Today is a big day in Israel, especially if you are six years old here in the Galilee village near the border with Lebanon. It is the first day of school, and entering kita aleph (first grade) brings with it the mixed emotions—for the parents as well as the children—that we all know: excitement, anxiety, anticipation, loneliness. It’s that universal pit-in-the stomach feeling throughout the world on day one, only slightly offset here by the sparkling clean floors, aviaries and aquarium. Since this is Israel, there is the added feature of a special detail policeman who greets families at the gate of the school and a permanent security guard with a visible pistol strapped in his holster.
The minahel (principal) goes all out to break the ice and to make the first graders feel that this is a great day for them: “It is big step in your new life,” he tells them in his opening speech. But that occurs only after each one, hand-in-hand with an old-timer (a fifth grader), is personally presented with a balloon, and bubbles and sparklers are released as they parade to their spot of honor. At the appointed time, the first graders release their balloons to the cheers of the entire school. Their release, as the president of the Parents-Teacher Association explains to me, symbolizes the freedom that the children should themselves be gaining through their education. For this is a bet sefer nissui—an experimental school—and it is infused with the progressive values of autonomy, self-expression, creativity and respect for children as well as educators.
So when a teacher brings in a teary-eyed pupil to the principal’s office, explaining that the girl refuses to leave her mother, the principal expresses flexibility. “I know how you feel,” he tells her empathetically. “It is your mother, and you don’t want to miss her. So she can stay with you today. Even tomorrow, if you want. But on the other hand, this is a place for studying and she cannot remain with you every day.” The little girl left the principal’s room looking a bit less terrified, her mother certainly relieved.
The entire scene makes me proud of Israel, this one and only Jewish State, in which quality education and caring for its youngest children are such high priorities. Why else, after all, make a country? I see this commitment in the day-long teachers’ retreat the day before in Akko; in the dialogue between school staff and parents’ representatives later that evening; in the trust tinged with regret the parents wear on their faces as they leave their children to their (mostly religiously-dressed) teachers. This is the triumph of true Zionism, as I see it. For all this care and attention to education and children, under the ultimate responsibility of the Misrad ha-Hinuch (Israel’s Ministry of Education), is not even happening in Hebrew, but rather in Arabic, with nary a Jew in sight (your loyal correspondent excepted).
We are among the Druze, a religious minority, neither Muslim nor Christian, but definitely Israeli. The first graders do not yet speak Hebrew, but they will soon. And these young Druze in no time will be writing it better than most of us in the Diaspora who spent years preparing for bar and bat mitzvah by studying our “holy” language. Their national language.
This is the Zionism the founders of the State envisioned (albeit without the Mickey and Minnie Mouse-costumed entertainers in Arabic): one where non-Jewish minorities can thrive alongside the Jewish majority and both benefit from, and contribute to, the Jewish state.
For sure, this ideal is not the reality everywhere in today’s Israel. But this first day of school in Horfesh proves, if only in the excited eyes of the first grader and her expectant parents, that it certainly does happen.
William F.S. Miles, professor of political science at Northeastern University in Boston, is benefitting from a sabbatical leave in the Druze village of Horfesh in the upper Galilee of Israel thanks to a grant from the Israel Institute.