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Druze village in Israel an educational standout

 “A good village, built of stone, containing about 300 Arabs and 100 Druze, situated on hill-top, with gardens and extensive vineyards.”

This is how two lieutenants of the British Army, Claude Conder and Herbert Kitchener, described Beit Jann in their “Survey of Western Palestine” (1881). Today, this village in northern Israel has some 10,000 people, predominantly Druze. It is still surrounded by gardens and vineyards, but it seems that during the years it has developed more areas to be proud of. At 940 meters above sea level, Beit Jann is one of the highest inhabited locations in the country.

However, it ranks high in our country for other reasons as well: A survey was published this week, ranking towns and villages in Israel according to the success of their high-school students in the matriculation exams — key to academic education. Beit Jann stunned the nation by scoring the third place in the list of 152 localities, trailing only after two of the most affluent Jewish townships in Israel, Kochav Yair and Shoham .

A word about the Druze in Israel: While they live in a traditional society and speak Arabic, and are considered by many Israeli Jews to be part of the million-member Arab minority in Israel, they see themselves as Druze first and then Arabs. At 100,000 strong, they have a religion of their own, and when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they consider themselves to be full Israelis.

While the Druze religion is secretive, there are no secrets in the Druze education. Jallal Saad, the pedagogic principal of the Beit Jann High School, explained to the Yediot Aharonot daily how his school made that sensational accomplishment. “Our motto is that every student can, as long as we give him or her the confidence that they can.”

Danna Hamoud, a 12th grader who majors in chemistry and biology and intends on being a scientist, and Waal Sarbuch, who studies physics and math and who plans to volunteer for the Navy Seals — one of the elite units of the Israeli Defense Forces — told the paper how concerned teachers went to students’ homes to bring drop-outs back to school.

Still, how can we explain the gap between Druze and Arabs in the educational sphere? Indeed, the Arab villages of Magar and Jdeida-Makker scored nicely: 21 and 32 respectively, before Tel Aviv, heart of Startup Nation, which only made it to number 41. However, many other Arab villages in Israel populate the bottom of the list.

A possible answer lies in The Arab Knowledge Report 2010/2011, written by Arab scholars and published by the U.N. Development Program. This report leans on a previous one from 2009, “which highlighted a knowledge gap and low levels of cognitive performance among Arabs in knowledge-related arenas.” In one of its major recommendations for creating a supportive cultural environment for gaining knowledge, the report calls for “an enlightened religious discourse,” because “religion plays a key role in preparing new generations to work, persevere and gain moral characteristics, to reach what they aspire to be in the world of scientific and technological advancement which represents the main feature of the knowledge society.”

An enlightened religious discourse, then, is exactly what the Druze have while the Arabs, according to the U.N. report, seem to be lacking. The Druzes are religious people, but they don’t let their religion stand in their children’s way in gaining knowledge. And just to make sure that I’m not disparaging the Arabs, I hasten to add that Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel who forbid their kids to study math and English because modern knowledge might undermine their religious beliefs, are as culpable.

The authors of the report highlight another factor which can enhance knowledge: citizenship and identity, with emphasis on “human rights in freedom, justice, equality and belonging.” In light of what’s going on in the Arab world today, these are high goals indeed. But in democratic and liberal Israel, Druze and Arab alike enjoy more freedom than anywhere in the Middle East to pursue knowledge. So why do Druze fare better?

I dare to believe that it is mainly because of their attitude toward women. Druze women can hold high religious positions, because in certain spiritual aspects they are believed to be “better prepared.” And the parents of Rima Ali, a brilliant graduate of Beit Jann High School, allowed her to travel alone to the United States to study — something highly unusual for this traditional society.

The Arab villages in Israel have a long way to go in preparing their high-school students for the knowledge era. However, when they look up to the top of the list, the good village of Beit Jann tells them that it’s possible.

Uri Dromi is executive director of the Jerusalem Press Club.