Reprinted from Middle East Eye
JAFFA, Israel -- It is a rare scene: in a classroom on the southern outskirts of Tel Aviv, young Israeli children -- Jewish and Palestinian -- play and study together, casually chatting and joking in a mix of Hebrew and Arabic.
The opening of the first bilingual classrooms in Israel's largest city was celebrated with great excitement by parents and teachers last September. It broke with a decades-old model of strict segregation between the country's Jewish and Palestinian pupils.
Israel includes a large and often-overlooked minority of 1.7 million Palestinian citizens, a fifth of the population.
Only months into the educational experiment, however, the mood has soured. Hundreds of parents staged a protest in central Tel Aviv this month, chanting "All children are equal" and "We demand bilingual education." Both Israeli Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel who had sent their kids there turned out.
They accuse the municipality and education ministry -- both of which officially support the project -- of betraying the ideals of bilingualism, and have threatened to pull their children out of the school.
"We held a vote and 80 percent of parents agreed that they would not let their children continue at the school if things stay as they are," Assaf Ronel, a spokesman for the parents, told Middle East Eye.
"We have demanded that the municipality commit to our vision in writing, and provide a proper space for a Palestinian identity in the school."Fierce backlash
Shuli Dichter, director of Hand in Hand, an organization that promotes bilingual education in Israel, calls the 170 families taking part in its Jaffa project "pioneers."
Hand in Hand operates four bilingual schools across Israel and two kindergartens. Jaffa's primary school classes are the most recent addition.
The idea of children from different cultural backgrounds learning together and speaking each other's language may seem uncontroversial. But it has prompted a fierce backlash from right-wing Jewish groups in Israel.
In late 2014, Hand in Hand's flagship school in Jerusalem was torched by activists from Lehava, an organization that opposes integration between Jewish and Palestinian citizens. Graffiti daubed on the walls read "Death to the Arabs" and "There can be no coexistence with cancer."
Three of the group's members were jailed last year. In January Israel's high court increased the sentences of two brothers involved in the arson attack.
Although Lehava is a fringe group, it draws on ideas that have found favor with much larger numbers of Israeli Jews, especially over the past 15 years as the country has lurched to the right.
A survey by the Pew polling organization this month found that half of Israeli Jews wanted Arabs expelled from the state, and 79 percent believed Jews should have more rights than their Palestinian compatriots.
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