Archive | February, 2014

Uncivilized Civilians

15 Feb

Civic Studies ( אזרחות ) is a mandatory subject in Israeli high schools.  Without it, the student can’t graduate.  And that’s the way it should be.  Much is discussed in Civic Studies: the role of the state, sovereignty, the rights and duties of citizens, the court system, and much more.  The idea is to introduce the real world to youngsters, my daughters included.

The Other is Me Campaign

The Other is Me Campaign

Only lately, it’s become too real.

One such case involves Adam Verta, a Civic Studies teacher near Galilee.  During a lesson, he questioned the morals of the Israeli military.  A girl student opposed his views and later complained to the school.  The teacher was brought before a disciplinary hearing and his job was placed in jeopardy.  The classroom incident ignited a fireball in the media, each camp claiming the high road.  People supporting the student (mostly right-wing) said the teacher acted recklessly, that he incited against the State, discouraged young men and women from enlisting, and demoralized soldiers in uniform.  People supporting the teacher (mostly left-wing) cited freedom of speech.

The Other is Me Campaign

The Other is Me Campaign

My opinion?  If the teacher brought up his views in class and did not preach and coerce, and if he opened up the discussion and allowed other views – I’m all for it.  It’s not a physics or chemistry class where everything’s formulaic and exact. It’s a civics class.  Nothing’s clear-cut.  Life is messy.  It involves human beings.  Classrooms are where opinions and views should be heard.  In not there, then where?

Right-wing settlers in the West Bank believe the land there is God-given to them.  And when Israeli soldiers are called to settle disputes, the settlers spit on the Israeli soldiers, insult them, throw paint on their faces.  It that not demoralizing?

The teacher was allowed back in the class.  He still has a job.  No one’s happy, least of all the teacher.

Five Broken Cameras Film Poster

Five Broken Cameras Film Poster

Here’s another civics lesson, this one involving the film “5 Broken Cameras.”  Nominated for an Oscar in the foreign-film category last year, it tells of the life of a Palestinian in the West Bank during the time Israel built the Security Fence to block terrorists from infiltrating and killing innocent Israelis.  He filmed the daily hardships of being trapped from behind the tall concrete fence, movement restricted, life forever changed, for him and his children.

This year, the Israeli Ministry of Education allowed the film to be shown to high school juniors and seniors, as part of the “cultural curriculum.”  I applaud such action and bravery.  17 and 18 year-olds, a year before military duty are old enough to view the film, discuss it in class and draw their own conclusions.

Maybe both Arabs and Jews will become more civilized.  But I doubt it.  In my daughters’ school, Israeli Jews say horrible things about Arabs when they’re not around to hear it.  I’m sure Arabs say equally horrible things about Jews.

So much mistrust.

And this all takes place in a year which the Ministry of Education rolled out a campaign titled: “The Other is Me.”   It loosely means that we are all similar and let’s learn about the other within, and in turn, learn about ourselves.  But that’s hard to do when most Arab Israelis know Hebrew but very few Jewish Israelis know Arabic.  Arabic is a mandatory “foreign” language in high school, as is English.  Yet few take Arabic seriously, many drop out or do the minimum.

Peace, In Hebrew

Peace, In Hebrew

This year the Ministry is dropping Arabic, making it an elective.  That’s wrong.  Like it or not, Israel is in the Middle East.  Yes, the Arabs boycott Israel.  Left with no choice, Israel plays soccer and basketball against England and France, and not Saudi Arabia.  It ships its oranges to Berlin, its knowhow to Wall Street.  But Israelis can’t swim or walk away from the Middle East or from itself because 20% of its population is Arab.  The Arabs here live in a Jewish state.  They learn Hebrew from a young age.  Why shouldn’t the Jewish Israelis learn Arabic?  I’m not talking about the high-brow, literary complex Arabic that even the educated Arabs can’t follow.  I’m talking about spoken, conversational, everyday Arabic.

Peace, in Arabic

Peace, in Arabic

If this will not break the ice, then let’s at least break pita bread together.  And that’s my civics lesson for today.

The bell is ringing.

Go and play, Arabs and Jews.

——————————————————————————————————————————Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at

or at

A Teacher from Galilee

1 Feb

No, I don’t heal blind men; I don’t preach; I don’t walk on water, and my name doesn’t start with the letter “J.”  But after I spend time in the limestone hills and mountains of Galilee, see sheep graze the valley floor, breathe the scented air — it’s just a matter of time before I remove my Nike shoes and slip on biblical sandals.


Zefat Academic College

Zefat Academic College

This rugged, ancient landscape is part of my twice-weekly 1 hour drive to Zefat Academic College in Upper Galilee. I’ve been teaching English there for several months.  30 students are enrolled in preparatory English.  Ideally, by summer, they will acquire enough English vocabulary and skills to tackle English textbooks in social work, nursing, law.zefat1

Zefat, a mountaintop town, is on the fringe of the fringe.

It’s disconnected from the rest of Israel by space and time. It’s a 3 1/2 hour drive from Tel Aviv, the country’s main hub. It’s home to Orthodox Jews, seminaries, all-girls boarding schools, Kabbalah Centers —  a mixture of old world and New Age; Jews who’d lived here for generations, Jews who’d arrived from Brooklyn, Israeli young men and women who attend college and the School of Medicine, art-lovers and those who wish to lose themselves.

Zefat College has several buildings scattered about town.  I teach at an all-stone three-level building that in the 1930s housed the British Command Post.

Students come from far and wide; Arabs and Druze from the Golan Heights near the Syrian border.  Jews travel from neighboring towns or from their rented apartments in Zefat.  The ratio in class is 50% Arab, 50% Jews.  Years ago, you could tell who’s who after one glance.  The divide in appearance, dress, mannerism was obvious.

That’s changing.zefat2

The Israeli Arabs are becoming more “Israeli.”  They speak Hebrew fluently.  They get stuck on a word here and there, and once in a while I hear myself say: “Can someone translate this word to Arabic?”

The Arab Israeli women dress conservatively but fashionably: boots, jewelry, make-up, the works.  And the latest cell phone.  The Israeli Arab men sport funky hairstyles, blue jeans, and Marlboro cigarettes.

The Jewish Israeli women, many of them from an all-girls schools, dress modestly, some with head covers.  Their English skills are well below average, the result of studying the bible at the expense of the sciences.  Some had married before 18.  The Israeli Jewish men attend Zefat college after their military service and after they dropped off the face of the earth trekking in Thailand, or South America, and returned to “civilization” to get their degree.


Arabs or Jews, much of their education is subsidized by the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Defense in the hope of narrowing the educational divide between the Fringe and Tel Aviv.

As their teacher and as the “American Embassador” who’d lived in California for decades, I’m the go-to guy with all things American.  They love Hollywood. Big cars.  Music.  And YouTube.  Whenever I see their heads dropping, I know it’s time to play songs from Beyonce, Cold Play, Adele, Rihanna.

All together now: “Shine Bright Like a Diamond.”zefat4

You might ask, Arabs and Jews together in the same class?  So far I haven’t witnessed one incident of friction between them. Some topics are off-limits: religion, politics.  Otherwise, the atmosphere is laid back.  It’s as if everyone’s taking a hit from a joint, swirling the smoke in their lungs and mouths and exhaling serenity into the air.

Relax, man, it’s Zefat.

Semester one of two ended last week.  I asked, “Why don’t we have a potluck lunch party?”

Hands went up.  “Yes!  Yes!  Yes.”

Within minutes we drew up the menu on the board, who was to bring what.  The following week we feasted on Hummus, Tabouleh, Grape Leaves, goat cheese, and a host of deserts.

Now, return to your seats everyone.  English class is about to begin.  But not before we listen to music, this time from students Elias and Jeries, twin brothers, Christian Arabs.  They play the traditional drums, the “Darbuka.”

Here’s a clip from one of their performances at Arab weddings:


Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at

or at