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

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.”

The post Amid war, this Israeli educator is finding new ways to promote Jewish-Arab coexistence appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Montreal’s Jewish Public Library moves books by local children’s author Elise Gravel to closed stacks in response to her series of illustrated messages criticizing Israel

Montreal’s Jewish Public Library has relocated renowned Montreal children’s author Elise Gravel’s books to the closed stacks after Jewish advocacy groups singled out some of her social media posts as antisemitic. Gravel is “one of Quebec’s most beloved children’s book authors. Her work is vibrant, thoughtful, funny, and educational,” said a statement from the Jewish […]

The post Montreal’s Jewish Public Library moves books by local children’s author Elise Gravel to closed stacks in response to her series of illustrated messages criticizing Israel appeared first on The Canadian Jewish News.

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‘I’m Speaking Up Against Evil’: Israeli Columbia University Professor Addresses Smear Campaign

Anti-Israel students protest at Columbia University in New York City. Photo: Reuters/Jeenah Moon

Columbia University professor Shai Davidai, a Jewish Israeli, defended his right to condemn Hamas’ atrocities on Thursday after learning that an anonymous group of graduate students has accused him of anti-Palestinian racism and demanded a professional association of which he is a member to publicly censure him.

Anti-Zionist TikTok influencer Jessica Burbank first reported the accusations the graduate students lodged in a letter to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP), an organization founded in 1974 to promote the social psychology field and its usefulness to society. Comprising over 7,500 student and faculty members, it provides invaluable funding and networking opportunities.

Accusing Davidai of “targeting individuals — especially Palestinians and students of color,” the students’ letter describes his efforts to hold pro-Hamas student groups accountable for harassing Jewish students and defending terror as “decolonization” as “blatant dereliction of duty with respect to his responsibilities and ethical standards as a professor and faculty member of SPSP.” The students additionally accused him of promoting “doxxing” and “misrepresenting” the views of pro-Hamas groups, all of whom have defended Hamas’ atrocities on Oct. 7 while calling for a ceasefire, a strategy they have employed to portray themselves as a pro-peace movement.

On Thursday, Professor Davidai told The Algemeiner that the man depicted in the letter is not someone his community, students, and peers would recognize, and he accepts that enduring assaults on his character is a consequence of defending the Jewish people wherever they are, be it Israel or New York City.

“Look, I’m speaking up against evil, and against the support of evil,” he said. “I’m willing to take the reputational hits because people that won’t like me for saying what I’m saying — I don’t need them to like me. This isn’t about the performative virtue signaling that is en vogue right now. This is about having a moral compass and standing up for what’s right.”

Davidai went on to express concern that his colleagues in the field have not defended him, a silence which suggests that criminating pro-Israel activists with baseless accusations will not be denounced or resisted even by moderates holding nuanced views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel’s war against Hamas.

“If I have to pay the price, I’ll pay the price. Thousands and thousands of Jews and non-Jews contact me to say that calling out pro-Hamas support on US college campuses is the right thing to do,” he continued. “And the irony is that I won’t be silenced. They might take away my reputation. They might take away my job and my career. But I’m not the kind of person who will be quiet now that there’s a personal cost for telling the truth. They’re just proving my point.”

Davidai first achieved national notoriety after delivering a thunderous speech before a crowd of students and others gathered on campus in which he called the school’s president a “coward” for refusing to condemn Hamas apologists and anti-Zionist demonstrations on campus.

“I’m talking to you as a dad, and I want you to know we cannot protect your children from pro-terror student organizations, because the president of Columbia University will not speak out,” Davidai said to the students, whom he asked to film and send the remarks to their parents. “Citizens of the US are right now kidnapped in Gaza, and yet the president of the university is allowing — is giving — her support to pro-terror student organizations.”

In many ways, becoming a public figure has been a detriment, Davidai said. His email is flooded daily with notes from antisemites accusing him of being an “Elder of Zion” and a “genocidal baby killer.”

His colleagues, furious that his exposing antisemitism and left-wing radicalism at Columbia University has caused important donors to pull their support from the school, have never commented on the hate mail even though they are always copied as recipients of it, he alleged.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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‘We Have Lost All Confidence’: Bipartisan Letter Urges Blinken to Demand Top UN Officials Resign

View of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) building in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. Photo: Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash90.

A bipartisan group of 12 US legislators sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this week urging him to demand that United Nations Secretary General António Guterres and the head of UNRWA — the UN agency dedicated to Palestinian refugees — Philippe Lazzarini resign over the recent revelation that UNRWA employees were involved in Hamas’ October 7 terrorist attack.

“We have lost all confidence in Secretary-General António Guterres’ ability to ensure that the U.N. is not actively supporting terrorism or giving refuge to known terrorists. Therefore, we ask you to demand that Secretary-General Guterres and UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini immediately resign from their posts,” the letter states. 

The signatories were Democratic Representatives Josh Gottheimer, Don Davis, Jared Moskowitz, Brad Schneider, Haley Stevens, and Ritchie Torres — along with Republican Representatives Don Bacon, Anthony D’Esposito, Brian Mast, Max Miller, Michelle Steel, and Claudia Tenney.

The letter laments what the legislators say was an inappropriate response to October 7 by the UN, pointing out that “While innocent blood was still fresh on the ground, the UN’s first response to these atrocities was to draw a moral equivalency between the Hamas terrorists and Israel, who acted in her own self-defense and the defense of innocent civilians, including Americans.”

“UN Women,” the letter continued, “also failed to condemn the heinous attacks on women in a timely manner — even after widespread, well-documented cases of sexual assaults, rape, and genital mutilation.”

It then turned its attention to UNRWA, the UN agency dedicated solely to Palestinian refugees. Recent reports have revealed that at least twelve UNRWA employees — including teachers — took part in Hamas’s October 7 attack. Seven infiltrated Israel itself along with Hamas terrorists, others helped to kidnap Israelis and provide ammunition.

Not only that, but the Israeli ground offensive in Gaza has exposed that “Hamas has stored weapons in UNRWA buildings, used UNRWA resources for terrorist activities, and built tunnels under UNRWA facilities,” the letter says. The reps ask: “How long before we acknowledge the truth and label UNRWA as a tool for Hamas and others to recruit and train?”

A recent Wall Street Journal report estimates that around 10% of UNRWA employees are terrorist-linked — about 1,200 of the 12,000 UNRWA employees in Gaza.

Blinken has not yet responded to the letter. But after the initial allegations against UNRWA were made, he wrote in a statement that The United States is extremely troubled” by them and that “The Department of State has temporarily paused additional funding for UNRWA while we review these allegations and the steps the United Nations is taking to address them.”

The reports, based on evidence gathered and shared by Israel, caused more than a dozen countries to pause funding to the agency.

However, the statement also noted that “UNRWA plays a critical role in providing lifesaving assistance to Palestinians, including essential food, medicine, shelter, and other vital humanitarian support.  Their work has saved lives, and it is important that UNRWA address these allegations and take any appropriate corrective measures, including reviewing its existing policies and procedures.”

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