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Hope, but not with talks - Mya Guarnieri

Sept. 10, 2010 10:01 A.M. (Updated: Sept. 11, 2010 6:55 P.M.)
Peace talks and the Israeli school year began at approximately the same time this September. Which is more worthy of your attention?

The school year.

Peace talks are doomed to fail. Hamas, a key player, is being excluded. “We will never divide Jerusalem,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed just four months before he sat down to negotiate the fate of the city. The settlement freeze—which saw construction began on hundreds of new homes on Wednesday as settlers protested West Bank shootings claimed by Hams—is set to expire at the end of the month. When breakneck building resumes in the West Bank on 26 September when the freeze officially ends, peace talks are likely to screech to a halt.

And the list goes on.

The Israeli educational system, however, is slightly more promising. Slightly.

The start of the school year saw the introduction of a pilot program that will make Arabic classes mandatory for students in 170 schools in the north of Israel. Speaking to the Israeli news site Walla, Dr Shlomo Alon, Head of Arabic and Islamic Education in the Ministry of Education, remarked: "We live in a country that has two official languages … Studying Arabic will promote tolerance and convey a message of acceptance."

Alon continued, "The state aspires to complete equality of citizenship. We will not deal with conflicts based on cultural identity.”

The rhetoric is great but the reality of the pilot program is a bit dimmer. Haaretz, a center-left Israeli daily newspaper, reports that the program was a response, in part, to greater demand for Arabic matriculation exams. That means that the classes are intended primarily for Palestinian-Israeli students. But it is Jewish-Israelis, not Palestinian-Israelis, who need to learn how to accept Arabic-speakers.

Further, the pilot program is being conducted in Israel’s North District—home to an Arab majority.

More encouraging are the Ministry of Education’s plans to make Arabic compulsory across the country. And it’s heartening that the pilot program was the result of the tireless efforts and advocacy of The Abraham Fund, a local NGO that promotes “coexistence and equality among Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens” and was founded in the midst of the First Intifada.

But Israeli schools also hold some dark harbingers.

A recent poll conducted by Tel Aviv University professor Camil Fuchs found that 50 percent of Jewish-Israelis don’t want Arabs in their classes. And while nearly two-thirds of those surveyed acknowledge that Arab citizens don’t have equal rights, 59 percent said they had no problem with the inequality.

Racism takes other forms in Israeli schools. When school started in September year, more than 100 Ethiopian students were barred from private ultra-Orthodox schools in the central Israel town of Petah Tikva, because of their ethnicity. More recently, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled against the segregation of Sephardi and Ashkenazi students in an ultra-Orthodox school. Ashkenazi students skipped school in response.

At the same time as the Ministry of Education launches its pilot program, it is rewriting its textbooks in a bid to boost “Zionism and national patriotism,” according to Hebrew University professor Doctor Ricki Tessler.

Although 64 percent of students would likely agree with the statement "since its establishment, the State of Israel has engaged in a policy of discrimination against its Arab citizens,” the Ministry of Education will see this sentence, and others like it, struck from textbooks.

While Israel bears a greater responsibility than the Palestinians—it was the Jewish state that created the refugee problem in 1948, the siege on Gaza amounts to collective punishment and Israel continues to occupy and illegally settle the West Bank—the PA has some educational work to do, too. Many Palestinians know little about the Holocaust, a horrendous chapter in Jewish history that continues to make an impact on the Israeli psyche.

Two state, one state, or no state, our fates are bound together and a role for our educational systems is essential. We must learn more than our common languages—we must know culture, history, and values. We must know humanity.

That the peace process has been stalled for years—and is likely to stall again—points to the urgency of a bottom-up solution. Only when the people demand peace will peace come.

Mya Guarnieri is a regular contributor to The National (Abu Dhabi), The Huffington Post, and The Jerusalem Post.
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