Living Together

"Beit Berl College" or the school of co-existence between Jews and Arabs in Israe

by Catherine Dupeyron

30/6/2011

 

In Israel, Jews and Arabs often live in parallel worlds where their paths rarely cross, each side remaining in its community, city, school, university. But there are those who choose to live together. This is not self-evident. It requires a strong, persistent will and the determination not to give up, whatever the obstacles. It is this challenge which is taken up daily, each in their own way, by the 10,000 students and 700 teachers and management of Beit Berl College, situated near Kfar Saba, 3 km. from the Green line and 10km. from the Mediterranean. This challenge – dialogue between communities – is also that of Jerusalem & Religions and we were partners in the inaugurating event of the Circle of Friends of Beit Berl College which took place on June 23, in Paris, at the town hall of the 16th arrondissement, under the auspices of Deputy-Mayor, Claude Goasguen, President of the France-Israel Parliamentary Friendship Association.  

 

At the end of the academic year, Beit Berl College is quiet. Classes have ended, so have the examinations. The campus is practically empty during the day. But on the evening of June 15, a group of students has gathered round a buffet outside the college library. Further away, in the middle of the lawn, a large platform has been erected for the diploma award ceremony. The atmosphere is convivial. The graduates include young and less young, religious and secular, Jews and Arabs, and many pregnant women or women holding babies in their arms, waiting their turn to mount the platform while, in the audience, parents are applauding their children. Amel is standing slightly apart from the crowd. Wearing a long djellaba and headscarf, she calmly walks up and down hoping to lull her newborn baby to sleep. In order to study at Beit Berl, Amel, who lives in the Wadi Ara region, chose to journey 45 minutes by bus. She could have opted for other solutions nearer her home, solutions aimed exclusively at Israeli Arabs, but she preferred Beit Berl and does not regret her decision. “The standard is first-class and the teachers are very good,” explains this beautiful, young Muslim in perfect Hebrew. The fact that the college is attended by Jews is not an obstacle. “On the contrary, it’s a plus,” she says smiling. Shira, for her part, is the mother of two young toddlers. This evening, she left them at home. An Orthodox Jew, who also wears a headscarf, Shira stresses the human dimension of Beit Berl. “ Here, we aren’t just a number, we all have a name.” For Shira, the presence of Arab students does not pose a problem. “I teach civic education, so I am  familiar with respect for differences.” 

 

Co-existence is not a long, quiet river 

Things are not self-evident. Co-existence, and even more so the ability to live together, do not drop magically out of the sky. It requires effort and sacrifice. Co-existence between Jews, Muslims and Christians – all Israeli citizens – is not a long, quiet river. For Tamar Ariav, President of Beit Berl College, it is an “ideological” commitment. And a commitment which exacts a price. “Some students, Jews and Arabs, do not apply to Beit Berl because of its mixed campus, she laments. Nonetheless, Beit Berl, which was founded in 1949, has a large public since it welcomes, every year, 10,000 students, 20% of whom are Arab students – reflecting the exact percentage of Israeli Arabs in Israel’s  population.  And being primarily an institution devoted to teacher training, the daily co-existence it promotes is not limited to mere personal experience: it is a model for future generations.   

 

“To the extent that a teacher can have, in the course of his/her career, an influence over thousands of children, the work we do here is laying the ground for future co-existence. Already, the next generation is more confident than we were,” notes Ruwaida Abou Rass, who speaks from experience, having been a student at Beit Berl in the 1980s, before being appointed lecturer in English in 1997. “In the 80s, and even quite recently, relations between Jews and Arabs were more on the level of rulers-ruled. But things have evolved considerably since then, notably, in the last three years. Our voices are heard more, we are more involved in decision-making and we are more respected.” An outcome which Beit Berl owes, above all, to its President, Tamar Ariav. Tamar’s hope is that “Israeli society, as a whole, will also follow in this path.”

 

But one must constantly persevere, for the equilibrium between Arabs and Jews is fragile. Every military operation undertaken by the Israeli army or every attack perpetrated by a terrorist can destabilize the edifice. “Everything can crumble in a second and racist remarks will emanate from both sides. At the same time, when tension rises, everyone very quickly feels the need to make an effort to get close again,” says Ruwaida.

"It’s important to listen to the Other" 

Another source of tension derives from the commemorative days, with their distinctly different historical resonance for Jews and Arabs such as Independence Day, Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and, curiously, Holocaust Remembrance Day. “The study of the Holocaust is not obligatory in the curriculum of Israeli Arab schools,” notes Tamar Ariav, a fact which has created great ignorance about this 20th century calamity and great incomprehension about Jewish psychology among the Israeli Arab population.

 

Conversely, even without comparing the different side’s historical tragedies, Jewish students know little or nothing about the Nakba. “We need to listen to their history and vice-versa. It’s of no help if we remain attached to one’s own narrative,” says Ruweida, whose family came from Miska, an Arab village which was entirely destroyed during the 1948 war. This is the aim of the multicultural study program given in the framework of the Unesco Chair for Multi-Culturalism in Education, created in 2004 and directed by Ruwaida since 2009. Two new initiatives suggested by Tamar Ariav, were developed in the last two years: promotion of visits by Israeli Arab students to Auschwitz, on the one hand, and lectures on the Nakba for Jewish students, on the other hand, both ventures going against the conventional approaches of Israel’s Jewish and Arab communities, which tend to focus on themselves. “We are an academic institution where freedom of expression reigns, so it is important to listen to the Other,” stresses Tamar.

 

The initiatives are ones which Berl Katznelson, for whom the College is named, would  certainly have endorsed. In 1936, when addressing a meeting of his Socialist Mapai comrades, this Russian Jewish immigrant to Palestine and pedagogic expert, talked about this “Orient which we need to learn about.”

 

To join the Circle of Friends of Beit Berl College, contact intlrel@beitberl.ac.il

To learn more about Beit Berl College: http://www.beitberl.ac.il

 

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