They came from all across the country, 300 high school teachers who were interested, curious or perhaps frightened enough to learn more about the historic enemy living in their midst. Near the end of the two days of lectures, one of them, Amos Dotan, who teaches geography, history and Zionism at a kibbutz school in Galilee, said he was glad he had made the trip here from the north.
"This is the first step," he said. "I know many teachers who think twice before they start to handle this subject. It is very difficult."
Dotan and the others were attending an intensive training seminar that attempts to prepare Israeli teachers to deal in the classroom with the sensitive, explosive subject of Arab-Jewish relations. The program, entitled To Live Together, is sponsored by the Van Leer Foundation of Jerusalem and is supported by the Ministry of Education.
Its supporters say the future of Israeli democracy may hinge on the success of such programs. There are increasingly disturbing signs of strong antidemocratic sentiments in the present generation of Israeli youth and fear of a drift from democratic values if this trend is not checked.
Last summer, an opinion survey of 651 Israelis aged 15 to 18 was conducted for the Van Leer Foundation, a private, generally liberal Israeli think tank. The results, said Arie Shoval, deputy director general of the Education Ministry, were "alarming." The survey found that about 25 percent of the youth held "consistently antidemocratic views" and that on the subject of "non-Jews in general and Arabs in particular the percentage of those holding antidemocratic views increased to about half of those interviewed."
Sixty percent thought Israeli Arabs, who make up about 17 percent of Israel's population, are not entitled to equal rights with the country's Jewish citizens, and 47 percent favored reducing the rights of Israeli Arabs. On the subject of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, 62 percent of the youth favored annexation, but 64 percent opposed granting Arabs living there the right to vote after annexation.
Adding to the alarm of Shoval and others was the election to Israel's parliament last July of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the extremist Jewish Defense League in the United States. Kahane's philosophy is openly racist and antidemocratic. Arguing that democracy and a true interpretation of Judaism are mutually exclusive, he advocates the forcible expulsion of all Arabs from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel.
Kahane won only 1.2 percent of the vote, enough for one seat in parliament for his party. But his vote was twice as high among Israelis in the military -- a group made up largely of 18- to 21-year-olds. The election results confirmed the findings of public opinion polls and the impressions of teachers and others who deal with young people that Kahane has made his strongest inroads among Israeli Jewish youth.
"There are things you couldn't hear or say five years ago and now you hear them," Dotan said of his experience as a teacher.
"I have never found a more sympathetic atmosphere for this kind of program," Shoval said recently. "People were shocked by Kahane's victory. People are getting really scared of what will happen if nothing is done."
Kahane -- whom Alouph Hareven, the director of the To Live Together program, calls "our chief propagandist" -- has served as a catalyst for the growing concern, but he only symbolizes the problem.
For years, some Israelis have been warning about the corrosive effects on the country from the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where more than 1 million Palestinians live. Today, with Israeli classrooms filled with the first post-1967 war generation -- a generation that has no memory of Israel without the occupied territories -- those warnings are taking on added urgency.
"Young people in Israel get a double message," Hareven said. "This is a democracy, but for the past 17 years we have been ruling 1.25 million Arabs by military government, which is not democratic. For an entire generation, this is the reality: democracy and the use of power side by side. Power corrodes democracy."
Hareven, 58, is among those Israelis who say they have seen the problem coming and fear the long-term consequences for Israel. A former Army intelligence officer, he was later the director of the Foreign Ministry's information department, involved in explaining and defending Israeli policy to the outside world. But by 1977, when he joined the staff of the Van Leer Foundation, Hareven said he had decided that what was happening inside Israel was more important than the country's external relations.
"The real test of democracy in Israel is the attitude toward the Arab minority," he said. "It is a double test also of Jewish identity. It is one kind of Jewish state where the rights of the minority are respected, and an altogether different Jewish state where they are not."
Hareven is particularly concerned about the impact of the military occupation and the continuing tension in the Middle East on attitudes toward Israel's Arab citizens. Many Israeli Arabs have "deep grievances and criticism" of the government, he said, but security agencies here agree that they "are not in basic conflict with the state."
But the Jewish youth of this generation, like many of their elders, do not perceive this, Hareven argued. Most have never had a serious conversation with an Arab, he said; bombarded with press reports about conflict in the West Bank and Lebanon, and by the government's repeated warnings about the threat posed by outside "terrorist organizations," they lump all Arabs into a monolithic enemy, whether those Arabs live in Syria, Egypt or the Galilee.
"It comes as a surprise to them that every sixth citizen of Israel is an Arab," Hareven said.
In classrooms he has visited, Hareven said, teachers have defended their work, denying that they have encouraged anti-Arab feelings among their students. "I tell them they have been neutral, and that on this subject you cannot afford to be neutral," he said.
To counter these trends, the Van Leer Foundation, working with the Education Ministry, developed the To Live Together curriculum and embarked on a series of training sessions to equip teachers to deal with the subject in their classrooms. So far, the program is directed only at Jewish teachers, but the ministry hopes eventually to include Arab schools.
The growing interest in the problem was evident from the two-day seminar held here in late December. Sixty or 70 teachers had been expected, but 300 showed up.
They heard about government policy from a former Arab affairs adviser to Israeli prime ministers. Academic experts lectured on the problems of images and stereotypes, and a school administrator discussed how the country's Arab schools function. Four Arab Israelis told the teachers of their personal experiences as citizens of the Jewish state.
The program has been introduced on an experimental level in the 11th and 12th grades of 30 Israeli high schools, barely scratching the surface of the country's 2,300 schools.
While the program has the official blessing of the Education Ministry, it is voluntary. The ministry is cutting its budget, and most of the funds used to conduct seminars have come from outside sources such as the Ford Foundation.
To be effective, Hareven says, the program will also have to be extended gradually throughout the school system because "the nurturing ground for anti-Arab prejudice is kindergarten."
The education establishment here is late in coming to deal with the issue of Jewish-Arab relations. Israel is a segregated society, and its separate school systems -- one for Jews and another for Arabs -- reflect this fact. The last vestiges of military rule over the country's Arab citizens did not end until 1966. The next year, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip began.
In all those years, there was no formal instruction in the schools on Jewish-Arab relations. According to Shoval of the Education Ministry, the idea was this subject would be infused throughout the curriculum and brought up in a variety of ways. It sounded good at the ministry, but it did not work in the classrooms.
"We found out that in reality most teachers were afraid to deal with this topic," Shoval said.
In the early 1970s, the educational system here did devise a specific program dealing with Arabs. It was called The Arab-Israeli Conflict. Shoval contrasts that title with To Live Together as evidence of changing attitudes in the Education Ministry.
The ministry, he said, is taking other steps to lower the barriers between Israel's Arab and Jewish citizens. The separate school systems will remain -- that is the clear desire of both Arab and Jewish parents, he said -- but last year a decision was made to abolish a special department for Arab education and begin to merge the two systems on the administrative level.
Shoval is among the most enthusiastic supporters of the To Live Together program. He says he believes that what is ultimately at stake is the democratic nature of his country.
"I can't conceive of myself as a Jew and an Israeli living in a country where we do not do the utmost to achieve the goals of this program," he said. "We are here whether we like it or not. We will be here forever, Arabs and Jews together. It is a question of survival for us."