Palestinian Schools in East Jerusalem Embrace Israeli Curriculum, Raising Tough Questions

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Akram Ibrahim, the principal of the Alpha school in East Jerusalem.
Akram Ibrahim, the principal of the Alpha school in East Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

At about 9 A.M. Tuesday last week, the shooting started; the clatter resounded from the east of Jerusalem to the west.

Jerusalemites are used to it – it was the day the scores were announced for the Palestinian matriculation exams. If you get a high mark on those tests that accompany your graduation from high school, or at least higher than your family’s expectations, you might hear fireworks going off in your honor, or even guns.

This year, however, there was less shooting. It wasn’t clear if this was because of the exam marks or the fear of the police, or maybe other noises drowned out the shooting. Whatever the reason, Israeli school officials believe the relative quiet will continue in the coming years.

For most of the nearly five and a half decades of the occupation, the Palestinian curriculum was the sole study program, but for years now the Israeli curriculum and matriculation exams have been gaining a foothold in East Jerusalem.

This is a complicated, arduous process. It’s not only a matter of changing textbooks or investing more funds in building new schools, it involves issues of national and personal identity. How, for example, do you teach civics to students who aren’t citizens? More than 90 percent of Jerusalem’s Palestinians aren’t Israeli citizens.

A corridor in the Alpha school. Credit: Emil Salman

The Alpha school in the Beit Hanina neighborhood is one of 32 schools that have been built in East Jerusalem in recent years. Due to the land shortage, some classes are held in rented buildings.

But Alpha was built from scratch, with standards similar to typical Israeli schools and far above the standard in the east of the city. Its angled desks can easily be moved to create different seating formations. Plus there are wide, well-lit corridors, large windows, a nice soccer field, labs, an impressive teachers’ room and even a hall for parents’ activities.

Alpha opened in September 2020 on Beit Hanina’s outskirts with an investment of around 40 million shekels ($12.4 million) from the Education Ministry and the Jerusalem municipality. The 600 students in grades 1 to 8 study the Israeli curriculum.

According to the municipality, some 13,000 students will study the program crafted and supervised by the ministry in the school year expected to open on September 1, compared with 5,000 five years ago, a rise of 160 percent.

Though significant, it’s small compared with the 100,000 East Jerusalem students from preschool to 12th grade. Half of them go to private schools or schools run by Muslim organizations, churches or private nongovernmental organizations.

The Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

Hefty funding

The change began from the bottom. It started with parents’ demanding that their children study the Israeli curriculum to ensure them a better future. Then the previous mayor, Nir Barkat, pressed the state to invest more money.

The big change came when a 2-billion-shekel five-year plan was approved for East Jerusalem in 2018. Around 700 million shekels of this was allotted for education, with the goal of introducing the Israeli curriculum in East Jerusalem. A school that would teach this study program, or even open just one class whose students would take matriculation exams, would receive generous funding.

This year 1,140 first-grade Palestinian students will begin studying the Israeli curriculum. This is only one-sixth, around 17 percent, of all Palestinian students in East Jerusalem for that grade, but until a decade ago this figure was under 10 percent.

The number of East Jerusalem students at Israeli universities and colleges is no less significant. At Hebrew University alone some 710 East Jerusalem students will study this year, compared with 36 five years ago. The David Yellin, Hadassah and Azrieli colleges are also popular with Palestinian students.

A classroom at the Alpha school. Credit: Emil Salman

East Jerusalem has a huge private education system run by Christian churches and NGOs, but also by organizations suspected of links with Hamas. Until recently, both the private and public education systems taught the Palestinian curriculum.

But the building of new schools encouraged the shift from private schools to public ones. Other factors were the separation barrier, which cut the East Jerusalemites off from the Palestinian schools in the West Bank, and parents who wanted better education for their children.

They chose schools teaching the Israeli study program for several reasons. Parents were troubled that their children didn’t know Hebrew, a huge obstacle in finding work. At Alpha, first- and second-graders study Hebrew three hours a week. The rest of the students take five hours.

Their friends in the Palestinian curriculum will make do with two hours and no matriculation exam, resulting in pretty poor knowledge of Hebrew. In both study programs the Hebrew teachers are Palestinian. Akram Ibrahim, Alpha’s principal, is still looking for a native speaker to teach Hebrew this school year.

School children in East Jerusalem in 2015.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

‘A political act at the deepest level’

Meanwhile, parents are dissatisfied with the Palestinian curriculum, which is seen as outdated, Ibrahim says. The schools teaching the Israeli program receive up to 20 percent more money; at these schools, classes can be split into smaller groups. There are also extracurricular classes, technology studies at high schools, help for students with learning difficulties, and a large staff of social workers and psychologists.

“The parents know we have resources, and it makes them want to send their children here,” Ibrahim says.

Aviv Kenan, the outgoing head of Jerusalem’s education system, is a key figure in this process. He thinks the schools in East Jerusalem should foster social mobility.

He says East Jerusalemites are among the poorest groups in Israel. For them education is the only way to succeed in life; anyone who can afford it sends their children to private school.

“We probably won’t solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but maybe we’ll be able to give hope to the poor residents – let them know their kid has a chance to break out of the cycle of poverty they’re virtually doomed to at birth. I’m not trying to blur the conflicts, but ultimately mobility through education is a political act at the deepest level,” Kenan says.

“I’m not bothered by what Palestinian kids think about us and how they’ll vote in the future in the municipal election. I don’t think they’ll be great Zionists, but if they acquire the tools to launch a startup, we’ve done our bit. People who live here are entitled to that hope.”

Still, some neighborhoods seen as more nationalist, like Silwan and Isawiya, strongly object to the introduction of the Israeli curriculum. They say that the program would erode the students’ Palestinian identity and that the study method is part of a broader scheme to change East Jerusalem’s character.

The Palestinian Education Ministry is pressuring people to prevent the shift to the Israeli curriculum. The fact that Hebrew University admits students based on Palestinian high school grades makes it easier to preserve the Palestinian education system.

School principals and municipal officials say the solution is to build “a Jerusalem matriculation program” that would take into account the Palestinians’ sensitivities. For example, it could include a special civics course for residents rather than citizens, or the Palestinian matriculation program for studies of Islam.

“We have to do it in a way that suits both sides and take some of the matriculation and some of the Palestinian program,” one school principal says.

Kenan agrees this is a worthy solution, one that was even discussed in the city and at the Education Ministry for a while, but was scrapped when the pedagogic and bureaucratic obstacles mounted.

“I decided to study Hebrew by chance,” says Abed al-Samed, 20, a computer science student at Hebrew University. “I saw a lot of friends of mine who graduated from Arab universities and couldn’t find work. When you’re thinking about the future, learning Hebrew is the right way to go.”

Kenan and education officials say the change is just beginning. In the next few years more schools will open and more students will enroll in the Israeli curriculum. The question is what this will mean for the city’s future.

Meanwhile, the new entrance to the Alpha school bears a large Hebrew inscription that stands out among the few Arab signs. It says: “Happiness isn’t having what you want, but knowing what you have.”

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