Orit Freiberg, principal of the bilingual Hagar Association school in Be’er Sheva, in Israel’s Negev, signed up her daughter for kindergarten classes at the school, which is devoted to “Jewish-Arab Education for Equality,” when it launched in 2007. Her reason was simple: “I am a normal person who wants to live in a normal society.”
Freiberg was joined by Afnan Abu Taha, Hagar’s executive director, at a May 19 gathering of 25 people at the home of Sherry Rosen in Princeton.
Abu Taha said her road to Hagar was more circuitous. She grew up in an Arab village in the North feeling alienated from Israeli society. “For me it is just for the Jews; they are excluding all the Arabs,” she said.
After her undergraduate studies at Netanya College, where initially, she estimated, she understood only 30 percent of the lectures — they were all in Hebrew — and where she did not have any serious relationships with Jews, Abu Taha developed a meaningful relationship with a Jewish man in her law program in Be’er Sheva.
“We opened an honest dialogue about our fears and perceptions of one to the other and our ideas for this country and society,” she said.
When her friend was called up to serve in a war in Gaza, she was shaken, and this started a change in her thinking. “I realized that all my bad experiences — it must be fixed; it couldn’t continue like that.”
So after the birth of her first daughter, Abu Taha joined with Arab and Jewish families who were talking about finding alternate ways to educate their children. Twenty-five percent of Be’er Sheva’s population is Arab, Abu Taha said, “but there are thick psychological walls between one another. We started to create a vision we believe in, to create a shared space based in bilingualism and multiculturalism.”
Hagar, which now comprises 240 students on three campuses and offers daycare, kindergarten, and elementary school, looks different from most Israeli schools, which are either exclusively Jewish or Arab. Each Hagar class has a Jewish and an Arab teacher, and the Hebrew and Arabic languages are everywhere. “We want our kids to know both languages from the beginning,” Freiberg said. “Most Jewish people, when they hear Arabic, it is the enemy language. If they learn it in high school, they learn it to be in the army in intelligence.”
At Hagar, not only do both languages permeate everything, but the school embraces Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. “We want each of our kids to know which religion he is connected to, but also to know his friends are Christian or Muslim, and to know about the Koran and New Testament and to respect it,” Freiberg said.
Because of its particular focus, Hagar uses books in the classroom only when necessary. Freiberg said, “We feel the best way for kids to learn is asking questions and looking for answers.”
Hagar created a special curriculum and a book of six children’s stories about Jewish, Muslim, and Christian holidays, written in Hebrew and Arabic, under a grant from the European Union. A teacher’s guide for each story provides an educational approach that “emphasizes the uniqueness of each holiday but also the common values of the holidays of Jews, Christians, and Muslims,” Freiberg said.
The school also explores one concept each year throughout its curriculum — for example, the culture of peace, or ecological issues related to water. “We want our kids to know how they can influence to make their society a better place,” Freiberg said.
She added that difficult times of the year for a mixed school are the “national days”: Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day, and Independence Day for the Jews, and Nakba Day (the “Day of the Catastrophe” commemorated around Israeli Independence Day) for the Palestinians.
Those events “are not easy,” Freiberg said. “We have two narratives, and they are in conflict. At our school we don’t try to put things under the rug; we won’t solve it if we just be quiet.” The children need to know the history from both perspectives, she said.
Lessons in mutual empathy and understanding are part of everyday life at Hagar. When students come to Freiberg after a fight at recess, she tells them to go outside, sit on a bench, and “tell each other your story. Most of the time there are two stories,” she said. “We are talking about how we are in the same situation but we see things differently, and how we can help each other to understand each other better.”
Because the school has two teachers in each class and needs to create bilingual curricula, Hagar receives about half of its $1 million budget from fund-raising in the United States. (Its website is hajar.org.il.)
For both Abu Taha and Freiberg, their initial decisions to put their daughters in the founding Hagar kindergarten upset their parents.
Abu Taha said her own family was at first suspicious about the school’s purpose, “but when they saw my two clever daughters, that they know who they are, what is their religion, what is their language, and see they can communicate in Hebrew and Arabic and switch like that,” and when family members saw her daughters “are concerned about many things children their age are not concerned with,” they started to brag about the girls.
Similarly, Freiberg’s parents, who, she said, at first thought she was completely crazy, later changed their tune. “My parents are so proud of their grandchildren because they saw our process,” she said.
For Abu Taha, Hagar is the only place in Israel where she feels she belongs. “Hagar is my piece of heaven,” she said.