They came at night. When the principal arrived in the morning to open the school, there were scores of stickers covering the outside walls, the main entrance and the surrounding fence. The stickers, like the school’s motto, were bilingual, in Hebrew and in Arabic. In Hebrew they read “Don’t you even dare to think about a Jewess,” while in Arabic the warning was slightly different: “Don’t you dare touch a Jewess.” Under the threats there was also a phone number for people who wish to “report incidents of assimilation and provide donations.”
The school where the warning was posted is called Hagar, or Hajjar in Arabic, and is one of only five non-segregated Jewish-Arab schools in Israel. Out of a total population of 2 million K-12 schoolchildren, approximately 1,300 study in such non-segregated schools.
Moreover, Hagar is the only non-segregated daycare and school in the Negev, in the south of Israel, which is home to more than 600,000 people, a third of whom are Palestinian citizens of Israel. Hagar’s uniqueness stems from the fact that it has created a space in which Jewish and Palestinian children not only encounter one another on a daily basis (each ethnic group makes up 50 percent of the student body) but learn together in a bilingual atmosphere of mutual respect. To ensure that Hebrew and Arabic are awarded equal status, two teachers, one Jewish and the other Palestinian, are present in every classroom. The Jewish teacher speaks in Hebrew and the Palestinian teacher speaks in Arabic.
But language is only one aspect of our pedagogical endeavor. Within this bilingual space Hagar encourages direct contact with the heritage, customs and historical narrative of both ethnic groups. The teachers promote tolerance, even as they nurture the personal identity of each child and each tradition. By the age of 2, children in the daycare are already celebrating the holidays of the three monotheistic religions as well as marking the national memorial days of both cultures.
On Israeli Independence Day, for example, Hagar emphasizes the notion of independence and its relation to responsibility. We still remember how our older son, who was 3 years old at the time, returned home after Independence Day proudly notifying us that he could put on clothes by himself. He was, he said, independent.
On Nakba Day and Holocaust Day, the kindergarten emphasizes the idea of loss and suffering and accentuates the importance of empathy, and that every one of us has experienced some kind of injury and grief. And from the religious holidays we try to glean their universal message, such as the liberation from slavery commemorated during Passover. The idea 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 upper grades, they already have the necessary emotional and intellectual tools to deal with conflict through dialogue.