With her children assembled in a circle, Dafna Schwartz starts her 6th grade drama class with a round of meditative deep breathing. Some follow her lead and close their eyes; others peek and make silly faces at each other, seeming to know what comes after the quiet.
"Boker tov, yeladim! (Good morning, children!)" she belts out in Hebrew, tapping a beat on her thighs to match the tempo. The class repeats after her in unison.
"Sabah al-kheir, ya walad!" comes the same greeting, this time in Arabic.
The implicit message, basic as it is, is rarely heard in Israel: Here at Neve Shalom (Oasis of Peace) elementary school, the two official languages of the nation -- and both peoples who speak them -- are given equal weight. That theory permeates this Arab-Jewish cooperative educational institution, the only one of its kind in Israel. The balance of Jews and Arabs is carefully maintained at about 50-50, among the students and the teachers. Classes are taught in both languages, and all students must learn Hebrew and Arabic well enough to understand a class in either. To help ensure that each side gets its fair share of attention, there are even two principals, one Arab and one Jewish.
The mere idea of having Arabs and Jews work side by side as peers is an oddity in a society where many members of each group manage to pretend the other isn't there. Most Jewish Israelis live their lives without seeing Arabs on a daily basis. Most of the 20 percent of Israeli citizens who are Muslim or Christian Arabs -- some of whom prefer to be called Palestinians -- live in purely Arab areas, too. In the few cities with mixed or adjacent neighborhoods, Jewish and Arab students go to separate schools and aren't likely to befriend one another until they go to college, if at all. Even among Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel who believe in peaceful coexistence, there is almost total separation.
Neve Shalom decided to change that.
The village, also known by its Arabic name, Wahat al-Salam, is the only place in all of Israel founded with the express purpose of bringing Arabs and Jews to live together as equals. The goal: to raise children who won't innately think of the two groups as enemies, because they will have known each other as friends and classmates for as long as they can remember.
Situated about halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Neve Shalom has the aura of a simple but idyllic island, uncommonly removed from the everyday tensions associated with life in Israel. From afar, it seems little more than a cluster of little white buildings nestled on a hilltop. From within, Neve Shalom has some of the feel of a typical Israeli kibbutz, or communal agricultural settlement -- rustic and informal, a place where everyone knows one another and there are no fences between neighbors. Both the village and the school are a kind of social experiment based on finding a new way for Arabs and Jews to understand each other -- literally.
The best way to get to know someone is if we speak each other's language," says Boaz Kitain, the Jewish principal, as he oversees a noisy game of kickball during recess. Despite administrators' attempts to employ the two languages equally, down to every last poster and piece of artwork, the children are calling out to each other in Hebrew. On the playground and elsewhere outside of class, Hebrew is the lingua franca.
Kitain and his colleagues see this as a weakness. It's an imbalance that may be only natural in a state where most Arabs grow up learning Hebrew -- overhearing it on television and radio and needing to use it in everyday communication -- but Jews have few opportunities to learn Arabic and usually won't hear it at all. As a result, not only are the Jewish students at Neve Shalom weaker in Arabic, but few of the Jewish teachers are fluent in the language. The Arab students and teachers, on the other hand, are typically bilingual.
"We don't expect that the Jewish kids will know Arabic as well as the Arab kids learn Hebrew," Kitain says. "That's the reality. The goal is that they can understand each other and write on a basic level." Nonetheless, teachers recently began suspecting that some of their Jewish graduates were leaving the school without a proficiency in Arabic -- and that Hebrew was becoming more dominant than they had hoped it would be.
In spite of the reality of living in a predominantly Jewish society, Diana Shalufe-Rizek, a 14-year resident of Neve Shalom who has taught Arabic language, art and Arab culture classes at the school for the past six years, believes that everyone at Neve Shalom should be more open to learning both languages.
"Teaching here is hard," she says, "and what makes it so is that we try to be equal in languages, but we haven't succeeded because our kids see what is going on outside. As long as the Jewish teachers are unable to speak Arabic, the situation will continue.
"Why do the Palestinian children have to feel that to speak with the Jewish kids they must speak in Hebrew?" she asks. "This is a compromise. They have to be equal."
In response to the call for a language balance, the school's administrators decided last year that regardless of the subject studied, the first 20 minutes of every day would be devoted to speaking only Arabic.
It's 8 a.m., and Bob Mark is giving instructions: Draw a house with a window, a blue tree and a red bird. That would seem a simple enough task, except that this class is a challenge for him, too. Mark, a Jewish teacher who immigrated to Israel from Pennsylvania in 1980, is not a native speaker of Arabic, nor is it even his second language. To raise the ante even further, his classroom of Jewish 1st and 2nd graders have been learning the language only since the beginning of the year.
"Fi rasme, fi shajara azrak," Mark says, telling them to add a blue tree to the picture. Unsure, he turns to Abdullah, a 6th grade Arab pupil who is acting as his language facilitator for today's 20 minutes of "Arabic-only" instruction.
"Shajara zarka," says Abdullah, with a polite smile. The correction opens a tiny window into one of the intricacies of Arabic grammar. Since shajara, "tree," is a feminine noun, the adjective "blue" must take the feminine gender, also. Abdullah replaces the masculine azrak with the feminine zarka, a shift that most newcomers to the language have difficulty remembering.
Abdullah, treating his duty with a precocious gravity, intently scans the classroom for questions. Even when there is not a grammatical question, Mark turns to him every few sentences to check for the proper pronunciation. When Abdullah hears a clunker, he anxiously chimes in with the right sound.
Building One Accord
Since the Neve Shalom school opened in the early 1980s with 15 of the village's own children, its founders have been hoping that the idea would catch on elsewhere in the country. But it has been an uphill battle. The Israeli Ministry of Education did not recognize the Neve Shalom school until 1992, making it eligible for funding as an "experimental school." If the pioneer private institution can obtain additional donor funds, the teachers and parents would like to open a middle school and, eventually, a high school.
Currently, the only other educational facility in Israel that is similar to Neve Shalom is the Arab-Jewish preschool at the Jerusalem International YMCA. Just two years ago, after a decade of offering separate classes for Arab and Jewish children, the school decided to open an additional integrated program.
During a recent afternoon party that started out with a short play in Hebrew and in Arabic, parents said that the opportunities for them to meet through their children was one of their favorite aspects of the school. But, to their dismay, Jerusalem has no integrated elementary school where their children could continue such activities.
Things may change soon, however, because a group of parents are trying to launch a network of integrated Arab-Jewish schools in the Galilee, a northern region of Israel populated by large Arab and Jewish communities. The idea this time would involve five public schools -- more controversial than one small, private facility. Though the concept has met with some opposition and doubt from the education ministry -- and Arabs and Jews -- the group gained tentative permission to start a mixed 1st grade class in an existing school last September.
Setting aside the first 20 minutes of the day for the Jewish children -- with an Arab student facilitator -- to learn Arabic while the Arab children study the language separately in other classes has a multifold benefit. On a practical level, it gives the Jewish children -- and teachers -- a chance to work on their Arabic skills at their own pace while allowing the Arab children to master more challenging dimensions of their native language than they will encounter in mixed classes during the rest of the day. The latter helps allay Arab parents' fears that their children's Arabic enrichment may suffer at the school, which would in turn hurt the students' chances of success when they join their peers at an all-Arab junior high school in grade 7.
More importantly, the 20 minutes dedicated to communication in Arabic gives the Arab children an occasion to honor their heritage while sending out the message that their language is an asset.
"When we have Arab kids sitting in on our class, working as language facilitators, they see how important they are as Arabic speakers," Mark explains after class. "I had one student who always seemed out of it and never wanted to participate. But when she came in one day as a facilitator, she took over the class. She really blossomed, and she felt she had, too."
Outside of the 20 minutes assigned to conversation in Arabic, the rest of the day is a polyglot experience -- each teacher speaking in his or her native language. For instance, a typical student might attend science, art and music classes in Arabic, but drama, media and history classes in Hebrew. Ilana Abu Manneh, a Palestinian, teaches her 3rd grade nature studies class in Arabic. In a lesson on the animal kingdom, she translates only a few sentences into Hebrew to make sure the Jewish half of the class has understood. When she hands out a bilingual worksheet asking the children to put animals in their taxonomic class by column, the children complete their work in the language that's most comfortable for them.
Sivan, a Jewish girl, shoots up her hand to answer a question. Though she understood the question in Arabic, she answers in Hebrew. Abu Manneh doesn't discourage her, but simply repeats the answer in Arabic.
"I don't like Arabic that much because it's hard," Sivan confesses when she's alone. "But I love my friend Bedia," she says of an Arab school chum.
After class, it's party time! Time to honor Sivan and her Arab classmate Walid-- who share the same birthday. Both receive homemade cards from the other students written in Hebrew and Arabic, and the birthday candles have to burn long enough for the others to sing "Happy Birthday" to them in both languages.
Their parents have come to celebrate, too. They live outside the village in homogeneous areas, as do the majority of the students' families since the school was opened to nonresidents a few years ago. Their children's attendance here brings them together with people with whom they would normally never have a chance to socialize.
"I see the bilingual part as a tool. The greater goal is coexistence," says Andrea Arbel, Sivan's mother. "The two sides can sign a peace agreement, but that's not what makes peace in my neighborhood. The only way it will work is when the children take it for granted that their class is half Jewish and half Arab."
Sara Ismail, Walid's mother, expresses more practical reasons for sending her son here. He's getting a stronger basis in Hebrew than he would at an all-Arab school, something that she hopes will widen Walid's opportunities in the future. "The children need Hebrew at a very high level to get into university," she says.
Daoud Boulos, an Arab father who lives in Neve Shalom and has sent two of his children to the school, sees their upbringing as radically different from his own childhood in an Arab village in the Galilee.
"I grew up in total isolation from the other side, they grew up in total isolation from me, and there was absolutely no contact," he says. "The values they're growing up with here mean they accept each other, and that's the biggest problem we have in the Middle East.
"It's not like they're trying to melt the kids together and say they're all the same," he says. "In fact, our children have even stronger identities than we did because when not everyone around them is the same, they're more aware of who they are."
Indeed, Neve Shalom makes no pretense to being the great Middle Eastern melting pot. Sensitive to respecting differences rather than blurring them, the school offers separate classes in several culturally based subjects. Since Israel has no tradition of private religious education or Sunday school as is common throughout the United States, academic institutions traditionally provide religious instruction. As a result, Neve Shalom's Jewish students and their Arab counterparts -- believers in Islam or Christianity -- study their respective scriptures in separate classes, each gaining a more thorough education in their own religious principles.
Math, as universal a discipline as it may seem, also reflects cultural differences: Sometimes Jewish students use international numerals (called "Arabic" in the U.S. because they were adapted from that script), while Arabs throughout the region still use the ancient unmodified Arabic numerals. Religious holidays, however, provide a cultural bridge. For example, last year, when major celebrations of all three faiths fell at virtually the same time, children formed committees to plan parties and plays for Easter, Passover and Eid il-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice).
Most teachers, students and parents at Neve Shalom agree that the politically charged curricular matters of history, current events and national holidays pose the biggest challenge for integration. Views on what to teach children about how the modern state of Israel was founded, for example, differ so deeply that the school decided that Israeli Independence Day (May 15) was one day of the year when Arab and Jewish pupils could not be taught side by side.
The topic was particularly relevant last May. While Israelis celebrated the 50th anniversary of the country's birth, Palestinians marked the occasion they call the Nakba,, or catastrophe, with frustration and anger. The Jewish students at the school heard an Israeli veteran talk about his experiences from the 1948 War of Independence, and the Arabs listened to a Palestinian man who became a refugee that same year.
Tzuri Baharir, a Jewish 6th grader, says he thinks holding separate events to observe the founding of Israel goes against the spirit of the school. He would have liked to hear the Palestinian point of view, too. "If what we're supposed to be doing here is making peace, I think we should have learned it together, so we can learn something about them, and they can learn something about us."
But when Bob Mark fostered a discussion with a small group of students on Israel's founding, a conversation between Tzuri and his friend Ibrahim Hajiyaha quickly deteriorated into mutual accusations.
"The Jews took my land and my freedom and killed my people," says Ibrahim, "and you …"
"You keep saying 'you,' but I wasn't born yet," interrupts Tzuri. "I would have done things differently."
Even if the students at Neve Shalom have moments when they seem to be tearing each other down, on most days they talk about building something unique.
"Here, they treat you as a human being," says Hassan, age 11. "An Arab teacher won't be nicer to you just because you're an Arab."
Ibrahim agrees. "When I came here, I didn't hate the Jews, but I didn't like them either. Now I think there is another way."