By Felicia Dana
The Arab-Israeli conflict is the epitome of a multifaceted issue, though one of the most overlooked concerns is the problem of education. A main source of discontent is the language policy enacted by the Israeli government, whereby the study of Hebrew is required in schools, while the study of Arabic is not, despite it being one of the national languages of the country, (Abu-Saad 715). Many nuances in the Arab-Israeli conflict can be examined through the institution of education in regards to three areas of contention: government administration and allocation, resources provided, and curriculum. Further, it can be argued that while language has historically been a source of contention, the expansion of language programs in both Israeli and Palestinian schools can also lead to a greater understanding between the two cultures, helping to further the fragile peace erected in Israel.
In order to understand the education policies of the state of Israel, a brief background is necessary. The first significant law passed in Israel addressing statewide education of both Palestinians and Israelis was the Compulsory Education Bill created by the Knesset in 1949. According to this bill, the state together with local authorities would guarantee free compulsory education for eight years of elementary schooling, covering children between the ages of five and thirteen. In 1978, a similar bill was passed entitled the Bill for Free Secondary Education, making school mandatory until the age of sixteen and free until the age of eighteen (Mahler 81). The state was responsible for training, paying, and preparing teachers (Abu-Saad 710).
Separate school systems exist for the Jewish and Arab communities, with the Jewish schools predominantly taught in Hebrew and the Arab schools, which also serve the Druze community, predominantly taught in Arabic. The Ministry of Education oversees both school systems (Mahler 81). There are three types of Jewish schools: state, state-run religious and private religious certified by the government. State-run schools are essentially secular and coeducational, while both private and the state-run religious schools include a substantial religious element in their curriculum in addition to the academic content of secular schools (Mahler 82). The non-Jewish state schools, both for Druze and other Arab groups, provide academic and religious content appropriate to their communities. Religious instruction for both the Islamic and Christian populations is offered in Arab schools (Mahler 82).
On paper, it seems that each substantial community in Israel has been addressed in the plan for the school system; however, the implementation is far from equitable. In reality, the current educational policies of Israel illuminate a number of discrepancies between Arab schools and Israeli schools. Specifically, the government administration of Arab schools is highly inconsistent with government administration of Israeli schools. In Jewish areas during the 1950s, the government was required to pay the local authority its share of the teachers’ salaries; in turn, it was the duty of the local authority to pay the teachers by supplementing whatever amount was needed. In Arab areas, the government paid the teachers directly and collected an annual from each inhabitant over eighteen-years-old (Al-Haj 63). This “education tax” was paid only by Arabs, while Jews who lived in municipalities paid no educational rate. The relatively high cost of education among the Arab population affected the desire of Arab local leaders to open and maintain schools in their community, something detrimental to the upward progression of Palestinian culture and society.
Additionally, during the 1980s there were many departments in the Ministry of Education and Culture that did not have a single Arab official (Al-Haj 70). As a result, the Arabs had little input regarding the education of their own people and the instruction of their own heritage. Even when Ali Heidar, an Arab, was appointed to the Unit for Arab Education within the Ministry in 1987, his position was confined to curricula and books. He had very little involvement with allocation of resources, planning and decision-making of the unit (Al-Haj 71).
This problem has not changed in recent years. In 2011, only 8.05 percent of the Education Ministry staff were Arab or Druze, fewer than the previous year and far from the state’s current goal of integrating marginalized groups into public service (Kashti). The Palestinian Arab minority was never given autonomous control over their education system or even allowed to determine its aims, goals, and curricula, all of which remain supervised by the predominantly Jewish Ministry of Education (Abu-Saad 711). Decades of unequal attention and funding persist to the detriment of the Palestinian Arab population.
In 2005, the American-based New Israel Fund found the state education budget had provided approximately $200 per Arab student compared to $1,000 for a Jewish student. In 2010, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) concluded that public spending per Arab child, although improved over the past decade, is still one-third less than public spending on a Jewish child (Kraft).
A second source of tension between educational policy and implementation is resources. School textbooks can be highly political, often acting as “the interface between the officially state-adopted and sanctioned knowledge of the culture, and the learner” (Abu-Saad 712). In Israel, teachers are obliged to base their instruction solely on textbooks approved by Ministry of Education . A study conducted in 1985 by Firer found that all of the history books discuss the pre-state period from 1900 to 1948 by highlighting the exclusive rights of the Jewish people towards the ownership of Palestine. Conversely, Arabs were portrayed as a backward, primitive people with no similar ownership of the contested land (Abu-Saad 713).
From the establishment of the State of Israel through the 1970s, school textbooks portrayed Arabs negatively, according to the same ideological-educational perspective adopted during the pre-State period. In 2005, Bar-Tal and Teichman argued that “most of these books did not even mention the existence of a Palestine nation, let alone its aspirations or the driving forces behind Palestinian nationalism. Palestinian violence and nationalism without readily available explanation, to the majority of Israelis, is seen as arbitrary and malicious” (Abu-Saad 713). In fact, in the 1950s books from neighboring Arab countries were outlawed, leaving Arabs in Israel with no choice but to accept curricula produced by the Israeli Ministry of Education (Al-Haj 124). Furthermore, sufficiently qualified Arab teachers were hard to come by, leading Jewish instructors to step in to the dismay of Arab communities. The number of Jewish teachers who continued to work in Arab schools until the early 1960s was considerable, and in 1964 about 8 percent of all Jewish teachers were working in Arab schools (Al-Haj 154).
With that in mind, there has been significant improvement with the qualification of Arab teachers and their integration into the public school system. An increasing number of Arabs are being hired for Jewish classrooms as instructors of Arabic, exemplifying the idea of using language to bridge the cultural gap between the two groups (Federman). Despite this progression, unequal classroom facilities remain. According to the US Department of State, while Arab children make up about one-fourth of Israel’s public school population, the support provided for the schools instructing those children is not proportional to the population. The report indicates, “Many schools in Arab communities are dilapidated and overcrowded, lack special educational services and counselors, have poor libraries, and have no sports facilities” (Mahler 81).
The third discrepancy between Arab and Israeli schools is the curriculum. Theoretically, Arab and Jewish schools are equal, but in reality, achievement rates on exams and evaluations are significantly lower. Barely 32 percent of Arab students pass the university matriculation exam, compared to nearly 60 percent of their Jewish counterparts (Kraft).
The current Israeli education policies in Arab schools further contributes to marginalization of the Palestinian minority by giving Jewish students little exposure to the Arabic language or culture. Despite the fact that it is one of two official languages in Israel, less than 4 percent of Jewish high school students voluntarily study Arabic as one of their matriculation subjects (Abu-Saad 715). The issue is that the Law of State Education in 1953 articulates that students must be instilled with “loyalty to the people of Israel and the cultural values of Israel,” thoroughly overshadowing the completely different Palestinian Arab identity that a solid portion of the population possesses (Al-Haj 119). Personal accounts by Palestinian students in recent years include the idea that the make-up, maintenance, and curricula taught has led to “schools, not individually, but the education system as a whole [having] a very negative effect on [the Palestinian] identity” (Abu-Saad 716).
The goals of education for Jewish students aim to promote the “culture of mankind as the result of the combined efforts of the Jewish people and the nations of the world” and to “instill the importance of… Israel as the means of ensuring the… existence of the Jewish People.” Meanwhile, the goals of education for Arab students are to “regard the culture of mankind as the result of the combined efforts of the nations of the world” and to “instill the importance of… Israel for the Jewish people throughout the ages” (Al-Haj 129). This is demonstrative of the double standard applied to Jewish and Arab school curricula. Jewish students are taught the importance of cultural identity and nationalism, rendering them able to learn the rich and complex history of their peoples. The Arab curriculum is consistent with the opposite. Many have suggested that the Israeli school curricula is designed to de-emphasize the Palestinian identity and to suppress Arab self-identification, culture, and political concerns (Abu-Saad 716).
Perhaps the clearest instance of inequity is seen in the language instruction within Israeli schools. English and Hebrew are mandatory languages learned in schools, whereas Arabic is an elective equitable to French, despite being a national language of Israel. The purpose behind language instruction varies between the two cultural identities. The teaching of Hebrew to Arabs is deeply oriented towards bilingualism and biculturalism, allowed them to linguistically understand the larger state. Teaching Arabic to Jewish pupils, conversely, is meant to give them the tools for communication with the surrounding Arabs, and is not seen as a necessity. In Jewish schools for younger students, understanding the culture of the Arab minority is not considered a priority, while the opposite is true of the Arab students learning Jewish history and culture.
That being said, in 2010 a pilot initiative was undertaken in Jewish schools rendering Arabic compulsory beginning in the fifth grade due to increased demands from students for matriculation (Bagrut) studies in Arabic. (Haaretz). Though this program has not yet expanded to the whole of Israeli society, it is absolutely a step forward. A study enacted by Harvard Kennedy School of Communications in 2012 found that 68 percent of Jewish citizens support teaching conversational Arabic in Jewish schools to help bring Arab and Jewish citizens together (Gavel). Through a respect for both of the national languages of Israel, mutual civility can be reached, and beginning these multilingual programs in the earliest years of a child’s education is absolutely essential to embed the importance of equality and cultural identity.
The state of Israel has a short but tumultuous history, often characterized by cultural conflict and strife between the Palestinian Arabs and the Jewish people. Despite the historical inequities and acts of discrimination that persist to some degree into the modern day, progress towards a more permanent peace and a deeper cross-cultural understanding within the education system is well on its way. It can be argued that language is the key to fostering this understanding. It is essential that Arabic become compulsory along with Hebrew and English throughout all schools in Israel so that all students, regardless of their national identity and affiliations, are able to not only converse with one another, but also to understand their place within the context of greater Israel and eventually within the context of the international community.
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Photo by Antonio Martinez