In a classroom at House of Hope Vision School, an Arabic-language Waldorf school in Al Eizariya, West Bank. (Photo/Matt H. King)
In a classroom at House of Hope Vision School, an Arabic-language Waldorf school in Al Eizariya, West Bank. (Photo/Matt H. King)

Local Israeli and Gazan researchers study trauma and access to Waldorf education for Arab Israelis

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Hagit Zeev, 54, an Israeli-born psychotherapist living in Los Altos Hills, is enthusiastic about Waldorf education, a nontraditional method of teaching characterized by integrating the arts, movement and imagination in the classroom.

Prevalent across the Bay Area and also popular in Israel, Waldorf schools are known for their holistic approach to trauma-informed education — which equips teachers with the knowledge to recognize trauma and strategies to support students who experience it.

Hagit Zeev
Hagit Zeev

Zeev, a Jew who grew up in Haifa and Tel Aviv, co-led a research team that in June published the findings of a 21-month study into Waldorf education in Israel. The research explored the factors that contribute to a lack of opportunities for Arab and Palestinian citizens of Israel to access the Waldorf education available to their Jewish peers.

Closing the Gap: Increasing Access to Trauma-Informed Education for PCI/Arab Communities in Israel Through Waldorf Education” was published by reGeneration Education, a Southern California-based nonprofit that seeks to address toxic childhood stress in Israel and the West Bank through the development of new schools, teacher training and building interfaith networks in the United States.

“There’s a bomb shelter in every school and every house,” Zeev said of growing up in Israel. The threat of war “is just part of life,” she added.

Muneer Waheed, 59, who identifies as Christian, grew up in Israel-occupied Gaza. He recalls the fear he experienced as a boy one morning as he approached the car taking him to school.

Muneer Waheed
Muneer Waheed

“I’m rushing in the morning, I’m late, I want to get in the car, and I find myself right in the middle of this group of [Israeli] soldiers,” he said. The soldiers were much bigger than he was, and they carried guns.

“So I panic,” Waheed said. Then he saw one of the soldiers kneel down, smile and wave as he entered the car.

That gesture didn’t dispel Waheed’s fear of Israeli soldiers, but it did leave an impression that, years later, inspired him to want to build better relationships between Arab citizens of Israel and their Jewish counterparts.

Waheed, who lives in San Jose and serves on reGeneration Education’s board of directors, teamed up with Zeev to lead the research into Waldorf education in Israel. The team conducted more than 70 hours of interviews with 17 Jewish and Arab Israelis engaged in a movement to build more Waldorf schools for Arab communities in Israel. Currently, close to 200 Waldorf schools, more than 150 of them kindergartens, serve Jewish Israelis. However, only four Waldorf kindergartens and just one Waldorf elementary school serve Arab Israelis. A second Waldorf elementary school serves Palestinians in the West Bank.

After extensive negotiations between the Waldorf Association of Israel and Israel’s Ministry of Education, all of the nation’s Waldorf schools as of 2017 are considered “recognized and official,” with full ministry funding while retaining pedagogical autonomy, according to reGeneration Education’s report. Despite government recognition, efforts to fund and open additional Waldorf schools serving Arab Israelis have been rejected by the ministry and local municipalities, the report found. 

The Orchard of Abraham's Children, a bilingual Arabic-Hebrew Waldorf kindergarten in Jaffa, Israel(Photo/Matt H. King)
The Orchard of Abraham’s Children, a bilingual Arabic-Hebrew Waldorf kindergarten in Jaffa, Israel
(Photo/Matt H. King)

Interviews conducted by reGeneration Education revealed a groundswell of support among both Jewish and Arab Israelis for more Waldorf schools for Arab communities in Israel. However, the report also found that individuals who have attempted to create Waldorf curricula and fund Waldorf education for Arab Israeli communities have run into bureaucratic red tape that stymied their efforts when dealing with the Ministry of Education.

Additionally, no Israeli teachers college or university provides trauma-informed Waldorf teacher training that is culturally relevant to Arabs or taught in Arabic. Approved Waldorf education materials exist exclusively in Hebrew, so Arabic-speaking teachers are forced to translate textbooks themselves. The most alarming criticism voiced in the paper pertains to how Israel funds Arab schools disproportionately to Jewish schools.

“[A] disparity in funding — which has yet to be rectified, despite legislation passed in 2016 to that effect — results in Arab sector schools receiving half funding per student in comparison to Hebrew sector schools. This pushes Arab schools to devote the majority of their funding strictly to academic programs at the expense of other activities which could support trauma-affected students, such as art or music,” the report found.

Arab Waldorf schools must, except in rare circumstances, hire teacher applicants chronologically from a hiring line composed of all Arab Israelis who are waiting for a teaching job in Israel, regardless of their qualifications. Therefore trauma-informed Arab Waldorf schools are often staffed by Arab teachers who are not trained in Waldorf education prior to being hired. Currently, more than 14,000 Arab Israeli teachers are waiting in the hiring line, while Jewish Waldorf schools are facing a teacher shortage, the report found.

“It was hard for me to be exposed to that [criticism],” Zeev said, citing frequent political instability in Israel as a factor causing funding roadblocks across the board.

“Everything is in chaos, not just education,” she explained.

Both Waheed and Zeev enrolled their children at the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, which has a lower-school campus in Los Altos, and a second campus in Mountain View for grades 6-12. Waheed’s wife, Cathy, teaches at the school, and Zeev spent three years in teacher training there. Zeev’s daughter was in Cathy’s class from third through eighth grades. (In Waldorf schools, students have a core teacher who stays with them in grades 1-8 to foster deeper student-teacher relationships.)

Waheed and Zeev have seen firsthand in their children the benefits of Waldorf education, and they’re convinced that these schools are an antidote to toxic stress in Israel.

“One of the things that reGeneration Education believes in [is that] having a peaceful childhood helps promote a culture of peace. And when you have children that can deal with their own trauma, and they can heal themselves, they are already leaps and bounds ahead of others to be able to become healthy members of society,” Waheed said.

Now that the results of the study are public, Waheed and Zeev hope the report can spur a dialogue with Israel’s Ministry of Education and create a “leadership incubator” to support Israeli advocates, with reGeneration Education serving in a consultant role. They’re also hoping their research leads to growth in funding from generous donors in the United States who appreciate the work and mission of reGeneration Education.

The long-term outcome, Waheed stated, is to build connections between Jewish and Arab Israelis that aren’t based on shared trauma, but on shared healing.

“Using the humanities to connect people and create a healing space is really our vision,” Waheed said of the movement to expand Waldorf education for Arab communities in Israel. That’s “certainly one key part,” he added, of creating “a better future” he envisions for the area.

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Emma Goss.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.