Arab Israeli Teacher Integration in Jewish Schools in Israel: Some Insights for Philanthropy

by Mike Prashker

This morning Dalit Stauber, Director-General of Israel’s Ministry of Education, announced on prime-time Reshet Bet public radio, the decision to place 500 unemployed Arab-Israeli math, English, science and Arabic teachers in Jewish-Israeli schools over the next four years. The plan was described as nothing less than “revolutionary” and the Director-General stressed its educational, social and economic advantages for Israel.

For Merchavim, and for our long-term philanthropic partners, this morning’s announcement was a satisfying mile-stone on what has already been a challenging eight year journey.

Starting with the then “revolutionary” (but by now already “pretty normal”) integration of Arab-Israeli teachers in Jewish schools to teach Arabic, this has been a journey to normalize the integration of the best teachers in Israel’s schools, irrespective of background. It represents a systematic effort to build a more cohesive society, to specifically improve Jewish-Arab relations and to create equal employment opportunities for Israel’s estimated 8-10,000 unemployed Arab teachers.

As the Director-General of the Ministry of Education announced, a great deal of work remains to be done over the coming four years to implement the detailed plan that Merchavim has been full partner to developing and has a key role in implementing.

However, at a point that we could only have dreamed of attaining eight years ago (and in fact until only very recently!), some basic insights as to how NGOs and philanthropists have worked together to achieve far-reaching change – to the point that the State of Israel has taken over fundamental ownership and responsibility for change we have jointly sought, can be drawn:

  • Research, Planning and Professionalism: Starting with the comprehensive independent evaluation assessing the performance of the first Arab-Israeli teachers of the “Let’s Talk” Arabic program some eight years back, research and planning have driven and informed the effort. A key piece of research was commissioned by one of Israel’s leading experts in Arab education, Dr. Haled Abu-Asbeh, to assess the interest and feasibility of the plan among unemployed Arab-Israeli teachers and the efficacy of all strands of teaching have been constantly monitored. It was on the basis of this research – demonstrating clear educational, inter-group attitude and economic benefits, that the policy-paper we later drafted was adopted as the basis for the now published plan.
  • Partnership with Government: Merchavim and our philanthropic partners have never been under any illusion that we should or could take long-term implementation or funding responsibility for this program. Ownership by the State of Israel has always been a long-term goal and this requires constant nurturing and pragmatic cooperation. From the outstep we defined our goal as to be that of a catalyst for change; creating a new paradigm, developing the expert knowledge involved in all stages of the process, from teacher selection, including teacher-training, in-service support and school-community acceptance. Decisively, it was only when cooperation between the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Education – a process in which Merchavim played only a modest role as contrary to some expectations – Israel’s Government Ministries do not need NGOs to communicate – did the win-win formula for a breakthrough take shape.
  • Frank Collaboration: The journey up until today has been plagued by set-backs and frustrations. Together with the skepticism born of convention, whereby Jewish- and Arab-Israeli teachers “naturally” teach in Israel’s overwhelmingly separate Jewish and Arab schools, the economic crisis of 2008, brought about extensive teacher re-training programs of newly unemployed hi-tech workers (invariably Jewish-Israelis) and stalled our efforts. Our low-point was when a group of thirty teachers were fully trained by Merchavim together with our Ministry of Education colleagues – also at the expense of our philanthropic partners – only to be disappointed and remain unemployed. Such times require cool heads and frank NGO-philanthropic-Government communication, grounded in trust and transparency. Going in – and throughout – it is essential that the complexities, challenges and genuine risks of making decisive change are equally shared and appreciated.
  • Cooperation among NGOs: A year or so back, frustrated by the set-backs, we understood that the challenges we were facing were much bigger than we could handle alone, including areas beyond education in which we had no expertize or legitimacy. While no formal “consortium” was created, intensive communications, learning and support of many partner NGOs, including the Abraham Fund Initiatives, Sikkuy, Kav Mashveh, the Israel Democracy Institute, HaKol Hinuch, JDC-Tevet, Adva amd Masaar Institutes, ACRI and others was formative. It is highly doubtful that without the policy, economic and legal acumen and collaborative good-will and “muscle” accumulated, that we could have reached this juncture.
  • Strong Israeli Public leadership: While Merchavim is a highly regarded partner to Israel’s Ministry of Education, and our Board and supporters include well-known Israeli philanthropists and public figures, our breakthrough might well not have happened without the quite unique public standing and leadership of Mr. Dov Lautman, a prominent Israeli industrialist and philanthropist, chairman of Kav Mashveh and HaKol Hinuch among other important Israeli educational and shared-society NGOs. This “authentic, home-grown” leadership – like it or not – becomes especially critical for legitimacy and traction when – as we know is often the case and has been in this one – much of the philanthropy for the initiative comes from overseas and “the NGO director is him/herself “Anglo-Israeli.
  • Staying the Course: Six months ago, after seven and a half years of continual grind and disappointments, it was impossible to anticipate we would be where we are now; an official 500 teacher integration plan, driven by the Ministry of Education and the Prime Minister’s Office. It is no secret that our philanthropic partners were feeling the strain and letting us know that “time was running out on the program”. While we were all as committed as ever to the vision, the sense was that the timing was just not right. The frustrations we had jointly experienced as concerns the integration of math, science and English teachers and the political environment which was anything but conducive to a break through, were wearing us all down. But the bottom line is, we all stuck with it – based on revised plans and targets not on a whim – and to paraphrase a saying I particularly like, we have to-date avoided the fate of far too many important ideas by which “lots of good things never happen because the people trying stopped too soon.”
  • Luck: Finally – and let’s not knock it! – after so long, we needed and had probably all earned a lucky break. Put together a newly appointed Minister of Education who views the program favorably, OECD reports that Israel is falling short on its diversity employment targets, a growing lack of properly qualified Jewish-Israeli teachers and a State budget deficit that made the economic benefits of the program especially attractive, and opportunity beckons; but only if well-researched and comprehensive plans for change are available. Happily, this was the case.

But not let’s get ahead of ourselves; we are still four years, multiple foreseen and still unforeseen, obstacles away from full implementation and normalization of the integration of Arab-Israeli teachers in Jewish-Israeli schools, with all the educational, shared-living and economic benefits this portends for Israeli society and the State of Israel. So now is the time to re-double our efforts and to remember that the work of NGOs and philanthropy is not complete until the extraordinary becomes the norm; then we can all get on to the next challenge.

Mike Prashker is the Founder and Director of Merchavim – The Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel.

Merchavim’s philanthropic partners include: UJA-Federation of New York, JFNA – Social Venture Fund for Jewish-Arab Equality and Shared Society, The Royal Government of the Netherlands through their Embassy in Israel, The Kahanoff Foundation, The Alan B. Slifka Foundation, The Morningstar Foundation, Landa Fund for Equal Opportunity Through Education, The Olive Stone Trust, The Levi Lassen Foundation and the Moriah Fund.