Amid war, this Israeli educator is finding new ways to promote Jewish-Arab coexistence

Karen Tal, right, visits with a student at an Amal school in Petah Tikva, Israel, Nov. 24, 2023. (Larry Luxner)

TEL AVIV — It only took a few minutes from the time the rocket fire from Gaza began on the morning of Oct. 7 for Karen Tal to field her first of many phone calls and messages with terrible news.

The CEO of Amal, a secular educational network whose mission is to serve Israelis of all religions, Tal heard first from the principal of an Amal school in Ofakim, a Jewish city near Gaza. The principal said she could see Hamas terrorists shooting people in the street from her apartment balcony.

“We saw the pictures on TV, but we were getting real information from the field,” recalled Tal, whose best friend’s mother and her Filipino caregiver were among those killed at Kibbutz Kfar Aza.

In the ensuing days, Tal would learn that at least 42 alumni of Amal schools were killed on Oct. 7, and several others had been taken hostage to Gaza.

As this grim picture became clearer, Tal’s first order of priorities was to figure out what she could do to support students and faculty, and to ensure that the war did not tear apart the delicate spirit of coexistence at the core of Amal’s work. About 40% of Amal’s 81 high schools and colleges are located in Arab or Druze communities. In all, over 30,000 students and 2,500 teachers are part of Amal schools.

“We’re family, and we all share the same pain. It doesn’t matter if you’re Arab or Jewish,” said Tal, 59, who immigrated to Israel from Morocco as a young child and grew up in Jerusalem. “Right now, this question of coexistence is so relevant to each one of us.”

Tal’s background and experience puts her in a unique position to deal with the monumental challenge of helping Israeli children of all ethnic backgrounds heal from this national trauma.

More than a decade ago, Tal gained international renown for transforming the Bialik-Rogozin School in impoverished south Tel Aviv into one of Israel’s most successful educational models. The school had roughly 800 students from 48 countries, including violence-plagued African nations such as Eritrea, Nigeria and Sudan, as well as Israeli Jews and Arabs.

Students were performing abysmally, and the Tel Aviv municipality wanted to close the school. But after Tal took over as principal in 2005, she combined the elementary and high schools into one entity, transformed the school into a model of coexistence, and reversed its academic decline.

In 2011, Tal won Israel’s National Education Prize for her achievements, HBO made a film about the school called Strangers No More, which won an Oscar for best short documentary, and Tal received The Charles Bronfman Prize. The $100,000 prize was established in 2004 by the children of Canadian philanthropist Charles Bronfman — Ellen Bronfman Hauptman and Stephen Bronfman together with their spouses Andrew Hauptman and Claudia Blondin Bronfman — and is given to a Jewish humanitarian under age 50 whose work is grounded in Jewish values but benefits humanity universally.

“After winning the Charles Bronfman Prize I decided it was time to search for a new challenge,” Tal said.

She used the prize money to create a nonprofit called Tovanot B’Hinuch (Educational Insights) and spent the next decade implementing her educational model — which employs long school days, volunteer private tutors and extracurricular courses — in at least 40 other schools in Israel.

“One of the main things I emphasized was coexistence between Jews and Arabs,” Tal said. “We believe that each one of these students can achieve whatever they want. But they need resources because there’s a socioeconomic gap. We know how to do it. That’s my job.”

Just over a year ago, Tal became the CEO of Amal, which was established in 1928 by the Histadrut labor federation as a nationwide secular educational network for Israelis from Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze backgrounds. Today Amal schools are known for their focus on science, technology and entrepreneurship — and coexistence.

As at many schools in Israel, Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack and the ensuing war have been severely disruptive. Some Amal schools are located in cities that have been evacuated due to the conflict, many students are mourning family members killed in the war, and there are staffers who have been called away as reservists for military duty. Schools in Tiberias and Hadera have taken in students evacuated from their homes near the Lebanon-Israel border.

Tal is also concerned about students falling behind academically — especially after time lost due to the pandemic. A lot of Tal’s work over the last three months has been raising money for Amal educators to deal with the current moment.

“We need more resources to help deal with the trauma,” Tal said. “We understand that we cannot give each of our students a private meeting with a psychologist. So we want to train the trainers. If our educators will be stronger, so will the students.”

Karen Tal, the CEO of Amal, a secular educational network whose mission is to serve Israelis of all religions, has been working on Arab-Jewish coexistence for most of her career. (Larry Luxner)

Twice a week, Tal visits a different high school or college in Amal’s network. During a visit to one Bedouin school in Al-Said, a village east of Beersheva, the principal recounted how he drove to the Nova trance party the morning of Oct. 7, rescued several young Jewish students and brought them back to his village for safety.

Students and faculty at Arab schools are having a particularly difficult time dealing with mixed emotions amidst the war, according to Tal. She recounted a teacher who related how sad and confusing it is to be targeted on the one hand by Hamas terrorists, who murdered both Jews and Arabs in their rampage, and on the other hand to hear from relatives in Gaza enduring airstrikes by Israel.

Tal described how she’s trying to promote coexistence among Amal’s Arab-Israeli students.

“I have three goals: for our students to develop self-confidence, then develop and identify with the village or community they live in, and finally to develop an Israeli identity,” Tal said. “My basic premise is we are not going anywhere, and the Palestinians are not going anywhere. We must live together. But this is about defining what we can and cannot do. And we should both agree that terrorism is outside the rules of the game.”

Every Israeli student regardless of religion, Tal says, should learn a core body of knowledge that includes the basics for a modern Israeli society: Hebrew, Arabic, English, math, science, and the humanities. That includes not just music, art and literature, but also the study of both the Torah and the Quran, she said.

“What I want to do in Amal is not just talk about theory, but to practice values,” Tal said. “My dream is that every Arab student will be able to speak Hebrew fluently, and that all Jewish students will learn Arabic — because language is a bridge to collaboration.”

Despite these dark times, Tal says she has hope for the future.

“There is always a solution. Even though we are in darkness, we must find that little candle of light,” she said. “It’s a question of leadership and responsibility. We don’t have the privilege of giving up.”

This story was sponsored by and produced in partnership with The Charles Bronfman Prize, an annual prize presented to a humanitarian whose innovative work fueled by their Jewish values has significantly improved the world. This article was produced by JTA’s native content team. 

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