By Bob Mark
The Neve Shalom / Wahat al-Salam (NS/WAS) Kindergarten and Primary School have always aspired to pave the way for Jewish - Arab bilingual education in Israel, and in recent years we have begun to see the results. The growing number of Jewish and Arab pupils who come to us from as far away as Jerusalem attest to the quality of the school's education. Last year's decision of Israel's Ministry of Education to grant us recognition as an 'experimental school' demonstrates that the State is prepared to take our school seriously as an alternative model. Finally in recent months we have been serving as consultants for other groups of Jews and Arabs who are planning to open bilingual schools in the Galilee, Wadi 'Ara, and Jerusalem.
At no point, however, did the NS/WAS Kindergarten and Primary School decide that it needed challenges outside of Israel's borders as well. So we were taken by surprise when, at a 1996 conference of peace educators in Lilhammer, Norway, the NS/WAS school delegation was approached by Professor Violeta Beska of the University of Skopje and Dr. Eran Frankel, director of the 'Search for Common Ground' organization, who were inspired enough by the school's presentation to request our help in establishing bilingual kindergartens in the Republic of Macedonia. The initiative eventually led to a seven - day visit to Macedonia in April, 1998, by 'Aishe Najjar, the Arab director of the NS/WAS Kindergarten, and Boaz Kita'in, the Jewish educational director of the NS/WAS Primary school. There they conducted a workshop on binational - bilingual education for twelve ethnic Albanian and Macedonian kindergarten teachers. The project continued in July with a reciprocal visit to Neve Shalom / Wahat al-Salam by the Albanians and Macedonians. Boaz and 'Aishe shared some of their impressions with me for this article.
Macedonia presents itself as the region's 'oasis of peace'. The borders defining Macedonia were recognized even when it was a part of Yugoslavia and they have not been a subject of dispute since gaining independence. While there is tension between the Macedonian majority and the Albanian minority, there has not been violence between them. To some extent even the tension is denied. Much of what Boaz described reminded us of our own situation in Israel. In the former Yugoslavia as a whole, the Albanians constituted one of the larger ethnic groups, even larger than the Macedonian ethnic group. In the new independent Macedonia the Albanians suddenly find themselves confronting political questions as a minority with their own language and religion. Most of the Albanians are Muslim and their language and Latin alphabet are very different from those of the majority. The ethnic Macedonians, on their part, are learning to deal with their new situation as a majority in an independent country. They have their own language that closely resembles the Serbo-Croatian language dominant in the former Yugoslavia. They use the Cyrillic alphabet. Most of the Macedonians are Eastern Orthodox Christians.
In preparing the ground for the project, it was necessary for Dr. Frankel to obtain the agreement of the Macedonian Ministry of Education. Though the Ministry consented, it was not without reservations. Four kindergartens agreed to serve as pilot projects. It was now up to the project's staff to develop a bilingual educational program that would be relevant to their particular reality. When Boaz and 'Aishe appeared, the Albanian and Macedonian kindergarten teachers were expecting to receive a series of lectures on how to run a bilingual program. Instead they received a series of questions. And they were not always the kind of questions that the project directors had in mind.
Accustomed to principles of the educational system of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, where the decision - making process is a result of Jewish - Arab cooperation, 'Aishe suggested a similar approach in the Albanian - Macedonian kindergartens. This was immediately rejected by the Macedonian project director and her Macedonian assistant as irrelevant. 'Aishe was told that there is no conflict between the Albanians and the Macedonians such as exists between Jews and Arabs, that there was no Albanian who was both interested and qualified to direct the project, and in any case the Albanians neither requested nor expected to be represented in the administration. This was the first of several occasions in which Boaz and 'Aishe felt, as outsiders, that there were subjects too sensitive for them to address. Perhaps the project director was leery of the government's reaction to any activity that led the participants to broach political differences that may exist between the two ethnic groups. The work was to remain on a cultural level, assuming that this could be done without politics.
In Macedonia most Albanians can speak Macedonian and very few Macedonians can speak Albanian. A part of the workshop was based on simulation games that helped the participants to identify the pitfalls of bilingual education. 'Imagine,' 'Aishe told the kindergarten teachers, 'that an Albanian parent comes to you worried about the level of his or her child's Albanian language development...'
'Or a Macedonian parent worried about the Macedonian language,' suggested one Macedonian. 'Aishe felt at home. Of course the Macedonians, like the Jews in our situation, might express such concerns, but it takes time to recognize and give legitimacy to the asymmetry between the two groups. 'Aishe had little doubt that it is the Albanians who will have cause for concern about the place of their mother language in the kindergarten. Boaz and 'Aishe divided the participants into unilateral groups of Albanian and Macedonian kindergarten teachers in order to work through some of the questions that arose in the various simulation games. A unique problem that 'Aishe and Boaz came across was the opposition on the part of the authorities to exposing Macedonians to the Latin alphabet. It was explained to them that it presents a didactic problem since some letters are shared by the two alphabets but are used differently. This may confuse the children. But it turns out that even in the upper levels of school the ethnic Macedonian students do not learn the Albanian language. The Education Ministry was prepared to accept bilingual education on the spoken level in the kindergartens, and it was up to the teachers to avoid exposing the Macedonian children to the Latin alphabet. Within these restrictions the teachers came up with creative ideas for activities that they later continued to develop in the large group forum.
The participants were also given the task of finding ways to address various cultural aspects of the two groups. The workshop coincided with 'Id al-adcha and Easter, and it was the natural choice to focus on these events in raising the question of how to celebrate holidays . Once again the Albanian and Macedonian groups were divided in order to prepare their respective holidays. 'Id al-adcha is the Muslim feast commemorating the story of God's command to Ibrahim that he sacrifice his son Ishma'el. For the Albanians in the group, 'Id al-adcha, or the 'holiday of the sacrifice', had always been an occasion for family reunions and a good meal. But when asked to prepare the holiday as an educational task, the Albanians suddenly realized that nobody in their group really knew the story behind 'Id al-adcha. Together they began to learn about the holiday and to raise questions about the educational content. For example, the story of a father prepared (even if reluctantly) to sacrifice his child is a frightening thing to bring to the kindergarten. The question was also raised whether this story, though similar to the Old Testament story of Isaac, is really what the Albanians want to present as representative of their culture.
'Aishe and Boaz found that, as in their work in NS/WAS, the encounter with the 'other' sharpened the identities of the two groups by confronting them with questions about themselves that they might not otherwise have raised. The educators' challenge is to use the differences between the groups as a source of enrichment rather than as a source of hostility.
The same twelve kindergarten teachers, along with a delegation of Macedonian government officials and educators, later spent a week in NS/WAS from July 3 - 10 to observe our Jewish - Arab Kindergarten in action and to meet more of the staff. Among the government officials who participated were the heads of the departments of kindergarten and primary school education in the Macedonian Ministry of Education. While observing the kindergarten's daily routine, the Albanian and Macedonian teachers were guided by specific tasks that made them focus on different relations and interactions in the kindergarten: relations between the children as a whole, between the children as Jews and Arabs, between the kindergarten teachers and children and between the Arab and Jewish kindergarten teachers themselves. Never having conducted such programs for teachers outside of Israel, the NS/WAS staff did not anticipate the difficulty that the participants had in distinguishing between Hebrew and Arabic. This made it difficult to follow how the two languages work together. During the week the children wore tags with their names written in both languages. The names were written first in the child's mother language and then in the second language. In this way the participants could identify the children as Jews and Arabs. It is apparently easier to see the differences in the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets than it is to hear the differences between the languages. During the week the participants had the opportunity to watch the children prepare and celebrate Maulad an-Nabi (the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad).
In addition to the daily observations the participants received a series of lectures and workshops addressing questions of majority - minority relations, focusing on the role of language and identity. The Albanians and Macedonians brought their own experience to the workshop and they had the opportunity to work through what they observed in the NS/WAS Kindergarten. In summarizing the week many of the participants spoke of how significant it was for them to see a working example of the kind of bilingual education that until then was only theoretical. Some expressed their surprise at how much they could follow in the kindergarten even without understanding either of the languages. After seeing the place of the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets in the Kindergarten there were teachers who questioned the policy of avoiding the use of both the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets in their own kindergartens. One teacher mentioned how impressed she was to see all of the children preparing the Muslim holiday without any apparent difference between Jews, Muslims and Christians. Another teacher raised the doubts that she previously had about the attempt to establish an Albanian - Macedonian Kindergarten, and added that she can now go home encouraged about the real possibility to make their project work. The Macedonians extended an invitation to the general director of the NS/WAS Kindergarten and Primary School, Anwar Daoud, to make a follow-up visit to the Macedonian projects in the Spring of 1999.
Aishe Najjar's paper to the Macedonian educators: "The Bilingual, Binational Kindergarten"
The Children's Educational System
Copyright 1999 by Neve Shalom/Wahat
All rights reserved. Revised: 04-Mar-2003 .