Last May, a few days before Israel Independence Day, Rana walked into her son’s nursery school near Lod, in the center of Israel, for a hard conversation with his teacher. Rana is a tall and commanding Arab woman who wears a white hijab. 

Unlike the United States, Israel organizes its public education along sectarian lines, with a number of separate school systems for religious Jews, for secular Jews, and for Arabs. Rana had chosen to send her son, Adhan, to a Jewish nursery school.

Rana knew Adhan’s nursery would soon celebrate Israel Independence Day: it would have watermelon, songs, and strings of mini-Israeli flags decorating every hallway. After the party, each student would receive a little Star of David flag on a plastic stick. Rana didn’t want her son Adhan to join the celebrations. Give him a coloring book, or something, she told his teacher—just don’t send him home with an Israeli flag.

Like Adhan, more Arab children are entering Jewish society at a young age. At least 8 percent and possibly as much as a quarter of Arab parents in cities with mixed populations of Arabs and Jews, such as Lod, choose Jewish public schools for their children rather than Arab ones, according to partial data released by an Arab member of Knesset. Data for previous decades don’t exist, but many Arabs in Israel agree the number has grown. “Now, every liberal Arab parent thinks about it,” one mother in Jaffa told me.

Many Arab parents choose Jewish schools because they understand that the schools are better funded and that their children will learn to speak excellent and unaccented Hebrew. They’ll also learn English as a second, rather than a third language, and will be close to fluent by the time they graduate, which will open doors to educational and professional opportunities.

But this kind of assimilation is fraught with problems of language and identity. Since spoken dialects of Arabic differ from the formal written language, it takes even native Arabic-speakers years to master reading and writing. One Arab woman told me, sadly, that in Jewish schools “an Arab child’s mother tongue starts to disappear—so, in his own society and nation, he feels foreign.” Children who grow up reading Israeli books and media may gravitate toward Jewish-majority workplaces and neighborhoods.

The ideals Jewish schools impart often directly contradict the pillars of Palestinian narrative and identity. As well as requiring classes on Torah and celebrating Jewish holidays, Jewish schools teach a Zionist perspective and gear Jewish students toward army service. Social activist and historian Sami Abu Shehadeh told me that when he served on the city council for Tel Aviv-Jaffa between 2010 and 2013, he would confront the principals of Jewish schools, whose students were sometimes more than a third Arab. “I told them, what do you mean Arab children are celebrating Remembrance Day for IDF soldiers?” he recalled. “This IDF, who was it fighting?”

A child needs identity to thrive, “like a compass,” he said. “Without it, you’re a lost man.” Abu Shehadeh remembers seeing Arab children at a Jewish school adjacent to one where he taught becoming violent with frustration. “The parents don’t know that by sending their kids to Jewish school, they’re totally destroying them.” Like Abu Shehadeh, over half of Arabs in Israel think it’s wrong for Arab children to attend Jewish schools, according to the comprehensive Index of Arab-Jewish Relations in Israel (referred to as the “Index survey”). Yet at the same time, 40 percent of Arabs “want” or “definitely want” their children in Jewish education for high school, at least.”

For these children, the Palestinian identity they learn at home, and the Israeli one they learn at school are full of contradictions. Where do they see their place in a polarized country? Here are three stories of people grappling with the dilemma of educating Palestinian Arab children in the Jewish state.

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Driving back from Adhan’s nursery to Rana’s house, we turned off a main road into her neighborhood. The pavement abruptly ended, and a high wall separated the bumpy road strewn with garbage from the adjacent Jewish community.

In Rana’s mind, the insufficient state services, from poor water supply to underfunded education, result from systemic discrimination—and also the older generation of Arabs’ complacency. The problem, she told me, speaking in Hebrew, is that “the Arab population doesn’t think it deserves anything, because it’s not used to receiving anything.” Members of her parents’ generation are “always scared” to identify as Palestinian and criticize the state because they remember the 1948 war and military government over Arabs it installed, Rana thinks. “ ‘Don’t talk politics’ was the motto in our house,” she remembered.

“We’re different now,” Rana continued. She always reminds her sons of their Palestinian nationality and family roots, and tells them to feel proud of their heritage. Only 46 percent of Israeli Arabs identified as Palestinians when Rana grew up; the number had climbed to 63 percent by 2015.

Rana hates that some Arab families teach their children Hebrew instead of Arabic at home. “They’re erasing a full culture,” she lamented. She plans to switch Adhan to an Arab church school, which many Muslims choose as an alternative to underperforming public schools, so that he masters Arabic.

The Arabs’ situation won’t improve, Rana thinks, until they feel confident in their place in the state as citizens and equal to Jews. That’s why she wants her children’s generation to firmly believe “that they’re Arabs in a Jewish state doesn’t matter. They were born here—they deserve everything, like anyone else.”

It’s also the reason she sends Adhan to a Jewish nursery. In Jewish schools, Rana believes, children absorb characteristic Israeli chutzpah, the hallmark of a culture in which yelling is an ordinary form of communication. “Once I saw this young Arab girl arguing with a middle-aged man about her spot in line for an ATM,” she said. “And I thought, ‘Wow, I would never do that.’ I learned what adults say is right; that’s what you have to do. Immediately I knew that girl went to Jewish school.”

Fluency in Hebrew and familiarity with Jewish culture will help her sons confidently navigate life in Israel, Rana believes. Her boys attend after-school activities in Hebrew, and when running errands she has them practice the language by asking shopkeepers for prices. She thinks it’s “great” for Adhan to learn Jewish religious traditions at nursery school, and try on a kippah during Kabbalat Shabbat. She wants him to experience other religions and cultures—but not political opinions that, she believes, delegitimize his own origins.

“There are all these parenting guides out there. But there’s no guide for integrating Arabs into Jewish culture—that’s missing,” she said thoughtfully. “It’s hard to keep both the good family-oriented parts of Arab culture and the good parts of Israeli chutzpah. Very hard, but possible.”

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“They tried to be exactly like the rest of the guys in the class, and to hide the fact that they were Arabs.” That was how M.—an engineering student at Tel Aviv University, who asked for anonymity to discuss his personal experiences—disdainfully described the two other Arab students in his year at his kibbutz school. When M. started school there in seventh grade, he noticed they’d stopped pronouncing words with Arabic’s guttural sounds, and talked like Jews. They even went by Jewish names.

M. didn’t want to follow that path. “I don’t always want to behave like other people do,” he said. “I had my values, and I didn’t want to change them. I’m kind of stubborn.”

His nearby village of about 14,000 is completely Arab, but M. was a promising student, and his father wanted him to go to the area’s best school. The government doesn’t typically report funding allocated to Arab versus Jewish schools, but a one-off Central Bureau of Statistics report showed that in 2000–2001 Arab public school students received on average less than a third of the state funding Jewish students did, and students in Jewish public schools continue to test better.

Sama’s father relented, with a caveat: ‘You can go, but these are my rules: You can’t start being like secular Jews, because their culture is different.’

At first, M. had a hard time. Other students called him racial slurs, and beat him up. Still, by ninth grade, he had made close friends and come to appreciate the warm and casual kibbutz culture. As he studied at the kibbutz’s school and learned the oboe at its music conservatory, he grew intimately familiar with Jewish Israeli culture.

After high school, M. had an easier time succeeding in his rigorous engineering program than other Arab students, who often struggled with Hebrew and English and found the foreign cultural setting overwhelming. M.’s kibbutz background put him a “step ahead,” he thinks. Yet it also distanced him from his roots. Almost everyone from his socially conservative Arab village dreams of buying land and building a house nearby, he said. But after years of education outside the village, he no longer sees a place for himself there.

Loyalty to family clans dominates village politics, M. says. “I’m not interested in going back to that kind of stuff. If I do go back, it will be just a place to live. I’ll leave to work. It would be very difficult for me to really live there.”

Moreover, he doesn’t like the “Arab village culture” of criticizing people’s unconventional choices. Men are pushed to become doctors, and women school teachers, he explained; but M. thinks “finding yourself” is important. “Even if you study engineering, they’ll say, ‘Why aren’t you studying medicine?’ ” he joked.

In the university dormitories, he’s part of circle of liberal Arab students (many of whom didn’t go to Jewish schools). “Drugs, alcohol, sex, all of it,” he said, smiling. “It’s all normal here.”

But for M. and his friends, leaving behind traditional cultural values doesn’t mean assimilating into a secular Jewish world and abandoning their Arab identities. M. said his Jewish education has, surprisingly, strengthened his sense of self. “The second Arabs encounter Jewish society, their Arab identity sharpens,” M. asserted. “The Jewish society is closed off to them, and they start thinking they won’t ever be able to integrate,” he explained. “There’s racism everywhere, including Tel Aviv. So, you learn to strengthen your identity—to build your own society.”

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Sama and Mahmoud Safouri, a married couple with three children, invited me to their apartment in Bat Yam, a Jewish neighborhood near Jaffa, to tell me about being Muslims in Jewish schools. We spoke for an hour or so, until they started ignoring me, and questioned each other instead.

“I don’t have any Palestinian identity,” Sama said. Displeased, Mahmoud interjected: “Then why are you worried about the Palestinians in the [occupied] territories?”

She paused to think. “It’s humane,” she said. He challenged her: “So why aren’t you worried about kids in Africa?”

“I am too!”

“Oh please.”

“Well the Palestinians are closer to me… physically. And emotionally. I have Palestinian cousins—”

“Ah! That’s what I mean!”

He hadn’t won, though: “—but I still don’t call myself Palestinian,” she finished. Only 8.5 percent of Arabs in Israel would agree that their identity has no Palestinian component, according to the Index survey.

“So in short,” said Mahmoud, turning back to me, “we have a problem concerning Palestinian identity.”

Overlooking the sea, Jaffa is known for its elegant buildings and long history; Arabs and Jews have historically lived side by side here. Mahmoud’s family even shared a house with an important local rabbi. “He was blind so I’d take him to synagogue,” Mahmoud recalled. “He held my hand, and he’d bless me the entire way, ‘May God this, may God that…’ ”

Sama’s family is more traditional and religious. She wanted to enroll in an alternative Jewish high school, but her father insisted she attend an Arab one. “I said ‘Over my dead body,’ and he said ‘Over my dead body,’ ” she remembered. Sama’s sister broke the stalemate, convincing their father to relent—with a caveat: “You can go, but these are my rules,” he said. “You can’t start being like [secular] Jews, because their culture is different.”

But she did, despite his efforts. One day as she left for school in a tank top, her father made her change into something more modest. “What’s this? You already learned to dress like them?” he asked angrily.

Now, almost all of her friends are Jewish. At home, she said, she and Mahmoud speak Arabic but “very, very mixed with Hebrew.” She hasn’t watched Arab television since moving out of her parents’ house, and she dislikes her younger relatives’ “radical opinions in the Palestinian direction.” Mahmoud stopped learning Arabic after first grade, and he can hardly read it—so they write and text in Hebrew.

In 11th grade, after almost a decade of Jewish schooling, Mahmoud was among the first Arabs to participate in Gadna, a week-long program that gives Israeli high school students a taste of army life. Local newspapers interviewed him, and he heard that an imam condemned him in a Friday sermon.

But he sometimes felt unsure about assimilating. “At school, they wanted everyone to sing ‘Hatikva’ and wave the flag,” he remembered. “But I came to understand ‘Hatikva’ is only about the Jewish soul; it doesn’t mention me. Then I thought, ‘Why should I sing it if it has nothing to do with me?’ ”

Now, it’s important to Mahmoud to celebrate the important Muslim holidays with family, though he isn’t religious. Sama, however, doesn’t think much of observing holidays; she often proposes that the family travel abroad while they’re happening. But he refuses, for “family this and family that,” she said. “I just don’t care about culture, Jaffa, or Palestine.”

He shook his head, smiling, and looked at her.

“We’ll agree to disagree,” he said. “That’s something we’ve been working on—right, Sama?”

She laughed, and nodded.

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