North Africa, West Asia

Reveries of an English teacher on vacation

As discussions of the pros and cons of the ASA boycott continue, a historic leader's life comes to an end. Efraim shares his experiences as an English teacher and farmer, and remembers when Ariel Sharon paid a visit to his home.

Efraim Perlmutter
16 January 2014

These past three weeks have been a contrasting set of experiences for me, so please excuse me if I tend to ramble through my reveries.

Events began with the American Studies Association (ASA) adopting a resolution to boycott Israeli universities. On a different forum I became involved in a discussion of this action and, as you might expect, I expressed criticism of the ASA boycott. As is my practice, I read all of the pro and con material that came my way. Most of the pro-boycott articles contained the usual negative characterizations of Israel and Zionism. However, in one of the articles, the writer made the unusual accusation that the State of Israel's school system was an example of segregation, like that practiced in the American South back in the 1950's and 60's. I was surprised by this description of the Israeli education system. I have taught in several Israeli schools over the years and have never viewed them as being segregated. Certainly Israeli colleges and universities, the objects of the ASA ire, cannot be described as segregated either in terms of student body or faculty. But the question remains as to what is it about Israeli K-12 schools which would cause someone to think that they are segregated? The answer came to me on the last day of school just before the winter vacation.

In the Bedouin school where I teach, the semester came to an end and the winter vacation began about three weeks ago. On the last day of school a ceremony was held to give certificates of accomplishment to several students as well as celebrate the end of the semester. The assembly began with a ninth grade male student reading a selection from the Quran. This was followed by a young female student reciting with great feeling a poem that she had written about the Prophet. The entire ceremony was conducted in the Arabic language. It was there that I began to understand why the Israeli school system could look segregated to someone on the outside, even though it is not. In the Israeli case the misperception results from the State of Israel's attempt to abide by principles laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights deals with education and has three parts. They read as follows:

Article 26.

(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.  

(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

  • (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Those who are familiar with education systems dealing with minority populations may notice the contradiction between the first two paragraphs and the third in the UDHR. Essentially what is one to do when parents do not want their children educated according to the curriculum designed for the majority population? In fact how does one design an educational system to meet the demands of modern society according to the UCHR when parents don't want their children educated at all? In the case of the Israeli school system, what is to be done when parents refuse to educate their children, limit their children's education or insist on what the content must or must not be? In the Bedouin school where I currently teach English, it is quite a challenge to get some of the parents to send their daughters to school. Some parents agree to send their daughters on condition that their daughters' faces are completely covered while in school or they won't let them attend. So, something that would be considered an unacceptable infringement of women's rights in some European states is permitted in our school as a compromise so that girls can be educated. These parents certainly would not allow their daughters, covered up or not, to attend a Jewish or mixed Jewish-Muslim school. Bedouin parents justifiably insist on the curriculum containing the study of the Quran, and that this study be conducted in the Arabic language. They also insist that the curriculum not contain any study of the Jewish or Christian bible. Hebrew is taught in the school but as a second language just as Arabic is taught as a second language in most of the other Israeli schools. Thus the Israeli schools are structured to meet the educational demands of the community of parents which they service. This is consistent with paragraph three of Article 26, but to an outsider it may look like a segregated school system.

There is one other element which differentiates the educational situation in Israel and segregated education in the mid-twentieth century American south. There is no law in Israel forbidding the education of Jews and Arabs together. In fact I have taught mixed classes in Israeli schools. This situation can be beneficial to all but not without costs. As one Arab mother whose children attended a non-Arab school and who lived in a Jewish neighborhood in Be'er Sheva told me, she was worried that her children were assimilating into Israeli society and forgetting their Arabic language and culture.

I enjoyed my vacation from teaching school and spent my extra time working on my farm. I had my first pick of pineapples, which I picked, sorted and packed on my own. Unfortunately I developed a mild case of the flu so my wife insists that the rest of the season I use hired workers for the job.

Towards the end of my vacation Ariel Sharon died. The papers were full of analyses, commentary and obituaries. The best that I read appeared in an American Jewish newspaper called the Algemeiner. I can't add much to the Algemeiner article. I met Sharon only once and that was at my home, about 36 years ago when he was Minister of Agriculture. It was his first important post as a politician and his reputation until then was based almost solely on his army career. Our village was among the first to grow tomatoes in hot houses for export to Europe. Most of the growing problems had been overcome but we were having a big problem with the Israeli bureaucracy when it came to managing the export of our produce. About a dozen of us drove up to Sharon's farm to complain, only to discover that he wasn't home. I wrote a note inviting him down to our village to discuss the problems and left it with someone there. A few hours later Sharon called and said that he would come down to meet with us the following Sunday, --two days away.

On Sunday morning he arrived with about a half dozen cars full of Ministry of Agriculture officials and one of his sons. My neighbors, the ministry officials and Sharon gathered in our living room, Sharon sat on the biggest chair that we owned and we discussed the various problems. What surprised me was how quickly he understood the problems and what he needed to do to fix them. And truth to tell, during his tenure as Minister of Agriculture things went quite well with government officialdom.

The winter vacation had come to an end but the day of Sharon's funeral coincided with the Prophet's birthday and my Bedouin school was closed. Therefore, unlike most other Jewish teachers in the country I had the day off and I was able to follow the events on TV. Sharon was buried on a hill, next to his second wife across the road from his farm house. I entertained the idea of attending the funeral but I decided not to go. Instead I will pay my respects in the spring when the hill is covered with the bright red wild flowers for which it is named.

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