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2015
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Terra Santa School in Jaffa: Arab students at the heart of Israeli society

The Custody continues its series on the Terra Santa Schools. Let’s meet at the seaside at the city of Jaffa with Fra Zaher Abboud as our guide.

“I remember one day I was in Jaffa / Tell us, tell us what happened in Jaffa,” sang the Rahbani brothers. The blue sea described in this poem is visible from the roof of the Terra Santa School, behind the palm trees and the blue dome of a church. The school is less than a kilometer from St. Peter’s Church and proudly stands next to St. Anthony’s church.

Fra Zaher Abboud, OFM, principal of the school, has worked in the administration of the Terra Santa School for two years. “When I arrived here, I knew I had a difficult task, and that is always the case. It is a very famous school, but naturally it also has its difficulties.” Fra Zaher spoke about the importance of the question of identity for the Arab minority in Jaffa. The school in turn, while giving priority to Christians, welcomes everyone the spirit of St. Francis, giving special attention to students in experiencing difficulties.

The teaching staff of the Terra Santa School is very attached to the school. Eighty percent of the teachers are graduates of the institution, and they devote their personal time to students needing academic support outside of school hours. The Education Ministry sent a congratulations letter to Reem Saba, highlighting the excellent results of its students in physics and chemistry. While other schools choose to grant a growing place in computer technology, the Terra Santa School in Jaffa has chosen to take a path less traveled. Vivian Hammati, a math teacher explained, “I am also a technology teacher, but I am reluctant to use iPads for educational purposes. Students are already obsessed with these mobile devices and social networks. We must leave room for emotional intelligence!”

At the Franciscan school in Jaffa, courses and main subjects are taught in Arabic from an early age. However, once they get to higher grades, students tend to prefer Hebrew. “We are in the Jaffa society,” said Br. Zaher brother, “for science subjects starting at 12 or 13 years old, everything is in Hebrew, and the children have a choice and most of them do lean toward Hebrew because it is omnipresent in everyday life. Children three or four years old already speak Hebrew.” In effect, the percentage of Arabs in Jaffa is a minority (between 18 and 20 percent), and this population from an early age, speaks mainly Hebrew, a language even used in households whose mother tongue is Arabic.

In addition to the linguistic challenge, there is the question of identity, which is obvious in the words of the students. “The identity of inhabitants from Jaffa is much more complicated than that of people from other places,” said the Franciscan. “Children think they are sure of their identity in the context of school, or in a controlled environment, but when they are faced with the outside world, this assurance is soon torn apart.”
Standing in front of her class, a student made a presentation on world peace. Wearing a purple school T-shirt, she expressed herself in perfect Hebrew. This scene of a Muslim girl, making a presentation in Hebrew, at a Catholic school in Jaffa, represents but one facet of the constantly changing identity issue for minorities. During her presentation, her classmates were skeptical. “You have to stop living in a fantasy world,” said a student sitting in the last row. “We cannot change anything. How many people do you think you’ll influence in order to change the world?” she exclaimed. “It doesn’t take much,” said the friar in the classroom, “Let us begin with ourselves. In order to change the world, we must change our way of looking at things.”

The relationship between the student body and faculty the body is warm. “‘Are there really students in your schools?’ the principal of the school across the street asked me,” said the friar, smiling, “You can’t even hear them; they are very well behaved.” Suddenly the bell rings and triggers some movement at the end of the long hallway on the second floor. As they leave their classes, students cordially greet the friar sitting at his desk. Fra Zahher pointed out the attention given to each student. “Look, for example, my office is open all of the time, and they know that I am here to listen to them,” but at the same time, he explained said they are not at all spoiled. “If they do something wrong,” he added, “they know they will have to apologize.”

Four of the Christian schools are among the best fifteen schools in Israel. And like other Christian schools in the country, the Terra Santa College in Jaffa is in the midst of Israeli society and in direct competition with other regional schools. It provides its students with a positive form of discipline and with a constructive, quality education. What these students will have experienced here—whether they are Christian or Muslim—will have an impact on the citizens that they will become in Israeli society and for the Palestinian community as a whole.

Text and photos: Nizar Halloun

Name: Terra Santa College – Jaffa
Location: Jaffa
Founded: 1730 and 1932
Director: Fr. Zaher Abboud, since 2012.
Number of students: 446
Faculty: 40 employees
Religions represented: Muslims, Christians (Orthodox, Latin, Melkite, Maronite)

Population: 46,000
Diverse city: 65% Jews, 24% Muslims, 11% Christians.

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