Israel’s Zionist Push Harming Palestinian Education
By: Ryan Brownell
Published Monday, April 9, 2012
The historical exploitation of the Israeli education system to institutionalize Jewish and Zionist dominance has intensified in recent years. Perhaps the most alarming and telling of these efforts is the amendment passed in March of last year to the Budget Principles Law, popularly known by Palestinians as the “Nakba Law.” The law authorizes the Minister of Finance to cut public funding from any entity that “marks Israel Independence Day or the day of the establishment of the state as a day of mourning.”
The Nakba (catastrophe) is commemorated to honor the more than 700,000 Palestinians that were displaced and driven from their land during the founding of the Israeli state in 1948. In codifying this amendment the state is criminalizing the most basic of civil liberties.
Through vague language and transparently discriminatory motivations, this provision creates an atmosphere of fear and persecution that fundamentally censors teaching about the creation of the Israeli state. Forced to choose between essential funding and the conscientious teaching of history, teachers and educators are placed in an impossible bind in which all Israeli students suffer. “It's fascist chutzpah and a new low point in the slippery racist slope on which the Israeli government, Knesset and Israeli society are descending,” the Arab Education Monitoring Committee said.
Under Gideon Saar the education ministry has swiftly mandated changes to the national education curriculum, demanding a focus on “Jewish and Zionist values” without highlighting democracy, or Jewish/Arab coexistence. Zvi Zameret, who Saar appointed to head the pedagogical secretariat of the ministry, criticized the nation’s previous civics textbook as focusing “too much on criticism of the state." Furthermore, he explained to Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the aims of instruction were unacceptable. "The way in which civics is taught is critical and analytical.”
For the 20 percent of students that are Palestinian, the personal implications of state criticism and analytical thought are apparent in the classroom even if they are being erased from the textbooks. University of Haifa Professor and Israel Education Prize winner Gavriel Solomon said in Haaretz that the shift in curriculum has transparent motivations. “This is education for Zionism and Judaism without education for democracy and peace, and it promotes ultra-nationalism."
And these changes don’t end in the classroom. In February more than 260 Israeli teachers signed a letter in opposition to a recently expanded education ministry program taking students on “heritage tours” to Jewish settlements in the West Bank city of Hebron. The settlements have been condemned as a breach of international law and an obstacle to the peace process by the international community and Palestinian officials.
The teachers’ letter stressed that this is the first instance of public, organized teacher opposition to ministry policy in Israel’s history. In justification of the program the education minister stated: “It’s good to come to the settlements. It’s good that the settlements flourish. One should not allow the Arabs to harbor the illusion that one day there won't be Jews here.”
These comments by Saar represent a typical and dangerous denial of the Palestinians’ status as the native people of Palestine. The ongoing Israeli appropriation of this land is consistently distorted by government officials, as a strategic silencing very much parallel to current education policy.
The impressive sweep of these efforts to control the education of students in Israel illuminates the Netanyahu administration's assault on civil rights in what it touts as "the only democracy in the Middle East." Jerusalem literature teacher Udi Gur explained to Haaretz the intentions of the teachers’ letter: "The educational system is under attack by extremist political forces aiming to trade education for indoctrination. We won't allow that to happen."
Separate and Unequal
The historical and ongoing disparity between Jewish and Palestinian education in Israel illustrates the unacceptable implications of these efforts to prioritize Zionism in public education. Since the founding of the Jewish state Palestinians in Israel have been educated separately from the Jewish majority, while the curriculum and distribution of federal resources are dictated by the state. Palestinian academic achievement has always trailed that of the Jewish majority, and this gap is reinforced by the consistent, historical subordination of Palestinian education in both resources and attention.
In 2001, the Israeli government reported to the Committee on the Rights of the Child that “in 1991, the total investment in education per pupil in Arab municipalities was approximately one-third of the investment per pupil in Jewish municipalities. Government investment per Arab pupil was approximately 60 percent of the investment per Jewish pupil.”
This discrimination continues. Supplementary funding plans throughout the 1990s and the new millennium failed to either equalize these two systems or account for past discrimination against 1948 Palestinians. Furthermore, even these insufficient plans were not fully implemented.
In 2008, 31.9 percent of Palestinian students earned a matriculation certificate after high school, nearly half of the Jewish student rate of 59.7 percent. Among Palestinians aged 18-39, 1.8 percent were studying for their first degree in university, half of the Jewish student rate of 3.6 percent.
This data must be understood in the context of their very real consequences in quality of life, economic mobility, and sociopolitical awareness of the Palestinians in Israel. Pointedly, even as the government has been forced to acknowledge disparities in funding, the education ministry claims that it is impossible to monitor and report the resources allocated to Palestinian education.
"Government-run Arab schools are a world apart from government-run Jewish schools," said Zama Coursen-Neff, counsel to the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch in its report Second Class: Discrimination Against Palestinian Arab Children in Israel's Schools. "In virtually every respect, Palestinian children get an education inferior to that of Jewish children, and their relatively poor performance in school reflects this."
In light of these disquieting realities, Palestinians in Israel are working to be included in the policy discussion over the content and delivery of education for Palestinian students. In July 2011, the Follow-Up Committee on Arab Education in Israel realized, if only partially, the formation of an Arab Pedagogic Council. The council, which is composed of 30 Arab academics and professionals, strives to exert greater oversight over an education system that “suffers from serious and multifaceted discrimination including inequalities in resource allocation, lack of recognition of the Arab minority's national and cultural narrative and the exclusion of Arab leadership from a role in decision-making and the establishment of policy.”
The Israeli education ministry has refused to officially recognize the council, declining to consider or implement the recommendations it put forward last October in a document entitled “The Aims of Education and Teaching of the Palestinian Minority in Israel.” The document states that its purpose: “on the one hand [is] to combat the discrimination on the part of the state and its obstructive effects on Palestinian society in Israel, and on the other hand it is also a struggle against the violence of certain patterns of thinking and behavior, and against some of the ills in Arab society.”
The strategies highlighted in the document include strengthening the identity of the Palestinian people in Israel, the teaching of collective Arab and Islamic roots, and affirming the national and political rights of the Palestinian people.
Importantly, it recommends that Palestinian education “instill the values of dialogue with the Jewish Israeli other and the search for a horizon of a joint life in a single homeland, without the control or supremacy of any side.”
The comprehensive, heavily-resourced Israeli campaign to control and silence Arab culture through the education system is currently operating in the open. The overtly discriminatory implications of these policies are being justified and excused through pretenses of religion, fear, and ultra-nationalism.
Palestinian demands to meaningfully participate in the decision making process for education reflect the persistent failure of the “Jewish and democratic” state to respect the rights of its minority students. In a land where so much meaning is derived from history and narrative, the exclusive ideology of Zionism is harmful to not only Palestinians in Israel, but all children who pass through the evolving classrooms of Israel’s schools.
Ryan Brownell is based in Nazareth, works in a Palestinian NGO and can be followed on Twitter @ryanbmn
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.