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September 4, 2015 | 20th Elul 5775

Separate But Equal?

March 23, 2003
Marc Rosenstein

The other day M., one of our Galilee Fellows whose project has been working with a teen leadership group in the neighboring Moslem village of Sha'ab, asked me to join her for her weekly session with the group. At the previous meeting, she had presented some statistics on the disparity between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel with respect to success on the end-of-high-school matriculation (bagrut) exams, and enrollment in post-secondary education. The data generated a great deal of emotion and heated debate within the group, which the kids were unable calmly to articulate to M.; hence, her invitation to me to help her try to sort it out.

There were eight kids there, all 12th graders, the more veteran members of the larger group which numbers about 25. They meet weekly; the "cover story" is that the purpose is to improve their spoken English -- the sessions are conducted in English. However, we know and they know that that is only part of the story, and it is the discussions of social and political questions, the contact with Jewish Israel, the opportunities to meet and host Jewish visitors from Israel and abroad that are the true substance of the project. This group seems to comprise "the best and the brightest" in the Sha'ab high school: smart, thoughtful, energetic, curious, and personable.

Once again, M. put the key data up on the board and a storm ensued. It seems that many of the kids insisted that the numbers couldn't be true, and were demanding to know the source. This was surprising to me, as these disparities have been public knowledge for a long time, and are among the stock in trade of everyone who speaks and writes on behalf of equalizing educational opportunities in Israel. To me, the numbers seem intuitively obvious and it never occurred to me to question them. It was fascinating to me to discover that instead of seizing the opportunity to demonstrate discrimination and unequal distribution of resources, most of the teens perceived the data as an attempt to portray the Arabs as less competent, successful, and intelligent. Instead of trumpeting the statistics as proof of their victimhood, they were ashamed by them, and wanted to find a way to disprove them.

M. led the group in an exploration of how one can interpret and argue against such data; what is the source? How can we check it? What alternative sources can we locate? Can we find local examples or counterexamples? etc. This was a useful exercise, as a problem in this group and in Israeli public discourse in general is the lack of a culture of rational debate. We are trying to develop a style of leadership that is based not on who can shout the loudest but on who can say something worth listening to.

Meanwhile, I tried to move the conversation beyond this exercise: OK, I said, suppose the statistics are off by a factor of two, and the disparity is much smaller; let's agree that there is probably some disparity -- and if so, what does it mean and what can we do about it? Again, to my surprise, there was no mention of uneven funding, facilities, teacher training, curricular materials, enrichment opportunities. Rather, they wanted to talk about the cultural issue: they said that the Hebrew/European/Western cultural bias of the bagrut exams and the universities puts Arabs at a disadvantage. Even though they take the exams in Arabic, the contents of the curriculum are foreign to them, not to mention the whole intellectual structure of the universities (and there, everything is in Hebrew, with a knowledge of English as well important for success in many fields).

One of the boys pointed out that at Mar Elias Academy, a highly regarded private Christian high school in a nearby village, everything is taught in Hebrew except Arabic language and literature. "Those kids score high on bagrut and do well in university. That's what we should have!" Once again a storm of chaotic argument in Arabic in the group -- the content being obvious. Once we had restored order and gotten the issues clarified, agreeing that there is a difficult dilemma here, and that every solution comes at a price, I wondered out loud about the possibility of an Arabic university -- and set off the storm all over again.

We talked about the Jewish experience in America, and also about the debate over bilingualism in American education. We ended the session as confused as when we began, but at least we understood what we were confused about -- and we understood each other a little better.

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