The Two-School Solution

With de facto segregation the norm in Israeli schools, a wave of outspoken parents and teachers is arguing that only truly integrated classrooms can bring peace.


JAFFA, Israel — On the afternoon of the Passover Seder, Ora Balha was preparing for one of the most important Jewish holidays of the year. That evening, she and her family would gather around the Seder table to read the story of their ancestors’ enslavement in Egypt and exodus to the ancient land of Israel. But as Ora swept the floor, her husband and children were taking part in another religious ceremony: They were at the local mosque for Friday prayers.

This combination of traditions would be unfathomable to most Israelis. But Ora, an Israeli Jew, and Ihab, an Israeli Arab, are used to their Friday routine of mosque by day and Shabbat candles by night.

To say that Jewish-Arab couples are a rarity in Israel is an understatement. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 1 percent of married Israeli Arabs and 2 percent of married Israeli Jews have spouses of a different religion. Even in Jaffa, one the few cities in Israel where Jews and Arabs share the same streets and apartment buildings, it’s unusual to meet an interfaith couple. Though Arabs represent 20 percent of Israel’s population of 8 million, Jews and Arabs rarely interact. According to government data, 90 percent of Arab-Israelis live in all-Arab communities.

Equally as rare as their marriage is the fact that Ora and Ihab’s children speak fluent Hebrew and Arabic. In a country with a segregated education system, Arab and Jewish children learn in separate schools, and just 10 percent of Jews speak fluent Arabic. It’s mandatory for Arab students to learn Hebrew, but not the other way around.

When their 8-year-old son, Nur, was 2, Ora and Ihab looked for a preschool where he could learn with Jews and Arabs. However, no such school existed in Jaffa. So, in 2010 the couple opened Jaffa’s first integrated kindergarten “to reflect what’s happening in our home,” Ora said.

Today, Bustan Yafa serves 65 children. Operated under the auspices of a nonprofit organization, the school is envisioned as a haven for Jews and Arabs and celebrates the cultures, religions, and languages of its Jewish, Muslim, and Christian students. Yet with no government funding, Ora admits the prohibitive cost means the majority of her students are Jewish. About 54 percent of Arab-Israeli families live under the poverty line, compared with 19 percent of the general population, according to government statistics.

Until recently, Israel’s segregated education system — which also separates Jews among secular, religious and ultra-Orthodox — went largely unchallenged. This segregation is not written into law, nor is it forced upon anyone; Jewish and Arab parents can send their children to any public school they wish as long as it’s in their educational district. However, for reasons rooted in culture, geography, religion, and language, the vast majority of Israeli children attend schools that reflect their family background. And a growing number of Israelis are seeking an alternative to a system they believe perpetuates the notion that Jews and Arabs must be divided in order for each side to thrive.

At a time when the peace process is on life support and many warn darkly of an incipient Third Intifada, advocates of integrated schools say their children’s education represents the one source of light on an otherwise dark horizon.

The nonprofit organization Hand in Hand, which runs six schools throughout Israel that educate nearly 1,400 students, represents the largest network of integrated schools. In 2013, the organization opened Jaffa’s second integrated kindergarten, with 35 children in that first class. Now there are six classes, with a total of 170 children.

Hand in Hand’s classrooms are equally split between Jewish and Arab students, and lessons are conducted in both languages simultaneously by two teachers — one Jewish, one Palestinian. The schools are co-run by Arab and Jewish principals, and equal class time is given to Jewish and Palestinian culture and history. While Hand in Hand receives some taxpayer funding and is overseen by the Ministry of Education, it is not fully funded by the government, unlike most public schools. The government provides the same amount of funding to Hand in Hand schools as it does to other public schools, but that funding only covers half of the basic costs of running the schools, since they require double the number of teachers to operate bilingual classes. So half of Hand in Hand’s operational costs are covered by donations, along with minor fees from parents.**

Asaf Ronel, an editor at Haaretz, sends his 5-year-old daughter, Ruth, to the Hand in Hand school in Jaffa. He grew up participating in coexistence programs, but amid the First and Second Intifadas and the rise of Jewish extremism, had grown pessimistic about his daughter’s future in Israel. Today, he believes that Jewish-Arab education is the only initiative that can truly make a lasting impact on Israeli society.

“The difference between going to school every day with Palestinians and meeting them once a month or once a year is obvious,” Ronel said. “The only way forward is both sides recognizing the other side’s rights and history, and not feeling that by doing that they are diminishing their own narrative. This is being done by our children every day, and it’s being done by our community.”

What’s bittersweet is that most Hand in Hand schools end at a young age. The Jaffa school ends after first grade – meaning that for Ruth and hundreds of other children, 2016 could be their last year of bilingual education. Hand in Hand’s branch in Jerusalem is the only school in Israel that provides bilingual K-12 education.

Given its association with racism in America, one might expect segregated education to be controversial in Israel. But here, the opposite is true – it’s those trying to build an unsegregated system who are fighting for their right to exist.

Last school year, Hand in Hand’s Jerusalem school was set on fire by Jewish extremists, who torched two first-grade classrooms and painted the walls with messages like, “There’s no coexisting with cancer.”

Many in Arab-Israeli communities are also hostile to the idea. Nadia Kinani, the Palestinian principal of the Jerusalem school, said she often hears criticisms from Palestinians who say she’s “normalizing” relations with Israel and accuse her of being less Palestinian than Israeli.

“I’m taking people who don’t live together and trying to create a shared society,” Kinani said. “I don’t say, ‘Look, everything here is fine and beautiful.’ It’s hard. But I live here, so I need to find a way to live in peace and equality in a place where I feel I have a home.”

After the fire, Kinani feared that her dream was doomed. She was shocked when 98 percent of students came to class the next day, and thousands of Israelis marched in solidarity with the school. The school didn’t close after the attack, and the destroyed classrooms were fully rebuilt just three weeks later. In the meantime, the students whose classrooms were torched were hosted in other classrooms – and even, for one day, in the office of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin after receiving an invitation from him.

If the arsonists sought to extinguish coexistence, their plan backfired. The attack threw Hand in Hand into the spotlight of Israeli media, and suddenly interest skyrocketed in a school most Israelis had never heard of. When the Jerusalem school opened this year, over 150 kids were on the waiting list. Every Hand in Hand school in the country now has a waiting list, and over a dozen groups of Arab and Jewish parents have asked the organization to establish schools in their communities.

Unfortunately, the supply of coexistence can’t keep up with demand.

Government funding covers only half the cost of bilingual schools, which require double the amount of teachers. For the other half, Hand in Hand relies on donations and tuition fees from parents. To expand its schools and establish new ones, Hand in Hand needs more funding. Supporters say it should come from the government, not from parents.

“If the government really wants to establish a peaceful future in which both societies turn from living in conflict to living a normal life, the best way to do that is through educating children to live together,” said Mohamad Marzouk, who founded Hand in Hand’s school in Wadi Ara, a predominantly Arab-Israeli area in northern Israel.

When asked to explain why Israel maintains its system of segregated education, the Education Ministry offers a telling response.

“It has always been like this; it is nothing new,” said Kamal Atila, an Arabic language spokesman who seemed perplexed by the question.

Indeed, it has always been like this. In the British Mandate for Palestine, Arab and Jewish Palestinians attended separate schools, said Bar Ilan University’s professor Yaacov Iram.

“If you inquire among Jews and Arabs,” Iram said, “the majority prefer for almost the same reasons — religious, national, historical — to have two separate systems.”

This segregation exists as a de facto reality rather than something legislated by the state. Arabs are not restricted from Jewish public schools, or vice versa. Children can attend any school in their educational zone, but since most live in separate communities, Arabs usually choose Arabic schools, and Jews choose Jewish schools. Even in mixed cities, children typically attend schools that reflect their heritage, Iram said.

Youssef Jabareen, an Arab Knesset member and director of the Arab Center for Law and Policy, said it was not Israel’s divided system that was seen as discriminatory, but the unequal funding received by both sets of schools.

He said while few, if any, Jews attend Arabic schools, some Arabic students attend Jewish schools because the conditions of Jewish schools are often far better. According to government figures, the average Jewish student receives 78 to 88 percent more funding than the average Arab student. According to the Ministry of Education, Arab-Israelis represented 8 percent of recipients of college and university degrees in 2014, despite representing 20 percent of the population. That is however an increase from 2005, when just 4 percent of university degrees went to Israeli Arabs.

“Separation in the educational system in Israel is not carrying with it the notion of inferiority,” said Jabareen, who holds a doctorate in human rights from Georgetown University, where he studied civil rights-era segregation in the United States. “Unlike in the U.S., in Israel there is a reason for this separation. The language is different, the culture is different, the narratives are different.”

Even parents and executives at Hand in Hand said they don’t wish to replace this system. They simply believe the government should provide bilingual schooling as an option for children who attend free public schools.

“I don’t think it should be forced on anybody, but I think it should be a part of the official education system,” said Asaf Ronel, whose daughter Ruth is now in kindergarten. “The walls will come down in the end. They always do.”

Photo credit: DAVID SILVERMAN/Getty Images

Corrections: This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that the Hand in Hand schools are public schools, which receive government funding and are overseen by the Ministry of Education. The article initially said that they were not public schools. Additionally, it has been corrected to say that Ruth, Asaf Ronel’s daughter, is in kindergarten. The article initially said she was in first grade. 

<p> Yardena Schwartz is a Tel Aviv-based freelance journalist and Emmy-nominated producer whose reporting has been featured in The New York Times, The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, The Miami Herald, NBC News, and CBS News, among other news outlets. </p>