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A Shared Language, A Shared Society: Advancing Bilingual Education in Israel’s Knesset

On Monday, June 6, Hand in Hand co-hosted a historic Knesset conference titled “A Shared Language, A Shared Society: Advancing Bilingual Education in Israel” on the importance of shared Jewish-Arab education, and its pivotal role in transforming Israeli society. The conference was sponsored by Members of Knesset Gilad Kariv and Ibtisam Mara’ana, who are working on a bill to standardize integrated education, and cement the right of any interested  Jewish or Arab child to attend a bilingual school in Israel.

Participants and speakers included students, parents, educators, staff, and board members from Hand in Hand, along with representatives from other Jewish-Arab shared education organizations, Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom, Israel’s first Jewish-Arab community and school, and Hagar: Jewish Arab Education for Equality, a bilingual, integrated school located in Be’er Sheva.

Hand in Hand’s CEO, Dani Elazar addressed the Knesset Members, and spoke of the bureaucratic challenges faced by integrated schools, calling for the Ministry of Education to take immediate action. “Now is the time for Jewish-Arab, bilingual, integrated education to be standardized and recognized within Israel’s public school system, as the foundation of shared living in this country,” said Elazar. “In order to create a shared and equal society, there must be an integrated school and community in every mixed city, which will serve as a model for shared living in Israel. This ought to be part of the Ministry of Education’s vision and plan of action… This is no longer the time for talking and making statements. Now is the time to take action, and promote this bill which will standardize integrated education, and create a better, more equal society.”

MK Gilad Kariv, who sponsored the conference, also addressed the many hurdles faced by shared education organizations: “The challenges these schools face do not end after their inception. Every attempt at expanding the student body or building, obtaining a recognized and official status, or securing more funding, is met with obstacles. It is our role as Members of Knesset to simplify the launch and growth of these schools.”

Eleven MKs from across five different political parties, including MK Gilad Kariv, MK Ibtisam Mara’ana, MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, MK Emilie Moati, Minister Issawi Frej, MK Eitan Ginzburg, MK Moshe Tur-Paz, MK Naama Lazimi, MK Inbar Bezek, MK Ram Shefa, and MK Ayman Odeh, attended the conference and expressed strong support for this bill and our work.

“Every parent that has chosen this path is a hero,” said Minister of Regional Cooperation Issawi Frej. “It’s not simple, not for Jews and not for Arabs. The saying, ‘the more you know, the less you hate,’ is very true. Once people get to know each other, they discover things they never knew before. These integrated schools are a very important clause in our insurance policy in this country. We want to be a part of this society, not separate. I am prepared to work at the local level, or anywhere else where I can help.”

Educators from all three organizations spoke of these schools’ unique strengths, individual and societal impact, and inherent challenges. Hand in Hand’s Director of Education, Nadia Kinane, elaborated on Hand in Hand’s educational approach and ethos, while Principal of the Kfar Saba school, Mohammad Kundos, spoke of his experience as principal, and the importance of securing an official status from the Ministry of Education.

“It is wonderful that we do not need to time travel to the future to see what a just and shared society looks like. We can see it right here,” said Mohammad Kundos, Principal of the Kfar Saba school. “As principal of this school, I now understand the meaning of tikkun. We all saw what happened in May of 2021. It is not enough to use words like pluralism and coexistence. If we want to affect real change, we must begin with education. We must give equal space to both cultures, and allow everyone to sit together and speak about the complexities. Our current challenge is that we are considered recognized but not official by the Ministry of Education, which creates issues in recruiting both teachers and students, particularly those with special needs. The other matter is infrastructure. My students are learning in caravans. We don’t yet know where our 5th graders will be learning next year. If we were recognized and official, the Ministry would be obligated to provide us with a permanent building. We are educating a generation of leaders. But to sustain this work, we must find solutions to these bureaucratic obstacles.”

Dozens of Jewish and Arab students, from the youngest preschoolers to high school students and alumni, took part in the conference. Before the official speeches began, every child introduced themselves, noting their name, hometown and school. Later in the conference, current Hand in Hand high school student, Quds Ayoub, addressed the Knesset Members, and shared her perspective and experience studying at the Max Rayne Jerusalem High School.

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve been in a Jewish-Arab setting, and this has shaped who I am today,” said Quds. “It helped me understand who I am, and what I believe in. I learned how to engage in discussions and debates, while knowing that others’ opinions are valid. When I know and respect my own identity, I am far more likely to know and respect the identities of others who differ from me. At school, we talk about everything, whether it is comfortable or not. We have a duty to listen to one another, even when it is difficult to relate or understand. Learning with and about ‘the other’ has helped me not only acquire another language, but has also shaped how I think. Those who never interact with ‘the other,’ will believe what they hear, which is most often based in prejudice and misconceptions. The Hand in Hand school has provided me with an excellent education. This opens up opportunities which would not have been available to me if I had attended an Arab school, as Arab schools typically receive less funding and are often disregarded. We are here to make a change, because avoidance and barriers are not the solution. The solution is to find a middle ground. In the end, we are like siblings. We may fight, but we cannot get along without one another. We were meant to live side by side—and this can only be achieved together.”

Standardizing integrated education

At the close of the conference, MK Kariv presented the integrated education bill which will soon be presented and voted on in the Knesset. The bill defines integrated education as:

“A public education where Jews and Arabs learn together in Hebrew and Arabic. The curriculum is multicultural, and marks the holidays and cultural touchstones celebrated by all its students.” The bill also states that local municipalities in mixed regions will be obligated to support and advance the launch of at least one bilingual educational institution.  “Our goal is that every family in Israel, whether Arab or Jewish, that is interested in bilingual education, will have access to a public, recognized bilingual school,” said MK Kariv.

This conference is a significant step toward institutionalizing shared education. We will continue to move these efforts forward so as to bring shared education to as many children as possible across the country. Join us and support shared education today!

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