Israel Promises 'Revolution' for East Jerusalem Schools. Palestinians Say It's 'Brainwashing'

After 50 years of neglect, the Israeli government is investing unprecedented sums in East Jerusalem, though many are calling the plan 'Israelization'

The opening of the school year in the A-Tur neighborhood in East Jerusalem.
Emil Salman

After 50 years of neglect, the government and the Jerusalem municipality are promising a revolution for East Jerusalem’s schools via a five-year plan that starts this year.

But East Jerusalem Palestinians are convinced the program’s only goal is to rapidly replace the Palestinian curriculum with the Israeli one. They also say the plan doesn’t address the main problem – a lack of classrooms.

Two years after it captured East Jerusalem in 1967, Israel tried to impose the Israeli curriculum on the schools. The Palestinians launched a months-long school strike in protest, until the government gave in and let them continue studying the Jordanian curriculum. Later, after the Palestinian Authority was established, the PA curriculum replaced the Jordanian one.

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Despite a slow increase in the number of students taking Israeli matriculation exams, most still take the Palestinian exams. Last year, 93 percent took the Palestinian exams and just seven percent took the Israeli ones.

Workers renovating a school in Shoafat in East Jerusalem, August 28, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

Another result of that long-ago strike was a massive movement from public schools to private or semi-private ones. The public system has grown in recent years, but still accounts for only 40 percent of Palestinian students.

Ever since 1967, the East Jerusalem school system has suffered deep neglect. The state itself admitted to the High Court of Justice that there’s a shortage of 2,000 classrooms, so residential apartments serve as improvised classrooms for thousands of students.

Moreover, 20,000 school-aged children aren’t registered with any school, and nobody knows if they’re actually studying or not. About half are thought to attend schools in the PA, but the other half are likely dropouts. This year, said Meretz city councilwoman Laura Wharton, these students have disappeared from the city’s rolls entirely.

Parents also say the schools provide very poor education. “It’s not uncommon to see a seventh grader who doesn’t know how to write his name – not in Hebrew, not in Arabic and not in English,” one parent said.

In honor of Jerusalem Day in May, the cabinet decided to make an unprecedented investment in East Jerusalem – two billion shekels ($550 million) over five years, of which 450 million shekels would go to education. The plan was drafted by Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin and Education Minister Naftali Bennett.

About half this money will be spent on informal after-school education. The plan also calls for bolstering technology and Hebrew classes (including by putting Jewish teachers in Palestinian schools), encouraging schools to switch to the Israeli curriculum and a major investment in improving school premises.

But the money will go only to public schools. Indeed, one of the program’s goals is to encourage students to switch from private to public schools.

Renovating a school in Shoafat in East Jerusalem, August 28, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

Even the left-wing Ir Amim organization, no fan of this government, praised the planned investment. Nevertheless, it criticized the effort at ‘Israelization,’ which it claims eats up 43 percent of the budget.

The municipality disputed this figure, saying only 20 to 25 percent of the budget is for this purpose. That includes investments in both schools that already teach the Israeli curriculum and schools that start teaching it. But such investments will help all the school’s students, even though in many schools, some classes teach the PA curriculum while others teach the Israeli one.

The Education Ministry wanted Israelization to be an explicit goal of the program, but the municipality objected, saying the goal should simply be to improve the school system.

“First of all, morally, we have an obligation to these kids,” said Aviv Keinan, head of the city’s education administration. “Second, I believe a good education system provides stability and hope over time, and that will also improve the security situation.”

Finally, he said, Israel needs to increase the number of East Jerusalem Palestinians who go on to college at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Until a decade ago, almost none did. But the number has since risen sharply, both because the separation fence makes attending college in the West Bank harder and because East Jerusalem Palestinians have increasingly joined the Israeli labor market. Two years ago, the university even started accepting students who took the Palestinian rather than the Israeli matriculation exams.

Keinan is especially proud of a program in which 300 outstanding Palestinian students will spend one day a week at Hebrew University this year. His goal is for 700 Palestinians a year, or 10 percent of graduating seniors, to attend Hebrew University, he said, as that would be “game changing.”

A school in Shoafat in East Jerusalem, August 28, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

But Keinan’s rosy picture looks different from the Palestinian side. Many parents, and especially parents’ committees affiliated with the PA, are convinced that the plan’s sole purpose is to end the PA’s monopoly on the curriculum – or as some parents put it, “to brainwash our children.”

“Everything they do in East Jerusalem is to change the Palestinian picture,” said Mohammed Abu Hummus, a parents’ committee member from the Isawiyah neighborhood. “It’s to make them forget they’re under occupation, to change their religion and their belief that they’re part of the Palestinian people.”

The parents’ committee of a girls’ school in the Ras al Amud neighborhood even told the municipality it wouldn’t let the school open unless the Israeli curriculum, which they say was forced on one class, is canceled.

“We belong to the Palestinian Authority,” said parents’ committee member Issam al-Abbas. “It’s inconceivable that we should teach our daughters anything else.”

The city says the Israeli classes are a response to grassroots demand from parents, who believe the Israeli curriculum will give their children a better future. A poll it commissioned found that 50 percent of parents would prefer the Israeli curriculum.

Many parents today undeniably want their children prepared for Israel’s job market. But a decisive majority still prefers the PA curriculum. The parents’ committees say the survey isn’t reliable, and that respondents were afraid to tell the truth.

“For 50 years, they’ve weakened the [school] system, and now they’re exploiting that weakness to introduce the politics they want into it,” said Hatem Haweis, an adviser to one parents’ committee.

Workers renovating a school in Shoafat in East Jerusalem, August 28, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

The PA matriculation exams are considered very outdated. Fearing a massive movement of East Jerusalem students to the Israeli curriculum, the PA Education Ministry considered reforming the exams, but never actually did.

Oshrat Maimon of Ir Amim said the Israeli plan doesn’t address East Jerusalem’s biggest problem, the shortage of classrooms. That’s because this isn’t just a problem of money, but of planning: There’s a shortage of approved master plans and land zoned for public use.

“Even though just 2.6 percent of East Jerusalem’s land is zoned for public buildings and schools, the recent cabinet decision completely ignored the need to solve this discrimination” – which requires changing the city’s planning policies, she said.

The city said that two new schools will open in East Jerusalem this year, one specializing in robotics and the other in languages. It admitted the lack of land zoned for schools, but said 350 classrooms are currently being planned or built, “and that’s more than were built in the last 50 years.”

Additional classrooms will take longer, it said, because they will require complex land expropriations.

Another problem is that most East Jerusalem principals aren’t from the city. Most are Israeli Arabs from up north, and parents often complain that they don’t understand local sensitivities.

Moreover, teachers feel they face a glass ceiling. The Education Ministry requires principals to attend a special training course, and graduates of East Jerusalem schools are rarely accepted to it.

Renovating a school in Shoafat in East Jerusalem, August 28, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

Keinan said he hopes to produce more principals from East Jerusalem, noting that 15 began the course this year.

“Until now, the phrase ‘if you study, you’ll succeed’ wasn’t true in East Jerusalem,” he said. “A rational eighth grader would say to himself, ‘perhaps it’s better to be a chef’s assistant instead of staying in school and then being a chef’s assistant anyway.’ But when this child sees a few hundred outstanding graduates at Hebrew University, he’ll know studying can secure him a future, and that only a public school can give him hope for a different future.

“If we stick to this plan for the next five years, East Jerusalem’s education system will change, and all of East Jerusalem will undergo a revolution,” he added.