Democracy is an important principle for a binational primary school. Although even adults are sometimes hard-pressed to understand what democracy means and often fail in its practice, we try to explain it to our pupils through historical example, classroom discussions and student elections.
Israeli schools teach children about democracy by looking at historical events in which democracy has been tested. At our school this year we focused upon the Kafr Kassem Massacre (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kafr_Qasim_massacre) and the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assassination_of_Yitzhak_Rabin).
The Kafr Kassem massacre gave us a framework for looking at the position of Arab citizens in Israel then and now. Shortly after the massacre, Arab citizens were released from military rule and the inquiry resulted in a landmark legal decision was made, according to which a soldier is obligated not to obey orders if they are manifestly illegal.
On the Rabin assassination we discussed the rules according to which democracy functions and democratic alternatives to violence. The school gathered for a commemoration that included a slide show presentation prepared by the children and teachers, narration by students, music and movement.
At the commemoration
The children continued their study of democracy by electing a student council. Each class elected Arab and a Jewish representatives and then elected two student leaders for the entire school. Before the election, the candidates mounted an election campaign based on goals and promises. On election day a ballot box was set up in the school lobby and all the students cast their vote. The winners were a Jewish 6th grader and an Arab 5th grader, both girls. We wish the new student leaders success in fulfilling their campaign promises, which were to organize more special activities for the students and more events for the school.
On June 7, in an apparent protest against the decision to evacuate an Israeli "outpost" settlement, Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam was attacked by thugs who crept into the village, slashed tires of many cars and spray-painted right-wing and anti-Arab slogans on cars and buildings, including the Primary School.
Graffitis read "Death to Arabs" or "Revenge;" a message on one of the 14 damaged cars said "Hi from Ulpana" (the outpost settlement that the government decided to evacuate).
Right after the attack happened, the community, along with parents of the school, organized the cleanup of the school building – so that the hateful graffitis would be erased before the children came back to school.
A few days later, the children and parents participated in a “Peace Brush” happening: together they created their own graffitis on the school's walls, helped by caricaturists Ahmad and Mohammed Abu Num. Their graffitis focused on expression of feelings on the subject of peace and coexistence. On the school entrance, we can now read “We will live together” (picture). The activity was followed by a soccer game between the school team and a team of Arab and Jewish children from Jerusalem, under the auspices of the New Israel Fund.
One year of kindergarten is compulsory in Israel, but most attend pre-school much earlier. Yet for most of the children (all except 8 this year) it is their first year in Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam and therefore their first experience of a bilingual classroom. Some children manage quite well and quickly make friends. For others it is harder.
Shams, an Arab girl from Lod, found it harder than most at the beginning. In her kindergarten she was known to be a very talented and outgoing child. She loves to sing and dance. But she definitely found it disconcerting to be in a situation where she could not communicate with half of the children and where some of the teachers spoke to her in Hebrew. She felt disadvantaged because Yaara and Bushra (two Arab girls from the village who had already been to kindergarten here), spoke Hebrew very well. So in the early days of the school she clung a lot to the Arab teachers, especially her homeroom teacher Yasmin. She would even stay with Yasmin and follow her around even during the school breaks.
Now Shams feels at home in the school. She can read, write and understand some Hebrew – still not perfectly, but she is learning to adjust – just like the other children. During the school breaks she plays with Jewish children, and has started to visit them after school.
Orel is a Jewish child from Messilat Tsiyon, a nearby Jewish moshav. Most of the residents in Messilat Tsiyon are Cochini Jews from South India, though Orel has an Indian-origin mother and a Yemenite-origin father. For the first half of the school year he attended a different school. However, he was unhappy there, and in parallel he started to hear from some of his friends in Messilat Tsiyon about the Oasis of Peace school and it sounded like much more fun. For example, they told him how they had celebrated Christmas and other holidays that he had never heard of. So he joined our school rather late – only after the winter break. It was not an easy step. By that time, the other children had already learned both the Hebrew and the Arabic alphabets and were making progress in understanding the other language. In short, he had a lot of catching up to do. Now he’s doing better, especially because he made a friend: Fariel, the Arab girl who sits next to him in the class. Now they are inseparable. Orel speaks to her in Hebrew; Fariel answers in Arabic, and it isn’t clear how much they understand one-another, but somehow it works, and Orel is beginning to feel at home at the school.
Asked how the first grade children are doing in general, Yasmin says they are all making steady progress. They understand the second language well at a passive level already, i.e. they understand most of what the teachers and the other children are saying. Working bilingually with the children requires a lot of effort on behalf of the teachers, and perhaps more so on behalf of the Arab teachers. For example, the school just celebrated Purim, a Jewish holiday. The Arab children take part too, but the Jewish teacher cannot, by herself, work with the Arab children due to language limitations. So even though this is a Jewish holiday, the Arab teacher must be equally involved in the preparations. In the first grade there is the additional difficulty that the Jewish teacher, Ira, is now in advanced pregnancy and now may have to remain at home.
Integration between the children is very good and they play together without distinction. As mentioned, they have also begun to visit one-another at home.
While the Muslim students were on vacation for Eid al-Adha, it is a tradition of Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam’s elementary school that its pupils have a day consecrated to celebrating Winter. On this occasion the whole school gathered at 12pm on November 8, and ate some soup. There were a few batches of lentil soup and a few batches of vegetable soup. The 6th graders were responsible for making the delicious soups, and all grades and teachers took full advantage of it. Expected was a rainy day, but it turned out to be a very sunny day, and pretty warm too. So the Winter Day felt like summer!
Ira, 1st grade teacher, accompanied by Guy, Drama teacher, during the last hour read to the 1st graders. They read the famous Israeli ancient story of “Honi Ha-Meagel” about the one year long lack of rain and a man who walked in a circle in order for it to rain.
November is also "Democracy Month" throughout the national school system in Israel, in conjunction with the anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. At the school, the teachers also incorporate the commemation of the Deir Yassin massacre.
This September, like every year, the school welcomes new first graders. 26 Jewish and Palestinian children will soon be taught together in Arabic and Hebrew and learn the values of peace and equality thanks to gifts like yours.
While it has been the model for other bilingual schools in Israel, the Primary School of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam remains the only one located in a binational community, where Palestinians and Jews choose to live, work and raise their children together.
When graduating last June, Anat a Jewish 11-year old, told us: "The school gave me a chance to see the other side and also the opportunity to learn Arabic and the Arab-Palestinian traditions so that I get to know more about them and we are able to communicate. What I like the most about my school is the union I see between Jews and Arabs."
Thank you for making this possible for the children of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam!
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