Historically, Israeli-Arab municipalities have had less money to invest in schools than Jewish ones. Jewish municipalities receive funds from a greater variety of sources, including Jewish organizations abroad. They are also the beneficiaries of special budget allotments to schools in “national priority” areas -- strategically important border areas and the so-called development towns that are home to immigrant and disadvantaged groups. In 2006, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled this system discriminatory, stating that only four Arab villages and towns out of 500 were granted national priority funds, but the ruling has yet to be implemented.
“For over 62 years, there has been ongoing discrimination against Arab children in a country that is supposed to be democratic,” says Yossi Sarid, former head of the political party Meretz, who served as education minister from July 1999 through August 2000. “This is not just a moral issue. We are raising generations of young, frustrated people, and the anger does not bode well for the future.”
Majid Al-Haj, Israel’s leading expert on Arab education and a dean at Haifa University, the first Arab to hold such a post, has long been sounding a warning call. “It is in Israel’s interest to integrate the Arab minority -- especially the elites -- because we learn from history that a frustrated Arab elite usually leads to radicalization.”
Not all Jewish Israelis view inequality in the Arab sector as a pressing issue in light of Israel’s other domestic and foreign challenges. A minority even believes that problems will be solved if the border is moved so that major Arab population centers become part of a future Palestinian state. But others think that Israel’s economic -- and even political -- future hinges on the full integration of the Arab minority into Israeli life: 50 percent of Arabs now live below the poverty line and unemployment rates are high.
Recent Israeli governments have recognized the problems that inequity is breeding, and although their policies have differed, all have allocated additional money to Arab schools. In March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed a bill that designated an additional $214 million to twelve Arab towns over five years not for education but for infrastructure improvement. “The Arab population’s potential is not being realized,” said the conservative prime minister at the signing ceremony. “It is vital to us that there be equality of economic opportunity in employment, infrastructure, education, and quality of life in the non-Jewish sector.” Growth in these areas, he said, would “stand to transform the face of Israeli society.”
Fifteen miles north of Jaljulia, near the entrance to the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm -- known for Arab protests against the Israeli government -- a new stone building stands on a steep hillside. Students hurry along sun-drenched hallways festooned with palm trees and greenery and file into freshly-painted classrooms covered with artwork. Rows of Bunsen burners and glass beakers line the shelves of physics and chemistry labs. Welcome to Al Ahyla School.
A select group of students from across Israel -- about one in three applicants -- gain admission to this semi-private Arab school. Many of the teachers here have master’s degrees and doctorates in their fields. Homework assignments are rigorous and punctuated by frequent tests and quizzes. The students are impeccably behaved.
One of them is 10th-grader Ismail. The slim, soft-spoken 15-year-old wants to be a doctor. “I like to help other people,” he says. His morning starts with a co-ed class on Islam, during which a teacher with a thick dark beard speckled with gray, wearing a button-down shirt and tie, recounts a story about Mohammed’s disciples. Soon a bell rings, and a civics teacher, who is also the deputy mayor of a neighboring village, addresses the sensitive issue of Israel’s Memorial Day, when most Jews stand for the sounding of a siren in memory of the country’s fallen soldiers, but Arabs do not. The teacher talks about the tenets of respect for fellow citizens. “As Jews avoid eating in front of Muslim Arabs during the fast month of Ramadan, Arabs stand during the siren if they are in the company of Jews,” he explains.
Al Ahyla School, which literally means “the best” in Arabic, is a success story. Its students regularly score top marks on the national high school matriculation exam, often the highest average for any school in the country, says Samir Mahamid, the school’s principal and founder. The 46-year-old with a Ph.D. in genetics from Hebrew University has made the school a boot camp for Israel’s competitive university admissions, including intense preparation for the bagrut, something that is being emulated by his colleagues at Jewish schools. “Our school can be a solution,” says Mahamid, to Israel’s troubled education system. As a youth, Mahamid studied at a Jewish school because his parents hoped it would help him succeed in Israeli society. “But I think our students here learn more than I did,” he concludes. “Our school really is exceptional. We have book clubs, a leadership course, tutoring, lots of parent meetings and workshops.”