When the large emigration wave [of Russian Jews] to Israel from the Commonwealth of Independent States [following the breakup of the Soviet Union] was under way in the 1990s, I was doing my first steps as a teacher: My high school classes in Upper Nazareth [in northern Israel] — an attractive destination for many of the new immigrants — filled up with Leonids, Antons and Yulias. The educational challenge of integrating them in the school classes with Israeli students who were on the verge of taking their matriculation exams [roughly equivalent to the American Advanced Placement (AP) exams] seemed to me at the time impossible to cope with, albeit one that had to be met, no matter what. They were different in every respect: They were speaking a foreign language, they had their own unfamiliar code of conduct and manner of studying in class and even in the breaks between classes they had their own way.
When I went over the list of students who enrolled for "five units of study" [the highest level of difficulty] in history, the subject I was teaching, I could not believe my eyes: More than half of them were new immigrants from Russia. Now, go teach them about the Hundred Years' War when they don't even know the meaning of the word "war" in Hebrew, I was telling myself in despair. How could I possibly give them homework to do, texts to read and tests to take? History, the subject that is defined as a "verbal-oriented" course of study, seemed to me at the time to be the most unlikely choice for a new immigrant, all the more so as an intensified course of study.
At the end of their last high school year, when my 12th-grade students were about to take the matriculation exams, I could eat my hat and I gladly did it, readily admitting my mistake. The large majority of the new immigrants from the Commonwealth of Independent States achieved scores of 90 and above, and one of them even received the highest score of 100 in the year-end evaluation based on their overall achievements during the school year and their scores in the preliminary exam administered in the matriculation exam format. The evolution of survival is fascinating indeed: It's precisely where you would expect a continuous fall down the slippery slope and then, the inevitable crash that you are in for a really big surprise.
The victory of the underdog has always made me happy. And I was certainly delighted on the day [Aug. 22] the Ministry of Education released the results of the matriculation exams for the past year. The data show some surprising results in the Arab sector in Israel. The Druze town of Mrar [situated in northern Israel] is leading the Arab sector, with 79.61% of the students eligible for a matriculation certificate [having successfully passed their matriculation exams] – an upsurge of nearly 14% in just a year's time. [The Arab town of] Jisr az-Zarqa [on Israel's northern Mediterranean coastal plain, south of Haifa] recorded the steepest rise in the percent of students eligible for a matriculation certificate — which went up from a mere 12.5% in 2010 to 37% in 2011. Other [Arab] towns where marked improvement has been recorded are Furadis [south of Haifa] (with 75.2% eligible for the diploma) and Kabul [southeast of Acre], with a matriculation eligibility rate of 74.59% – a rise of 15% compared with the previous year. No less surprising results have been found in the Bedouin town of Rahat [in southern Israel], which for the first time in years broke the 50% threshold of matriculation eligibility rate — an increase of 8% compared with the last year.
Fortunately for us, the way the Diaspora Jews were differentiating themselves in the course of 2,000 years of exile is no registered patent. In every minority community there are those who are nurturing frustration and rage and those who seek to distinguish themselves in a more subtle and graceful manner, which is admirable. The contribution of the [Israeli] education system, meager as it has been, should not be ignored. However, the credit should be given first and foremost to those in the Arab sector who realized that the key to integration in the Israeli society lies in education.
The vision of "The New Middle East" [as originally advocated by Israeli President Shimon Peres in his 1993 book] has to do not only with financial transactions and peace agreements. In fact, it essentially hinges on the acknowledgment of the inherent equality of all the peoples and ethnic communities concerned, which are all coping with the task of advancing their children and assuring their future. The dramatic improvement in the educational level of the minority groups in Israel is the best news we could receive for the new school year. The child holding a pencil will not rush to replace it with a stone. The girl who is busy trying to decipher mathematical formulas is unlikely to put on an explosive belt. The student who finds a job as a local bank manager will not teach his kids to hate.
The task of everyday survival is much simpler than what we are inclined to imagine: The more a person has to lose, the more carefully will he weigh his steps. Each Arab student who gets a matriculation certificate carries a promise for a better future for us all.