‘greenhouse’

However, even after the rules regarding the way Hashmonaim operates – in Hebrew and according to the state-secular curriculum – are known and agreed upon, many questions still arise. It appears that the “multicultural mode” mainly involves a conception held by the teachers, a kind of mindset. When tensions between Jews and Arabs mount in the outside world, that mindset or atmosphere comes to the fore, although even in more relaxed times it is also present: for example, in the way Christian, Jewish and Muslim holidays are celebrated, or in the sign at the entrance to one of the classes that says, in Hebrew and Arabic: “In this class study human beings.”

What do teachers say to pupils who talk between themselves in Arabic (or in Russian, Amharic or any other non-Hebrew language) in the middle of a class?

“I think it depends on the context. One shouldn’t get annoyed by it,” says principal Gampel Gal. “One should tell them that in class, in the presence of the teacher and the other children, it is impolite and disrespectful, but that during recess it’s different. Multiculturalism requires much delicacy, a lot of thought. It can be confusing. The thing is to ask questions all the time – and often these are questions that don’t have just one answer. One has to know how to embrace this complexity. It’s a big educational challenge.”

Nava Harari, who’s been teaching at the school for 16 years.Credit: Hadas Parush

In one case, school administrators deliberated how to respond to an Arab student who joined one of the higher classes and did not want to study the (Hebrew) Bible, even after the teacher assured him he would not turn into a Jew after those lessons. In that instance, a conversation with his parents solved the problem (although, says one teacher, the problem may have been not Arab-Jewish tensions per se but the difficulties associated with being new in school).

No Nakba

Before the national memorial day for fallen soldiers, Hashmonaim’s staff talk not only with Arab pupils but with their parents. Some families say they have no problem with their children attending the entire school ceremony, while others request that their children leave when the anthem is sung. Children who find it hard to stand at attention when the siren marking that day goes off are sent to a guidance counselor’s room.

However, as in virtually every other Jewish school in the country, there is no talk here of the Nakba (or “catastrophe,” when over 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled during the 1947-49 war). It’s not clear if the only reason for this is the young age of the student body. In history classes, especially close to Independence Day, educators try to find stories that emphasize the desire to live together, says Nava Harari, who’s been teaching here for 16 years.

A few years ago, Harari was asked to talk about her work at Hashmonaim at her son’s “regular” school.

Inside the Hashmonaim Elementary School in Jaffa, last week. Credit: Hadas Parush

“I was asked if Jews and Arabs sit at the same desk,” she tells Haaretz. “For anyone not used to a shared communal life, this question is quite natural. In response, I asked whether there is a separation between brown-eyed and blue-eyed pupils [in their school]. It may be more comfortable to study with people like yourself, but a different environment develops children more. They feel comfortable expressing themselves, they’re not ashamed of being different.”

For Gampel Gal, the basis underlying all this “a strong sense of identity and belonging” – one that does not push away the Other but rather invites him or her to express their own uniqueness. Or at least to try to do so.

For her part, Arbeter believes that elementary-school children relate less than older students to big national conflicts, but “as they grow, acquiring an increased awareness of the complexity of the situation, they – and we – lose our innocence.”

Liel Frenkel, who is going on to junior high next year, remembers that during her first years at Hashmonaim, “I didn’t even realize that I was studying with children from other religions. I thought everyone celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas.”

Abdullah Ghallab, another sixth-grader, thinks that adults can learn from the experience of being in a mixed school.

“There are no wars here like there are outside,” he says, adding that during recess he speaks Hebrew with his Arab friends, “so that the others can understand and not think that we’re laughing at them.”

Frenkel follows a similar rule: not to curse in a language that other kids don’t understand, only in Hebrew.

“I don’t want anyone to be hurt or to think about it too much. That way, the curse doesn’t come out sounding too overblown,” she explains. For her, she says, school is “a greenhouse which protects its plants.”