Jewish Parents Speak


Excerpted from the book HAND IN HAND: JEWISH AND ARAB FAMILIES IN ISRAEL .


“You grow up understanding that there is more than one way to live your life.” SIGALIT UR, mother, Shorashim.

My mother was raised and educated in a religious kibbutz and adheres to a religious way of life. My father is a secular person in both his views and lifestyle. When they were planning to marry, they decided that neither of them would give up their beliefs or change their way of life to suit the other. To that end, they determined a few basic rules for their lives. One rule was that their kitchen would be kosher and they would observe Shabbat in their home. However, outside of the home my father would be free to spend the Shabbat as he pleased. Another important rule was that their children would be observant and would receive their education in religious schools until the age of 18, at which time they would be free to choose their own lifestyles. I remained Orthodox, as did one of my brothers; the other chose the secular path.

In a home like that, you grow up understanding that there is more than one way to live your life. You learn from firsthand experience that there are at least two ways, and you become, of necessity, more open and tolerant toward the outlook and way of life of other people.

Representatives of the Hand in Hand association came to our area to introduce their school, and it sounded interesting. At that stage, we had only two options: the regular state school or the Jewish-Arab school. In the choice between an ordinary secular school and a Jewish-Arab school, I thought that the latter would be preferable. I knew that in the regular secular schools they learn very little about Judaism because of the prevailing idea among the public that in order to be a Jew, all that is necessary is to live in Israel, speak Hebrew and celebrate all the Jewish festivals. I thought that in a Jewish-Arab school where one's Jewishness cannot be taken for granted, that subject would be treated in a different way. My thought was that when the Jewish children were asked to define themselves to the Muslim and Christian children, the Jewish issue would be presented more clearly. Today, I am not sure that those hopes were fulfilled, but at that time I believed it might be so.

My association with Arab parents at the school has had a great effect on me. I always had a tendency, learned in my parents' house, to perceive and try to understand the needs and perceptions of the other side. But at the same time, various quandaries that I was always aware of in principle turned into burning problems for me that required solutions. If previously I only heard mention of "what the Arabs feel on our Remembrance Day," I now think about what Sa'id and Sa'id’s father feel on that day. It is not the same any more. Once I used to take for granted that singing patriotic songs on national holidays was the right thing to do. Now I am more aware of the problematic nature of those songs. Each year it has become more difficult for me to participate in the evening ceremony held at the end of the Remembrance Day for Israel's fallen soldiers and the beginning of the Independence Day celebrations. I have uncomfortable feelings when I watch the stage performance where someone dresses up as an Arab, attacks the Jews while shouting garbled curses, then the Jews succeed in overcoming the attackers and the State of Israel is established. With my daughters studying in the same school with the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the people who "fought against us" in 1936 or 1948, I am able to understand that matters are not quite so simple.


“There was a great deal of arrogance in our attitude toward Arabs, the source of which was deeply rooted in the education that we received.” CARMEL RONEN, mother, Givat Ada

Carmel grew up on one of the richest and most established kibbutzim in Israel. Her deep involvement in school matters and, as a result, her encounter with the Arab population of Israel, has brought about a change in some of her views and has served as a "kind of corrective experience." She explains that her experiences from the time she enrolled her children in a Jewish-Arab school have helped her rethink all that she learned and experienced among the "kibbutz aristocracy and the ruling establishment" of the country during the first 30 years of the State of Israel.

"When we were children" she said, "we never visited the neighbouring Arab villages ... The only reference made in the kibbutz to them ended in the following words: 'They are stealing our fish,' or, 'They are stealing our bananas'. Apart from that, there was no mention of our next-door neighbours. As children the only image that we had of them was as thieves, bad people, certainly not human beings like us! There was a great deal of arrogance in our attitude toward them, the source of which was deeply rooted in the education that we received. We children received a clear message from the kibbutz educators that Arab children are not our equals, they are inferior and there is no good reason to meet with them."

Carmel has other criticisms of kibbutz education. "Only at the age of 14 did I come to realise that within the kibbutz framework, I am actually not able to be myself; I am only a reflection of myself in the eyes of my teachers, my peers, my house mothers in the children’s houses ... Only then did I begin to understand that unusual behavior was not tolerated. I also understood that in order to be accepted I had to be like the others, and for me that meant not being honest with myself."

When Carmel's eldest son was born, she decided that her children would receive an entirely different education. One of the things that gives her pleasure is the fact that her children have a good rapport with their Arab friends in the Jewish–Arab school, in contrast to the relationship between the children of the kibbutz and the nearby Arab villages of her youth.

One morning, Carmel's husband was sitting with his son at the school located in the Arab village Kfar Kara, when the windows shook violently from the deafening blast of an anti-missile exercise in the nearby army camp. He and Carmel went to the army camp the following morning to lodge a complaint.

"The commander received us in his office," she said,  "listened attentively to our complaints and seemed shocked by what he heard. After he recovered, he managed to say to us that he had no idea that Jewish children were studying in Kfar Kara. On that same day, all firing in the school vicinity ceased totally. From then onward, I have been able to better understand the feelings of the Arabs who live in Israel. I am now aware of the fact that the army is permitted to interfere with the lives of Arab children studying at the school whenever it pleases, totally ignoring the protests of their parents and of the local Arab councils, as though they do not exist. But the moment the army is made aware of the fact that there are Jewish children in the area, it ceases those abusive actions immediately."

Carmel and her family live in a moshav with a reputation of being unsympathetic to Arabs. Thirty children from this moshav now attend the Jewish-Arab school in Kfar Kara. For the Purim festival in the spring of 2006, the local council of the moshav decided to invite a group of students from the school to participate in the annual Purim parade. "Even the most hardened of our old-time members was moved by the participation of Arab and Jewish parents and children in the event," she said.


“The school did not change my outlook, it only changed me from being an onlooker to becoming personally involved.” ELDAD GARFUNKEL, father, Rakefet

One day Eldad was watching his son, Itai, and one of Itai's Arab friends from school, Walid, sitting together, hunched over a computer in their house. "The thought occurred to me that Itai is already on the fast track in the high-tech world," he said, "but when I asked myself where this fast track will lead his friend Walid, I saw a future in agriculture, in the building trade."

Eldad had recently left his career in photography to set up a computer company. He decided to discuss the idea of developing internet sites in Arabic with his partners. "There were very few internet sites in Arabic in Israel," he said, "and they were just beginning to develop in other countries. My partners were not enthusiastic. I went ahead, setting up a new company to deal exclusively with the development of high-tech and modern commerce in the Israeli Arab society."

The name of the new company was Alfanus.com. In Arabic, a fanus is a lamp that spreads light and knowledge. Eldad chose the name during Ramadan, after Itai returned from a visit to Walid’s house, bringing with him a toy fanus, customarily given to children as a gift during the holiday.

Eldad approached almost every government body likely to be interested in Arabic internet sites, and some hired him. Other bodies still refused to view Arabic as a language worthy of an internet site, despite the fact that Arabic is the language of 20 percent of the Israeli population and is, by law, one of the two official languages of the state.

"The replies that I received were amazing," Eldad said. "The first reaction is usually: 'What do Arabs have to do with the internet?' Most places agree that I should translate their site into Arabic — but that is not the idea. The idea is to develop sites that will be able to serve the Arab citizens in Arabic. An Israeli Arab citizen who goes on a pilgrimage to Mecca, for example, requires information about permits, inoculations and other papers available in seven different government offices, but there is no specific site that centralises all the necessary information for him. There is also no internet site for the Muslim religious court."

Nevertheless, he thinks that recognition of the importance of setting up sites in Arabic is beginning to penetrate government offices, as well as some of the large commercial companies. Today, Alfanus.com employs a staff of six translators and computer experts, all Israeli Arabs.

"We have here a combination of business enterprise with ideological motivation," says Eldad. "The ideological motivation to advance the civil status of the Israeli Arabs was part of us even before Itai began to study together with Arab children. The school did not change my outlook, it only changed me from being an onlooker to becoming personally involved. Before Itai began to study at the school I only saw the inequalities and injustices from afar. Now I see them up close, and what I see has spurred me on to act, within my limited field, in order to improve the situation."


“The fact that I have no guilt does not prevent me from having strong feelings of empathy toward the other side.” DANNY BAR-GIORA, father, Jerusalem

At the beginning, I used to count how many Arab parents and Jewish parents were present at meetings. At some stage, I stopped. The meetings were not for the purpose of discussing national identity, but rather to celebrate birthdays, decorate the classroom, solve mathematical exercises, be invited for meals at each other's homes, celebrate the holidays — in fact, to live the daily life of the school, simply, as people normally do. Bridging the differences is much easier when you do things that way.

In the early years some tension arose when certain controversial issues were discussed. There were many stormy deliberations on what to do on Nakba Day, Independence Day, Land Day. Many hours were spent on these discussions: what to do, what not to do, which event to observe and which not to observe. It was not an easy process, but when you come to a passionate discussion on such serious, controversial issues after a long period of discussing daily issues like school fees, transportation, meals, school budgets, quality of teaching, etc., the burden of the more 'loaded' issues becomes lightened and the capacity to find solutions is increased. People know each other better, they feel closer and more relaxed in each other's company, and they have a greater ability to understand and accept different opinions. In the first year of our involvement in the school, we invested a great deal of time in social meetings, and today our most pleasurable moments are those spent in the company of both the Arab and the Jewish parents and children from our son’s class.

Two years ago, when Yasser Arafat died, there was a special meeting of the steering committee. Someone should have filmed it in order to show how a community is able to organise itself quickly in order to do what clearly should be done. On the one hand, it was impossible to ignore the person who was a symbol for the Palestinian people, and on the other hand, he was a villain in the eyes of some. At the meeting, despite the storm that arose, it was very clear what should be done. The prevailing feeling was, "I can do this, because I know these people, and they are my real and true friends. We are partners in something that is the most important thing for me, my children’s education."

Slowly, through getting to know people, learning to understand the enormous pain, a story with which it is impossible not to empathise, it no longer feels like a threat to me. It does not cancel the feelings that I have, it cannot annul my identity. I have no feelings of guilt or regret; I am happy that the State of Israel was established. I do not think that it was possible to achieve that in a more humane fashion. My mother was a Holocaust survivor, and from my point of view, Israel is of primary importance and we should fight, if necessary, to preserve its existence. That is the only way, but today I understand that there is a nation that has paid an insufferably heavy price. We have to do everything in order to find a fair and honourable compromise in finding room for everyone. The fact that I have no guilt does not prevent me from having strong feelings of empathy toward the other side.

I am able to identify with the parents of the Arab children, with their conflicts between their Israeli and Palestinian identities, family, friends. Today I understand it better than before.
 

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