Why some Palestinians want to learn like Israelis

As they consider implementing an Israeli curriculum in their schools, Palestinians weigh which matters more: better university and job prospects, or reinforcing their national identity.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
Arab neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem are seen in the background as children walk atop a wall surrounding Jerusalem's Old City August 13, 2013.

The Palestinian Authority has accused Israel of trying to tamper with the minds of Palestinian youth after introducing the Israeli curriculum into selected schools for Palestinian children in East Jerusalem.

They say the step – which Israeli authorities stress is voluntary and at the schools' request – consolidates Israeli annexation of that area, claimed by Palestinians as their future capital.

The move has left Palestinians feeling torn between the national identity they feel is best expressed in the Palestinian curriculum and the practical desire to give their children the best chance possible of finding good jobs in Israel or getting accepted to an Israeli university.

''The goal of this is political, not educational – to say that Jerusalem is Israeli, not Palestinian,'' says an educator at a non-municipality school who asked not to be identified. He refused to sign a form for his son to join the Israeli curriculum.

Israeli municipality officials say the expansion comes at the initiative of Palestinian parents seeking to facilitate their children's acceptance in the Israeli job market and at Israeli universities. In order to be accepted at Israeli universities, students educated according to the Palestinian curriculum are currently required to take exams in Hebrew, English, math, and Israeli civics that require protracted preparation, at considerable expense to parents. 

About the future

But if students graduated from Palestinian universities in the West Bank, they often find that their degrees are not accepted by the Israeli government and other Israeli employers, which locks them into lower-paying jobs. Even the minimum wage in Israel is two-and-a-half to three times higher than the average wage in the West Bank, according to a 2011 estimate by Zvi Eckstein, the former deputy governor of the Bank of Israel.

''The Palestinian Authority, Fatah and Hamas may oppose this but parents know that the future of their children is in Israel,'' says David Koren, adviser on East Jerusalem to the Jerusalem mayor, Nir Barkat. ''In a series of meetings with us, parents requested having the option of the Israeli curriculum. People were paying 12,000 shekels ($3,430 dollars) for private courses to prepare their children for Israeli universities and they asked the mayor, why not open a track within the school?''

Initial attempts to impose the Israeli curriculum after Israel captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 war failed amid stiff opposition from Palestinian parents. Palestinian children continued to study the Jordanian curriculum until the Palestinian Authority developed its own in 1993. But this school year brought a renewed effort at spreading the Israeli curriculum.

Israeli officials say that seven East Jerusalem municipality schools now offer the option of taking the Israeli curriculum, up from two last year. They stress that shifting to the Israeli track is voluntary. In practice, this means considerably more Hebrew, more science, and big changes in more subjective civics and history courses. The vast majority of students remain enrolled in the Palestinian curriculum.

Senior Palestinian leaders in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, are furious.

"It's part of the attempt to totally de-Arabize and de-Palestinize Jerusalem, including our heritage,'' says Nabil Shaath, commissioner for foreign relations of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement.''They're not only taking our land and our houses, but also our minds.'' 

A Palestinian school parents organization leader, Abdul-Karim Lafi, says that the overwhelming majority of parents are against the Israeli curriculum. In practice, few pupils signed up for it and most of those who did have pulled out amid concern that it could offend Muslim religious sensibilities, he says

"The effort to introduce the curriculum has failed,'' he says.

Israeli municipality officials dispute this and deny that the curriculum is offensive in any way to Muslims, or Palestinians in general, stressing it is the same curriculum used in government schools among the Arab minority in Israel, where Arabs study in separate schools from Jews.

Two curriculums

At the Abdullah Bin Hussein school for girls in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, an eighth grader who is studying the Israeli curriculum says the number of students in her class has fallen from 45 at the start of the school year two weeks ago to 20. Some pupils found the switch to the Israeli curriculum too hard while some families said the Israeli program undermined their child's Palestinian identity, she says.

She joined the program because it is stronger in science than the Palestinian curriculum. ''I want to become a doctor and I want to study at the Hebrew University,'' she says referring to Israel's leading academic institution, located only a few minutes away.

Her sister, a twelfth grader, said she prefers the Palestinian curriculum because in the Israeli one ''they teach that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, not Palestine and they erase our history and teach their history.''

The two sisters asked not to be identified out of concern they would face problems from Israeli authorities.

At the Ahmed Sameh al-Khalidi municipal boys school in the lower income Abu Tor area of East Jerusalem, principal Najwa Farhat, an Arab citizen of Israel, is launching a new program to give dropouts a second chance – and is doing so according to the Israeli curriculum.

''The Israeli curriculum is more flexible and gives answers to weak students. Studying the Israeli curriculum can open up the job market and open the way to a more promising future.'' she said.

She says the Israeli curriculum offers more course options and a better education than the Palestinian Authority's because it emphasizes critical thinking, not just memorization.

"In the Israeli program, the student can be his own investigator and think about matters and not just learn things by heart. The Palestinian curriculum does not give the student a chance to think about things," she says.

'Totally false analysis'

Basri Salih, assistant deputy minister at the PA's Ministry of Education, called Ms. Farhat's remarks ''a totally false analysis of the situation. The issue is not memorization, but rather that we want our children in Jerusalem to have an equal opportunity to get what they need in terms of their national identity, feeling of belonging and history. Their right to learn about their national identity is a basic right according to international humanitarian law."

Mr. Lafi, the parents association leader, says that textbook references he sees as disparaging to Islam have alienated parents. 

Giving an example, he says the al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third holiest site and situated on the site Jews revere for housing the first and second temples, is referred to in a textbook as The Temple Mount. Brachie Sprung, media adviser to Mr. Barkat, responded that the al-Aqsa Mosque is referred to as such in all the textbooks and that statements to the contrary are a "provocation."

In the Ibn Rushd Boys School in Sur Bahir, where 141 pupils are now studying the Israeli curriculum, principal Ibrahim al-Khatib said those criticizing the curriculum ''have not read it.''He added that he hopes more pupils will sign up for the Israeli curriculum next year.

But a tenth grader in the school who asked not to be identified says he is sticking with the Palestinian curriculum, and prefers to learn his history according to the Palestinian Authority rather than Israel. ''This is my country, and my book should say that what's occupied is occupied,'' he says.

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