Israeli bilingual school bridges the gap between ‘Shalom’ and ‘Salaam’

Children celebrate the first day of school last week at the Bridge Over the Wadi School. (Photo: Daniel Ben-Tal)Rami Abu Wasir gleefully clutched a bright green balloon as he trundled out of class at the end of his first day …

Children celebrate the first day of school last week at the Bridge Over the Wadi School. (Photo: Daniel Ben-Tal)Rami Abu Wasir gleefully clutched a bright green balloon as he trundled out of class at the end of his first day at the new Bridge Across the Wadi bilingual Hebrew-Arabic school in Kfar Kara.

“It was fun. I’ve made some new friends – Jewish boys and girls who don’t speak my language,” exclaimed the 7-year-old second grader from the nearby Isaeli Arab village of Kfar Ara, adding that he already knows Hebrew well.

“I learned from watching children’s television programs, and translated for the other Arab children today. My friends from my old school are jealous,” he chuckled, before rushing into his waiting mother’s arms.

“One day, I’ll speak fluent Arabic,” vowed Abu Wazir’s classmate, Liam Guy-Fox from the Jewish town Karkur. “Today, I learned how to write my name in Arabic. Our teachers asked us each to make a wish for the future – my wish was that I will never have to leave this school,” he added.

Bridge Over the Wadi opened on September 1, the first day of the academic year in Israel. For its inaugural year, the school has accepted 106 pupils – half Jewish, half Arab – in four classes from kindergarten to third grade. Each class has a Jewish and an Arab teacher. The 14-strong academic staff also includes specialized music, arts, sports and drama teachers.

The school was established at the initiative of parents from Jewish and Arab towns around Wadi Ara, in central Israel, and is the third bilingual school supported by the Hand In Hand non-profit organization.

“It was a long procedure. We had no experience of establishing a school. First, we had to define what we want,” Mohamad Marzouk, from Kafr Kara, father of Said, 4, and May, 3, told ISRAEL21c.

In the summer of 2003, prospective parents held a symposium at the nearby Jewish-Arab Center for Peace at Givat Haviva to share views.

“The school will be completely bilingual and bi-national. Its Jewish-Arab character is an overriding consideration. It will promote mutual understanding of each other’s culture, and build bridges between Jews and Arabs in Israel. We want to instill our children with democratic values and give them the tools to engage issues of equality. The school will give each nationality space for expression – the children will learn about Jewish and Moslem festivals. Through coexistence, they will become part of each other’s reality,” said Marzouk.

“Many Jewish parents are seeking alternatives to mainstream schools. We tried, but couldn’t fulfill all the Interior Ministry’s criteria by September 2003, so had to open this year,” says Asnat Riffkin from Katzir, mother of Tomer, 5½, and Shahaf, 8½.

Another delay was in deciding on the location of the school. One of the alternative sites considered was a disused building on nearby kibbutz Barkai, but that plan didn’t come to fruition. And when the Kfar Kara site was finally confirmed, it caused some hesitance among some of the Jewish parents.

“Some of the Jewish parents felt safer sending their children to a protected kibbutz environment, with its lawns and protected facilities, but that option was too expensive. One of our main considerations is economic – we don’t want the school to be too expensive for some parents,” said Riffkin.

Several Jewish families got cold feet at the last minute, she added, saying they were not ready to prove a point at the expense of their children’s safety.

But those that were committed to the idea forged ahead. New classmates Abu Wazir and Guy-Fox first met during a series of informal get-togethers over the summer vacation that helped break the ice.

“After they played together, Liam forgot his preconceptions about Arabs. He used to say they are our enemies, because that’s the kind of message he heard from his environment,” said his mother, Dorit Guy-Fox.

Afnan Younis, from Kafr Ara, who is sending his sons, third grader Adam and second-grader Ayub, to the school, said he wasn’t deterred by the views of some of the people in his village.

“We live here together. If each side understands the other, it will be better for all. My [Arab] neighbors have differing views – some think that my sons should only study with other Arab children. Katzir is a walking distance from our village. Why shouldn’t our children learn and play together?” asked Younis.

Kfar Kara local council head Zohair Yahya arranged for the school building – the adjacent high school’s former carpentry and electronics workshops – to be converted into classrooms at a cost of some $200,000.

“We are achieving the seemingly impossible in these difficult times. Many parents did not believe that we would succeed in establishing the school, so they dropped out. Now they’re sorry. There’s enough space to add one more class next year, then it will have to expand, or move,” said Yahya, whose youngest son Dored, 4, will enroll next September.

Bridge Over The Wadi is reaping the knowledge provided by the experiences of the two existing bilingual schools set by Hand in Hand in 1997 – in Jerusalem and Misgav in the Galilee.

The Misgav school, that caters for Jewish and Arab schoolchildren from the Galilee, has grown to 170 pupils (the oldest pupils are now in seventh grade) and is due to move into larger premises next year.

“The Jerusalem bilingual school is more cosmopolitan. It began with 20 children in one class, and now has 270 pupils in 11 classes up to sixth grade. We had to turn away 60 children this year, because of a lack of space,” said Hand In Hand co-director Josie Mendelson.

With the support of the Jerusalem Foundation, the Jerusalem school is due to move into its new campus between the Arab village of Bet Safafa and the Jewish neighborhood Patt in September 2006.

Hand In Hand is developing formal bilingual and multicultural curricula that focus on literacy, by teaching two written and spoken languages from the first grade. Addressing the digital divide between Jewish and Arab Israeli children, a special computers and technology program has been introduced to the Misgav junior high class this year.

“By any criteria, both schools are successful. The new Wadi school is the best answer to those who say that Jews and Arabs cannot live together,” said Mendelson.