Israel 2014
Source: Annual Report 2014

The Israel strategy of the Bernard van Leer Foundation is national in scope and therefore relevant to 1.3 million children aged 0 to 8 years, who are growing up in the country. The overarching theme is investing in young children, especially those who are most disadvantaged, in order to improve their welfare today and the quality of Israel’s workforce in the future. The three goals in Israel are:

Universal access to quality preschools for children aged 3 to 6 years

In Israel, all children have, by law, the right to access preschool education. Based on our analysis, the quality of and access to preschool education is not equal for all children in Israel. Access to preschool for Israeli Arab children, Jewish Ethiopian children, Haredi children and children of migrant workers is considerably lower than for Israeli Jewish children. A closer analysis of resource flows to all vulnerable communities will help us determine which group(s) we should focus on. Good quality early learning is the foundation for better learning outcomes in higher education and positive social and emotional development in general, increasing the potential to succeed in life. Our main interest is therefore in contributing to this goal.   

Building a community movement to create a culture of reading 

‘I don’t have time to read everything [my child] asks for,’ says one mother in the municipality of Umm-al-Fahm in Israel. A formal evaluation concluded in 2014 shows that a Foundation-funded behaviour change project that ran for two years successfully reached not only the target of 2300 children reading more, but also their brothers, sisters, cousins and neighbours.

‘We [in the Arab world] used to be called the nation of reading. The first word revealed to the Prophet was “read”,’ says Dr Mahmoud Zohdi, head of the Umm-al- Fahm municipality education department. ‘It used to be normal that everyone reads.’ But in 2012, this tradition seemed to have disappeared. Contributing factors are thought to include fewer bookstores, adults working long hours and the distance between written and spoken Arabic.

Umm-al-Fahm‘It’s complicated,’ says Dr Zohdi. ‘We had been looking for a project that would promote reading. We’d tried before in kindergartens and primary schools. But all these had very small results.’

Then he was approached with a new idea by Professor Margalit Ziv of the Bidayat Center at Al-Qasemi Academy and Haifa Sabbagh, Education Director at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. ‘All our research indicates that if you don’t start reading to and with children, they’ll fall behind at school,’ says Haifa Sabbagh. ‘But most attempts to promote book reading focused primarily on schools. Once the programme stopped, the reading stopped. We realised it’s not just kids who don’t read, it’s everyone. So Margalit and I designed a model that would target everyone in the community – teachers, parents, social workers, community leaders.’

Dr Zohdi immediately agreed to trial the model in his municipality. He proved to be a vital partner, investing significant human and financial resources and helping shape the design of the programme.

The three agreed to allocate responsibilities: the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute would lead on the community model for changing reading habits and the evaluation of the programme, the Bidayat Center at Al-Qasemi Academy would lead training programmes for professionals and parents, and Umm-al-Fahm municipality would lead on the integration of the reading programme in its existing educational services and ensure that the programme could be sustained over the long term.

Over two years, Umm-al-Fahm Reads has trained close to 400 teachers, caregivers, parents and community leaders, distributed 3000 children’s books to families, schools and childcare centres and organised community events focused on promoting reading.

Umm-al-Fahm‘We worked hard to raise the community’s interest,’ said Dr Zohdi. ‘We gave many lectures, wrote newspaper articles. We celebrated every small success and invited parents to come see how their children were reading. We used these successes to lobby the mayor. And once we started succeeding, everyone wanted to join. We didn’t even need to talk about how important reading is.’

Preschool teachers commented to the programme’s evaluators that they are making reading part of their daily schedules, falling in love with the stories and the Arabic language, creating lending libraries for the children and scattering books around the classroom. One of the community leaders, responsible for recruiting volunteers and rallying families to read more, said, ‘I would like to thank [the trainer], because when I didn’t know what to do with my children, you found a solution for me.’

Bookstores are now stocking children’s books in response to increased demand from parents, and the municipality is committed to continue the programme. In the next phase, Umm-al-Fahm Reads will continue its capacitybuilding activities and establish an early childhood reading centre as a hub for training parents and professionals.

Reduced incidence of depression, anxiety and aggression among young Jewish and Arab children exposed to political violence

All children in Israel live in a context of political violence. Societal violence has a detrimental impact on young children’s wellbeing. Investment that builds coping skills and resilience contributes to the capacity of children to deal with traumatic events, and limits the chance of long term impacts on their lives. 

Reduced rates of malnutrition among young Bedouin children growing up in unhealthy living conditions in the Negev

Safe and healthy environments, good nutrition and healthcare are lacking in the Bedouin communities in the Negev. This includes lack of basic services such as clean water, electricity, waste management, hygienic conditions in the home environment, transportation services and recreational facilities. By focusing on improvement of these conditions, a contribution is made for young children to develop in a more healthy way and in a more appropriate and child friendly environment.

Highlights from 2014

  • The Ministry of Education approved a joint project with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to improve preschools for Arab children across the nation.
  • The Foundation’s ultra-Orthodox partners won support from teachers, principals, municipalities and the Ministry of Education to expand their educational programmes.
  • All partners demonstrated their resilience and commitment by continuing to work during the hostilities between Israel and Gaza from June to September.

Programme strategy

You can download a summary of our Israel strategy for an outline of how we are approaching the goals summarised above, as well as a shorter two-page handout.


Do you have comments on our goals in Israel? Please contact our Programme Officer for Israel, Marc Mataheru ( or our Israel Representative, Daniella Ben-Attar (

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