Manal YazbakProfessor Manal Yazbak (photo: Christin Davis)

Manal Yazbak looks down when she remembers the treatment that some of her Jewish teachers meted out to Arab students.

“Some lecturers mistreated us once they knew we were Arabs,” she said of her experience at The Hebrew University, where she earned a doctorate in Education Management. “One proficiency teacher was very rude to us. And it didn’t matter how hard we tried, she gave us bad marks.”

In the Jewish state of Israel, Ms. Yazbak is a member of the minority. Arab citizens of Israel comprise just over 20 percent of the country’s total population. Ms. Yazbak felt the physical and ideological separation of Jews and Arabs in Nazareth while completing her teaching practicum at a Jewish elementary school.

“In their teaching, they ignored the existence of people living in Israel before the state was created,” she said. “They said the Arabs are ‘violent and try to kill us.’ It really bothered me because it was like brainwashing.”

Now as a professor at Sakhnin Teacher’s College in the Galilee — which includes mostly Muslim and Christian Arab students — Ms. Yazbak instructs a course on dealing with diversity for second-year students in the English department. The class is taught in partnership with the David Yellin College of Education in Jerusalem, and comprised primarily of Jewish students.Yazbak_ChurchOfAnnunciation02

Wearing a sharp red pea coat, Ms. Yazbak, 40, pushed her shoulder-length russet hair behind her ear. In a chic eatery not far from the Well of Annunciation, where Christians believe Mary learned she would bear the son of God, Yazbak conveyed a devotion to teaching students how to deal with the “other” and promote a peaceful resolution to her nation’s conflict. With a self-control that is not riled by or indulged in extreme emotions, she said she believes this outcome is possible despite a number of her own failed friendships with Jews.

“The [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict is endless, but my hope is to raise awareness of human beings,” Ms. Yazbak said, “so that between ethnic groups and religions we can tolerate each other.”

Yazbak’s own experiences with the “other” rarely had happy endings. Growing up in Nazareth she and her siblings spent time with her father’s best friend, a Jewish man from Ra’anana. The two met while working together in a car factory. Having daughters about the same age, the two fathers and their families spent Saturdays together, often barbecuing and taking trips to the water. Ms. Yazbak attended an Arab junior high school that partnered with a Jewish school for activities. She said they even had sleepovers at each other’s homes. But neither experience bred lasting relationships.

“The truth is we didn’t make real friends,” Ms. Yazbak said, “but it was nice while it lasted.”

She later lived in Jerusalem for eight years while attending university and made friends with a few Jewish students. They studied together, but didn’t maintain contact following graduation. “There wasn’t email or mobile phones then, so we didn’t keep in touch,” she said.

According to Ms. Yazbak, hers is the only course in Israel that focuses on teaching diversity. She said some education is directed toward multiculturalism or social issues, but no other class instructs future teachers in how to reduce stereotypes and interact with people who are different than they are.

“We changed the name of the course a couple of times, but we chose Dealing with Diversity since it includes all the themes of conflict resolution and bias awareness,” Ms. Yazbak said. “The ‘other’ could be any other, not necessarily the Jewish other. The key is interaction.”

The one-year program — conducted in English to put both groups on equal footing — is aimed at developing student awareness of bias and stereotyping as well as teaching skills for conflict resolution. It incorporates activities, theoretical material and application, and is currently in its third year.

At the end of the first semester, students from both colleges meet together in Jerusalem. They discuss their own identity and the personal experiences that led to a desire to teach. Yazbak said by highlighting this similarity in career choice, students see commonality between themselves and their Arab or Jewish counterparts and start to reduce stereotypes.

They then divide into groups of four — two from each college — and decide on a topic for a collaborative project. During the second semester, groups prepare a presentation via online meetings. The projects require group research, discussion, negotiation, planning, and compromise, and then are presented in a final combined meeting at the end of the academic year in the Galilee. Previous projects presented strategies for classroom conflict resolution skills and using language to prevent conflict between pupils.

“My students haven’t met Jewish students before, and the opposite is true for the Jewish students,” Ms. Yazbak said. “The Jewish students are astonished when they see we’re not living in tents. Meeting together produces a change of attitudes — even the food and atmosphere helps gain better understanding of the other.”

After the final meeting in 2010, an Arab student thanked Ms. Yazbak for the opportunity to meet Jewish students with no enmity and said, “Together we learned about conflict resolution, an emergency need for the new generation.”

The course has had its challenges. In its first year, the initial meeting came just after the Gaza Operation; in the second year, it began the week following the Gaza flotilla incident. Both events, Yazbak said, made the Jewish students fearful of visiting the college in the Galilee.

“The Jewish students are easily affected by the political situation in the country, which means they want an excuse not to come to Arab cities,” Ms. Yazbak said. “They are always threatened. Those who did come learned that political disagreements did not rule out collaboration on a human level, nor did they overshadow other areas of commonality.” She said it’s important for these teachers in training to receive this kind of education so that when they one day lead a classroom of young people they can have a positive influence in eliminating stereotypes about Jewish and Arab people.

“The political situation in [Israel] discourages me sometimes, but I believe in peaceful resolution. It’s the only way since other alternatives exercise all sorts of violence,” Ms. Yazbak said. “Coexistence is a hard question, but [in this class] we want to understand each other.”

Photo (bottom): The Well of Annunciation in Galilee by Christin Davis.

Christin DavisChristin Davis is a graduate student in journalism at the University of Southern California, and the managing editor for Caring, a magazine focused on social services produced by The Salvation Army.

This series is part of a collaboration between On Being and the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism in an attempt to add to the public’s understanding of the diversity of stories of daily life in Israel and the West Bank.

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The world needs more people like Ms. Yazbak!