The Tabeetha School: An example of interfaith tolerance in Israel

Tabeetha School , Church of Scotland School in Jaffa, Israel.
Tabeetha School , Church of Scotland School in Jaffa, Israel.
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IN 1863, while living in Jaffa, then a port town of Jerusalem, Jane Walker-Arnott from Kinross, the daughter of the Laird of Arlarly, took a decision unheard of in those times – to set up a school for women.

A century and a half on, the Tabeetha School she established remains unique, and is one of the most enduring symbols of multiculturalism and cross-faith integration in Israel.

Jane Walker-Arnott founded the school in 1863

Jane Walker-Arnott founded the school in 1863

Marking its 150th anniversary this month, the establishment is run as a Church of Scotland foundation school. It strives to leave politics at the gate and encourage Israeli and Palestinian children to put aside the political and religious differences that colour their everyday lives.

According to headteacher Anthony Short, even when hostilities between Israel and Palestine flared late last year and Tel Aviv – of which Jaffa is now part – was hit by rocket attacks, tempers among pupils remained unfrayed: “Certainly people felt it was close to home, from that aspect everybody was in the same boat, but we didn’t think that ‘these were terrorists’, or ask ‘who’s shooting whom’, or why they were doing it.

“It was the case that many of our children had never experienced anything like this before, so it came down to them looking beyond their political differences. They felt, ‘We’re all in this together, let’s just make sure we’re all safe.’ I really didn’t hear the political dimension mentioned one time. There was nothing said like, ‘They’re shooting at us, isn’t it terrible?’ or ‘They’re doing it because this or that is happening,’ it was more a case of, ‘Is our bomb shelter secure enough?’ ”

Given the school’s multifaith demographic, the lack of any friction is little short of a miracle. Tabeetha provides an English-medium education for up to 330 pupils of up to 40 different nationalities.

According to the school, more than half the pupils are Christians of all denominations, some 30 per cent are Muslim and 5 per cent are Jewish. The remainder is made up of Hindus, Buddhists, Druze – a form of Islamism found mainly in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel – and a few who profess no religious following.

Around two-thirds of the pupils are local, mainly from the Jaffa area, Christian and Muslim Arabs and Jews, while the remaining third are expatriate children from the diplomatic and business community in the school’s surrounding areas.

Short says that the school does not attempt to gag or turn a blind eye to the problems that the region faces, pointing to the Middle East studies lessons that pupils attend. They look at current affairs, including the 
Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as the Middle East as a whole. They do get a chance to discuss the subject openly.

“If it does come, we don’t go, ‘We don’t talk about that, you won’t talk about that,’ we say, ‘OK, let’s hear what you have to say, this is what I have to say’,” explains Short. “They have a discussion, and I have never known them to turn into a heated argument, with screaming or shouting, because the children have learned respectful tolerance. It’s all because of the way they’ve learned from the school from the beginning.

“This is something you could only really do in a school like ours, because they realise that there are many sides to one story, many different cultures and different religions. This is what they are exposed to in the school, and they’re taught to hear what everyone has to say and taught to respect the different points of view.”

Tabeetha was born from Walker-Arnott’s horror when she saw the desperate poverty in which the women of Jaffa were living – she was working as a governess to the daughters of Kirk missionaries in the town – rather than any desire to manufacture interfaith harmony. On the first day of school 14 girls of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths were squeezed into a single room among the narrow and overcrowded streets.

Such an undertaking would be admirable in itself, but when you consider that Walker-Arnott had only a tenuous grasp of the local tongue, it becomes all the more impressive.

Her recollection of those arduous early days was remarkably understated: “As I was only a beginner in the Arabic language, I had to plod through my lesson day-by-day, and then teach to my pupils.”

The girls were taught to read and write, to study the Bible and to become skilled at sewing and lace-making. The lace that they produced was shipped back to Scotland where it was sold to raise money for the school.

Walker-Arnott’s tenacity and desire to better the conditions of local women, coupled with demand from the local community, meant that by 1875 she had managed to raise enough money to build the large white stone-built property that today houses the school. On her death in 1912, she willed the school to the Church of Scotland, which for the first time found itself with the responsibility for running a school.

The close connection between the Kirk and the school continues to this day, and it remains its only education institution outside of the UK.

The Very Rev Dr Andrew McLellan, convener of the World Mission Council, who will be visiting the school later this month to take part in its celebrations, says: “It’s been a delight in the story of the Church of Scotland, partly because it’s been such a special place for teachers from Scotland to go and serve for a couple of years.

“At the moment in very difficult circumstances, Tabeetha is able to stand for good education across the communities, and across religions. We never forget that our presence in that troubled land is to be a presence for justice and peace, and we make sure that these values are clearly expressed in the school.”

Originally from South Africa, Short says that the close links with the Kirk, and yearly visits to Scotland to meet with church congregations and talk about the school’s work, have made him feel like he has gained a new nationality: “Though we’re not Scottish, it’s a bit like home-leave – my family and I are adopted Scots, so it’s a bit like going home to say ‘hello’,” he says. “We have our various presbyteries that we’re linked with.

“We go to meet the people who support us, they continuously correspond with us throughout the year, we report back about the school, we visit schools – we build up pen-pals between Scottish pupils and ours – so that’s how we maintain our links.”

Despite a history that spans three centuries and long periods of social, political and ethnic unrest, Tabeetha’s greatest challenge for the future is maintaining its financial viability. Though run as a private school, it is a world away from a British concept of what a fee-paying institution is, and fundraising to maintain its standards is an ongoing task.

Equally, with the Kirk in a period of financial retrenchment, McLellan says that sustaining funding at current levels is not a given: “Our support for Tabeetha is very important to many people, both in Israel and over here. Whether that can go on forever with the level of financial support that we give to the school is a question for us that we think about from time to time, but as long as we have a school in Tabeetha, we will be committed to that school.”

However, Short says that 150 years on, Tabeetha has stayed true to the founder’s original vision that the school serves the local community: “Jane Walker-Arnott was a committed Christian and she really wanted to make a difference. So even today we are all about doing that, and being an example and light to the community.

“The symbol of the school is a lamp, which comes from psalm 119, verse 105, which says, ‘Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, a lamp into my path.’ That’s really what the school is about, providing almost a haven of peace in the Middle East and the best possible education and opportunities in a family atmosphere. I think that’s the vision, even in the beginning, and it remains so.”