Seeing and hearing the other: a Jewish Israeli teacher grapples with Arab students' underachievement and the exclusion of their voices.

Author:Hager, Tamar


This paper begins with feelings of frustration and anger. It has grown out of my distressing continuous encounter--as a feminist Jewish teacher in a college in northern Israel--with the glaring examples of inequality and structural discrimination experienced by Arab students in Israeli academia. (1) I thought that narrating and analyzing my vulnerability, despair and rage as well as Arab students' feelings of alienation might help us to better understand social and political obstacles, while constructing ways to better overcome these educational impediments.

Following bell hooks (1994) and Sarah Ahmed (2004) I consider our (mine and theirs) emotions as significant information as to the power structure reflected in my classrooms--the structure that assigns Arab students an inferior position in Israeli institutions of higher education. Ahmed suggests reading the relations between "affect and structure, or between emotion and politics in a way that undoes the separation of the individual from others" (2004, p.174). This reading which exposes the connection between me, the Jewish teacher, and each of my Arab students, enables me to challenge the common perspective which ascribes minority students' difficulties and estrangement to their educational and cultural deficiencies (Essed, 1999, p. 221). If our emotions are read as evidence of our political adherence, the students' feelings of estrangement as well as my frustration and helplessness indicate the deficiency of our present educational exchange and the need to transform the micro-politics of the classroom.

Striving to comprehend the complex micro-politics which evoke my negative feelings and theirs, I have initially chosen to narrate what happens in class, hoping to clarify why our exchange induces my anger. I focus on my own experience, yet I believe that similar interactions occur in other classes in academia where teachers cope with minority students who undergo institutional discrimination. Subsequently the paper undermines teachers' justification for directing their/our anger towards minority students by analyzing the reasons for the students' feelings of alienation.

The next part of the paper tells the story of my resistance to this prevailing social and political structure. Adopting feminist critical pedagogy in my course Representing Disability in Literature and the Cinema, I have defied "the traditional hierarchical relationship between teacher and taught" and have created a space for my Arab students to overcome "the internalized barriers created by the dominant group's negative evaluations of them" (Morley, 1998, p.16). The process of empowerment and the subsequent educational transformative and liberating exchange has enabled all participants to grant Arabs' transparent and excluded knowledge a significant social, cultural and political place, thus creating new and more culturally sensitive knowledge. Confronting the empowering effects of this method, I conclude my paper by suggesting some explanations as to the rarity of critical feminist pedagogies in Israeli academia.

Emotional Circle: Alienation, Frustration and Anger

Entering the first class of a new semester, I always notice her/him/them. (2) He sits in the last row and stares at me, but her stare never convinces me that she understands what I am talking about. Throughout the semester he tends to disappear for several meetings and reappear again in silence in the last row, rarely participating in the class discussion. Sometimes she leaves the classroom to use the phone and returns after half an hour or fails to return altogether. He rarely reads the assigned texts or summarizes lectures. Her grades are lower than average. Their Hebrew language proficiency is poor, and it is hard to comprehend what they are saying or writing. In the worst cases, she hands in assignments she has copied from classmates or from an internet site, and more often than not, he is caught at this, after failing to notice (chiefly because she does not know Hebrew well enough) and delete telltale signs identifying the original paper. These students' profiles, I imagine, are known to many teachers across national, ethnic, class and gender boundaries. In Tel Hai College (and in most other higher education institutions in Israel), however, a significant number of them are Arabs, citizens of Israel. (3)

The alienated behavior of these students which is frequently understood by teachers as their disregard, lack of interest and uncaring attitude towards the course provokes feelings of frustration and rage, often mixed with guilt. I try without much success to encourage them to ask for my help and that of others. Sometimes I help them to apply for a mentoring program which was constructed to meet their needs. (4) At other times I ask for an excelling student in class to help them in their coursework. I feel sorry for them. I tend to give them higher grades than they have earned, sometimes as atonement for being unable to help them, sometimes as a sign of recognition of their difficulties: Hebrew is not their first language; Jewish culture is not their culture. Israel is hardly their country, since state institutions by implicit policy discriminate against them, situating them as second-class citizens.

Too often my frustration turns into anger. Recognizing her difficulties, I warn him that missing classes will lead to failing the course but, as I sadly expect, she goes on missing classes. Well, I think, he does not take responsibility, just adding another failure to his expanding list. Serves them right, I think; why should I show any consideration if they never listen or do what I say? At this point I am unaware that my arrogance and my rage are holy and self-righteous and lead us, me, her, and him nowhere, on our shared journey towards higher education.

Reflecting on my instinctive resentment, I realize that I, despite myself, too frequently fall into the trap of new racism, explaining discrimination as a problem of the victim, a result of his-her cultural mentality, personal or collective traits (Hopkins et al., 2008; Balibar, 2008). This is my and others' "efficient way" to create explanations which justify social gaps without having to take responsibility and use educational methods to change class climate.

In the face of this disagreeable and disturbing picture of myself, I remember something I know and tend to forget in the daily wearing routine of teaching, that Arab citizens of Israel undergo institutional discrimination in Israeli academia in general and in Tel Hai College in particular. This awareness does not diminish my helplessness and frustration, yet it ends my unjustified rage.

Political Climate: Arabs in Tel Hai College

Tel Hai College is located in the northern periphery of Israel, where 53% of the inhabitants are Arab citizens of Israel (Central Bureau of Statistics 2011). As in most academic institutions in the country, however, here too, faculty and students include a small minority of Arabs, far smaller than the 20% Arab minority in Israel's population. In 2011, for instance, Arabs accounted for 13% of the college student body and 8.3% of its faculty. (5)

The college, like most institutions of higher education in Israel, is primarily a Jewish college. The spoken and written language is Hebrew, which is the second and sometimes the third language of the Arab students, who therefore face a disadvantage in reading and writing tasks in comparison to their Jewish peers.


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