Speaking Each Other's Language

Bilingual Hagar Program Educates in Coexistence

Shelter: The Hagar school’s library doubles as a ship-themed bomb shelter.
Courtesy Hagar
Shelter: The Hagar school’s library doubles as a ship-themed bomb shelter.

By Katherine Martinelli

Published November 29, 2012, issue of November 30, 2012.
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Against the recent backdrop of violence in Israel and Gaza, one primary school in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba is attempting real coexistence between Arabs and Jews.

The Hagar school isn’t aiming to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or to achieve peace in the Middle East. The parents and teachers involved simply want to bring cooperation and understanding to their local community, all while providing a quality education for their children. And it’s more than just talk: Hagar boasts some of the highest test scores in the Negev.

Started in 2007 by Jewish and Arab residents of Beersheba, the school, which is run by the nongovernmental organization Hagar: Jewish-Arab Education for Equality, offers a bilingual Arabic-Hebrew curriculum. It also has an affiliated day care and kindergarten.

The NGO’s executive director, Hagit Damri, is a Jewish woman of North African descent and has two children in the school. As she sees it, the goal of Hagar is to cultivate some level of normalcy in day-to-day Arab-Jewish interactions in a region where 30% of the population is Arab.

“When we started,” Damri said, “we saw a world and saw part of Israel… [in which] most [Jews and Arabs] never met — really met — in person…. We see each other, we just pass through each other; it’s like we’re invisible to one another, like we live in parallel universes. And sometimes we see each other as threats, and sometimes we don’t see each other at all.”

Public primary schools in Israel are categorized as either Arab, Jewish or religious Jewish schools. While Jewish students are welcome to attend Arab schools, and vice versa, few families make that choice. With this de facto segregation in place, Arab and Jewish children grow up learning in two different languages, with few opportunities to interact.

The founders of Hagar — a group of concerned Arab and Jewish parents — didn’t want that for their children. So in 2007 they launched the first stage of their educational system, opening a pre-K and a kindergarten. In 2010, the Beersheba municipality provided them with a building for their primary school, and they received approval from the Israeli Ministry of Education.

Damri and the school’s principal, a fluent Arabic speaker named Smadar Peretz, are both Jewish. The NGO’s board of directors, which makes most of the major decisions about the school, is split evenly between Arabs and Jews.

Initially, Damri said, “it was very hard to recruit. People were suspicious.” But soon word spread about the school’s ideology of coexistence, and the quality of the education. Today, Hagar has 220 students, the majority of whom are from Beersheba, with some commuting from the surrounding areas, including Bedouin villages and affluent suburbs. The Arab students are all Israeli citizens and come from a variety of backgrounds, including Bedouin and Palestinian.

Each class is limited to 25 students and is split evenly between Jews and Arabs and boys and girls. The classes also have two teachers, one a Hebrew speaker and the other an Arabic speaker. All books, displays and lessons are bilingual. Most schools in Israel usually run six days a week and let out at about 1 p.m., but Hagar has an extended day, until 4 p.m., to help out working parents. Although the school has a government-mandated core framework to follow, it develops its own curricula and teaching materials with the help of a pedagogical consultant. Rather than utilize neutral language, the school attempts to acknowledge the respective narratives of Palestinians and Israelis.


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