Educating Children in Conflict Zones

Linked with the Hagar School.

Published on Dissident Voice, by Catherine Rottenberg and Neve Gordon, October 17, 2009.

BEER SHEBA, Israel — Educating children in a conflict zone is no simple matter. More often than not, those responsible for the curricula succumb to the masters of war and adopt a pedagogical approach that exacerbates rather than diffuses strife. Israel, unfortunately, is no exception.

Consider the way Jewish and Palestinian children are educated. Segregation in the classroom is the rule so that Jewish and Palestinian children only rarely mix. This strict segregation exists despite the fact that the Palestinians are citizens of Israel, comprising 19.5 percent of Israel’s population–around 1.37 million people–and 25 percent of all school children. Unlike the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, these Palestinians vote and pay taxes like Jewish citizens …

… Since educating for tolerant thinking within a conflict zone is no easy task, there are very few such projects in Israel. The bilingual Arab-Jewish Hagar School in Beer-Sheba is the only one of its kind in Israel’s southern region–a region that is home to over half a million people, 25 percent of whom are Palestinian citizens. While Hagar is a public school supported by the Ministry of Education, it is also the exception that proves the rule.

Hagar’s uniqueness stems from the fact that it has created a venue in which Jewish and Arab children not only mix (each ethnic group makes up 50 percent of the student body) but learn together in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Currently 67 children, nursery through first grade, attend this bi-lingual school, whose commitment to equality informs every aspect of its educational agenda.

To ensure that Hebrew and Arabic are awarded equal status, for example, two teachers, one Jewish and the other Arab, are present in every classroom. By creating a bilingual space that encourages direct contact with the heritage and customs of the different cultures, Hagar promotes tolerance, while being sensitive to nurture the personal identity of each child and each tradition. Thus, by the time the children are old enough to learn that there are two conflicting national narratives, both of which will be taught, they already have the necessary emotional and intellectual tools to deal with conflict through dialogue.

Hagar is an educational island that is expanding against all odds. Indeed, the school’s achievements within the current political context–especially following the assault on Gaza and the sporadic missile attacks on Beer-Sheba–are astonishing. But ongoing local support and international financial assistance are necessary to guarantee the future success of this educational space–a space that is actively translating a pedagogy of mutual respect into practice within a conflict zone. (full text).

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