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For Arab parents, Hagar’s draw is particularly strong. Without a single Arab school in Beersheba, they can send their kids either to a local Jewish school, where they might feel like outsiders, or to an underperforming Arab school in one of the nearby Bedouin villages.
Afnan Abu Taha, an Arab lawyer on Hagar’s board of directors and a parent of two students at the school, said she chose Hagar because it offers her daughters the best opportunities. Having attended an Arab school, she recalls the challenges she faced — both academic and social — when she entered university. “To feel that they are part, that they are respected, that they are accepted, they are taken into consideration. This was the most important thing to me,” she said.
“I think that it’s a better school, and I like what happens here,” said Jewish parent Sigal Tovbin, who has three children in the school and is also Hagar’s enrichment coordinator. “You’re not going with the same children all the way through to the army.”
Hagar is one of five schools in Israel with a bilingual peace education curriculum. The school at Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam (Oasis of Peace), founded in the 1980s, was the pioneer. Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish Arab Education in Israel came next, in 1997. Now a network of three schools, Hand in Hand helped create Hagar in Beersheba. Hagar is the only school of its kind in the Negev, and is part of a greater movement to culturally and economically revitalize the region.
Zvi Bekerman, an education professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has been studying bilingual schools in Israel for more than a decade. “In a society like ours,” he said, “the existence of these schools is of tremendous importance, because at least they show the possibility of some type of integration… between populations considered to be in conflict and tension.”
But Bekerman says the schools also hype their coexistence programs at the risk of ignoring their academics. “There’s an inclination to look at these schools in a romantic way,” he said. “You hear they put Palestinians and Jews together, you want to say peace, tolerance, recognition — and you forget that they’re schools. That’s bad. Never forget that they’re schools.”
For now, at least, Hagar appears to have reached a balance between ideology and high scholastic standards. Features like small class sizes, low teacher-student ratio and high parent involvement have led to impressive results. Students at the Hagar School score an average of 91% on Meitsav (a standardized test), compared with an average of 70% in the Negev.
But it’s not all sunshine and roses at Hagar. National holidays are particularly tough for students and faculty alike. The Israel Defense Forces’ Memorial Day, for instance, is “a very, very sad day,” Damri said, “so we expect the Arab friends to relate to our sadness and vice versa. When it’s Nakba day, I don’t personally feel sadness. I’m glad that there’s a state, and I think that most of the Israelis are happy on Independence Day. But… I want to offer sympathy to their pain, because they’re my friends. Of course we need to sit and talk and understand and solve the problem — but we’re not about solving the Israeli-Palestine conflict. We don’t have the power to do that.”