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Dr. Noga Pitowsky-Nave
School of Social work, Sapir Academic College, Israel. Member of the Human Rights and Social Justice Committee, IASSW

Layers of conflict: Teaching a multicultural Jewish-Arab seminar in Israel

A few years ago, when I was teaching a first-year field work seminar, a female student whom I shall refer to by the alias of Nur was doing her fieldwork practice in a residential care facility for elderly people. Nur was an Arab student from the Bedouin community, wearing traditional Muslim clothing and hijab, and her fieldwork was with the Jewish population. At one of the meetings, she described an event that had taken place the previous day. One of the resident senior citizens was celebrating her birthday, and the staff brought her a cake. Nur was asked by one of the employees to bring a knife from the kitchen to cut the cake. As she was walking back from the kitchen to the lobby, she noticed that everybody, staff and residents, were staring at her with terrified looks. She suddenly realized that people seeing her holding a knife might be thinking of her as a terrorist, and she was shocked. She went back to the kitchen and burst into tears. This paper describes my experiences as a social work educator in multicultural Jewish-Arab fieldwork seminars at the School of Social Work, Sapir Academic College, Israel.

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Amir Terkel, Sapir Academic College PR

Sapir Academic College is a public college in southern Israel, located close to the Gaza border, on the Israeli side. The region where the college is located is frequently exposed to rocket and missile attacks from the Gaza Strip. The rockets shot by Islamic movements (Hamas and Jihad) result in counter-attacks by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in Gaza.

The student body at the college represents the multicultural variety of Israel, and it includes both Jewish (85%) and Arab (15%) students, as well as other segments of the population: religious and secular, immigrants and natives, and varied socio-economic backgrounds. In this multicultural Jewish-Arab setting the Israeli-Palestine conflict is present both internally and externally: inside the classroom and in the external environment, as the outside tensions continually intrude into the classroom (Alhuzail, 2021).

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Amir Terkel, Sapir Academic College PR

A fieldwork seminar is a relatively small class (about 15 participating students) taught in the School of Social Work every year during the three years of BSW studies. At meetings, the students present cases and dilemmas from their fieldwork training and receive feedback from classmates and the lecturer. Subsequently, they reflect on their experiences and conceptualize them with the help of academic and professional literature. All this helps develop their professional identity.

The small and relatively intimate setting of the seminar allows for a more personal group dialogue than in other classes. Therefore, the multicultural environment and the tensions it creates are reflected more strongly in the seminar than in other college settings. The students share information about their personal lives and also ask personal questions about each other’s families, culture, and beliefs. For example, during the Ramadan fast, which lasts for a month, Muslim students fast all day and eat only after sundown. Every year, the Jewish students are curious and ask the Muslim students questions about the fast, such as, “Why do you fast?” “Do you really not eat and drink all day long?” “How do you manage to study and do your fieldwork training without eating or drinking?” “What do you eat at night?” Etc.

During the seminar, the students discuss the cases of their service users and share professional dilemmas with their peers. This is also an opportunity for students to become exposed to each other's culture. For example, a Jewish student shared a dilemma regarding a woman in her early 20s cohabitating with her older boyfriend who has a criminal record, worrying whether his home was a safe environment for her client. The Arab students were curious about premarital shared living, which is not costumery in their culture, and asked many questions about it. The discussion moved from the client to a discussion of the students themselves, as some of the Jewish students indicated that they were also living with their partners, and some of the Arab students mentioned that they are pressured by their families to get married.

When a Jewish student presented a case of a family whose electricity was cut because of a debt to the electrical company, a lively discussion ensued about how to help the client. Suddenly, a Bedouin student commented: "I don't understand why you are all so upset, in the village where I do my training, there is no electricity at all..." She was referring to an unrecognized settlement that is not authorized by the government and therefore the residents have no access to basic utilities. Her comment started a dialogue about unrecognized villages in Israel, which most Jewish students were unaware of. (For further information on social work in unrecognized Bedouin villages, see, for example, Alhuzail & Ibrahim, (2021)

As these examples illustrate, the discrepancy between the cultures and the experiences of the students is often discussed in the classroom. But when the external conflict intensifies, the escalation in terror attacks is also felt in our classroom and the internal conflict between the groups becomes more apparent.

Going back to the story of Nur and the knife from the beginning of the paper- After sharing this event with the group, there was a moment of tense silence, after which a lively discussion ensued. A few of the students were sympathetic to Nur, acknowledging how awful she must have felt, and sought to comfort her. Others admitted that they felt conflicted because they sympathized with her pain but they also identified with the people who were scared when they saw her with the knife. The fear of terror attacks is very real and present in Israeli reality, and some of the students had been themselves victims or were personally acquainted with victims of terror. It was an open dialog, and both sides expressed their emotions in a respectful manner around this sensitive subject.

Our complex reality is most prominent at times of rocket attacks from Gaza. During periods of escalation and extensive shooting, the rockets from Gaza strike both Jewish and Arab populations in southern Israel. At our seminar sessions, students often share their feelings about the attacks, about being scared and traumatized. At one of these sessions that took place after a week of repeated attacks, most of the students opened up and spoke about how scared they felt. Two Jewish students were absent because they had been drafted into army reserves of the IDF, and their friends talked about them, expressing concern for their wellbeing. The Arab students were quiet during the conversation and appeared uncomfortable. After the session ended, an Arab student approached me privately. She confided that she and her family all felt very scared during the attacks because they had no shelter against the rockets. I asked her why she chose not to share her feelings in class, and she said that she did not feel comfortable because she was Arab and thought that her Jewish classmates would not be tolerant of her feelings about the attacks.

In the past year, there was another escalation in terror attacks involving knife stabbings and shooting. After a day on which several terror attacks against Jewish people took place, a few Jewish students approached me that they were worried about going to their fieldwork training the following day. It would require them to take a bus and walk through crowded places, and they were terrified. I related to their feelings because I also experienced such fears in crowded places. The Arab students also contacted me and shared similar feelings because there had been cases of counter-attacks against Arabs by Jewish terrorists. I acknowledged the feelings of vulnerability and fear on both sides, but I instructed all the students to continue their routine and attend their fieldwork normally, and I reminded them that our service-users were also scared and needed their support. The feelings the students expressed may indicate the presence of a "shared traumatic reality," a term that refers to situations when the helping professionals are exposed to the same ongoing traumatic reality as their clients. Because of their lack of training, knowledge, and clinical experience, social work students may be even more vulnerable to trauma than qualified workers (Nuttman-Shwartz & Dekel, 2009).

I cited only a few examples of the complex and conflictual reality we experience in our college, both as a reflection of the external Israeli-Palestinian conflict and as a result of the shared multicultural environment in the classroom and the interaction between these two circles. My teaching experience as a social work educator in a shared Jewish-Arab environment, despite its complexity, usually has produced a sense of hope and faith in the possibility for a shared society. Our multicultural college community often creates opportunities for conflict as well as for dialogue and for bridging gaps. As social work educators and agents of change, I believe that it is our mission to promote a shared and inclusive society by modeling mutual respect and dialogue. We must set an example for our students and show them that there is another way: we can look each other in the eye, hear each other's experiences and pain, acknowledge it, and make room for it. This dialogue may lead to change. We must strive for conflict resolution and peace-building, starting from our multicultural classrooms and our local shared communities, moving from there to larger circles. This is the path we must choose if we want to contribute to a better future.

I want to finish with four lines from the song "There must be another way," performed together by the Jewish singer Noa and the Arab singer Mira Awad:

(Lyrics by Achinoam Nini (Noa), Gil Dor & Mira Awad)


Alhuzail, N. A. (2021). An Arab Lecturer, Jewish Students, and Social Work in a Conflict Area.
Affilia, 36(4), 488–493. doi.org
Alhuzail, N. A., & Ibrahim, M. (2021). Being a social worker in the unrecognized villages in Israel. Journal of Social Work, 21(6), 557–573. doi.org
Nuttman-Shwartz, O. & Dekel, R. (2009). Challenges for Students Working in a Shared Traumatic Reality. The British Journal of Social Work, 39 (3), 522–538. doi.org