October 17, 2018

Arab local councils set to strike beginning of school year

This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

Salim Sleibi, the mayor of the Israeli Arab town of Majd al-Krum, should be getting ready for the opening of the school year on September 1. Instead, he is preparing for a strike that will keep the 5000 students in his town home for another two days.

“In my town 25 percent of the students study in mobile homes that are not meant to be classrooms,” he told The Media Line. “I have 1000 junior high school students in a school with just four toilets. Classes are overcrowded. The yard for recess is just 400 yards. It is impossible to study like this.”

Arab educational achievements are far behind those of Jews in Israel. More than one-third of all Arab citizens of Israel do not finish high school, compared to 16 percent of Jewish citizens. Only 17 percent of Arab citizens complete higher education, compared with 40 percent of Jewish citizens.

There are a series of reasons for the gaps in educational achievement, say Arab activists. One reason is language. While Arab citizens of Israel all learn Hebrew from first grade, their primary language is Arabic. They often find it difficult to pass university entrance exams in Hebrew. Another reason is widespread poverty in the Arab community. Violence is also rampant Farah says, with the murder rate among Arabs much higher than that among Jews.

“One out of every two Arab children lives below the poverty line,” Jafar Farah, the director of Mossawa, the Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel told The Media Line. “We want the government to take responsibility for the future of Arab citizens of Israel because we pay taxes like everyone else.”

Arab citizens of Israel represent just over 20 percent of Israel’s citizens. But they are under-represented in almost all spheres of Israeli life, from universities to high-tech companies, to PhD programs. It all starts with education, activists here say.

There has been a shortage of classrooms in Arab cities and towns for years, Farah and Sleibi say. At the end of 2011, the Arab sector needed more than 4500 classrooms and the situation has only worsened. Farah says the Mossawa Center, along with Arab local councils put together a plan to increase the budget for Arab municipalities by $1.6 billion dollars over the next several years to deal with education, transportation, housing, culture and tourism.

However, given growing security and economic demands in the Jewish sector it seems unlikely that Arab municipalities will get an increase anywhere near that figure.

In the current Knesset, the Joint Arab List has 12 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. In the past, there have been there separate Arab parties which did not always coordinate their efforts. Now, for the first time, they are able to advocate for the Arab community together.

In Majd al-Krum, one of the poorer localities in Israel, mayor Sleibi is not sure how he will open the school year. Most of the nursery schools are in rented buildings that are not suitable for classes. In many of his high school classes there are 43 or 44 students. Sometimes, the teacher can’t even fit a desk inside the room.