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Israeli Arabs enter Jewish classrooms

By Josef Federman

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Dec. 22 2011 3:11 a.m. MST

But the students also are learning some grown-up lessons. They speak about diversity, respecting "the other," and breaking the stereotypes held by many Israelis that Arabs are religious fanatics or terrorists.

"You can't generalize," said Ron Crispin, another girl in the class. "We live in one country. We have to live in peace."

Faour tries to avoid politics, but that's not always possible. During an air raid drill that simulated a missile attack, a student asked, "Do you also do this?"

"I said, 'They also fire rockets at us. We're also sad. We also want peace and quiet,'" Faour said.

Arabic is mandatory in all Israeli schools from 7th to 10th grade, but the requirement is unevenly enforced. Only about half of the schools teach it, and in many of those most students take it only for two years, according to the Abraham Fund, an advocacy group that promotes coexistence between Israel's Arabs and Jews.

Hebrew, the native language of Israel's Jews, is required in all schools, and schools in Arab communities generally start teaching it in the 3rd grade. There are hardly any mixed Arab-Jewish schools in Israel, since the communities generally live apart.

Working with Israel's Education Ministry, the Abraham Group launched the "Yaa Salam" program in 2005 on an experimental basis in 12 schools in northern Israel, and gradually expanded it.

Today, it is taught in 200 of the country's approximately 1,700 Jewish primary schools, most of them in northern Israel where many of the country's Arabs live. The ministry now runs the program, though the Abraham Fund still provides support.

"The goal is to break the stereotypes and fears and get to know each other. That's what has happened," said Orly Nachum, the northern district's Arabic language supervisor.

Israeli Arabs, unlike their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, hold full citizenship rights but often face discrimination in housing and employment. The Jewish majority often views Israeli Arabs with suspicion, citing their frequent identification with the Palestinians and anti-Israel statements by political leaders.

In this atmosphere, the Israeli government, dominated by Jewish nationalists, has approved a series of bills in the parliament, or Knesset, that are perceived as anti-Arab.

Amnon Beeri Sulitzeanu, the Abraham Fund's co-director, urged the Education Ministry to make the program mandatory nationwide to counter this trend.

"Children, even young, feel the antidemocratic winds blowing from the Knesset and internalize sentiments of xenophobia and alienation toward Israel's Arab citizens," he said. "In this complex and dangerous situation, this program somehow offsets negative attitudes toward Arabs."

Faour tries to avoid such deep issues, though she knows she's an unofficial ambassador. For now, she is just content talking to her students.

"They just want to speak Arabic. What fun," she said.

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