How the 'Israeli Arab' Was Created

Between the end of Israeli military administration over its Arab citizens in 1966 and plans for educational integration in 1968, a new definition was born.

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The Israeli military administration in Umm al-Fahm, 1955.
The Israeli military administration in Umm al-Fahm, 1955.Credit: Fritz Cohen/GPO
Gal Levy
Gal Levy
Gal Levy
Gal Levy

In the modern history of the United States, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) as a landmark decision to end the racial segregation being practiced in the South.

Ostensibly, the date marking the official end of Israeli military administration over its Arab citizens, 1966, should hold a similar status. But marking the 50th anniversary of the event seemed to be a matter of interest for historians only, with many Israelis not even aware of the existence of the body that controlled the lives of Palestinian citizens for over 15 years. Moreover, while this rule was associated with the military administration established in the occupied territories, very few people – if any – have considered its significance in the internal social context.

I will try to reflect here on the connection between the ending of the military administration in 1966 and the occupation of the territories in 1967, and the plan for educational integration in 1968. In doing so, I will try to highlight the sociopolitical processes that shaped the status of Palestinian citizens at the crossroad between the state, Palestinians in the territories and Israeli Jews.

While it is difficult to attribute a single motive to an act such as the imposition of a military administration, historical research suggests it can be assumed with near-certainty it was agreed that it would be a temporary measure that would end in due course. But while Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion wanted to extend martial law repeatedly, professional and political bodies demanded that it end: that’s why arguments ensued over when the military administration should eventually conclude, and how.

This dispute echoed the discussions held in the education department of (Labor Party forerunner) Mapai in the days between the acceptance of the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, at the end of November 1947, and the declaration of (Jewish) sovereignty in May 1948. At the time, when Ben-Gurion demanded “to think like a state,” the professional bodies were confronted with the question of the future of the Arabs in the Jewish state, and examined the possibilities available to the education system of the future state.

'The Arab problem'

Some professionals proposed segregating the Arabs or promising them educational autonomy, similar to how things worked in the religious education system. Others saw it as an opportunity to create civil integration in the modernist spirit. Needless to say, the outcome of the war – and military administration in particular – put an end to these ideas.

The military administration handled the “Arab problem” by creating a real and violent border between Jews and Arabs. This border not only enabled the exercise of Jewish-Zionist control of the land, but also preserved the cultural distance and social distinction between the two groups. But this did not cause the disappearance of the Arab problem.

This is how the prime minister’s adviser on Arab affairs described it in 1959: “We can assume with certainty not to expect the possibility of a mass exodus of Arabs from the country in the foreseeable future. Therefore, we must remove this possibility from the agenda in planning policy for the future.” A year earlier, MK Mordechai Namir (Mapai) said similar things: “I assume the Arabs who are in the country will remain – barring a catastrophe.”

Ultimately, the harsh reality dictated the formal abolition of the military administration. For six months, Israel was a sovereign state in the accepted sense of the term: a single territory, one army and one law. The Arabs, who were “present absentees” – under the auspices of the military administration, but outside the social borders – seemingly became citizens. But the dilemma of the borders returned and became even more severe as a result of the occupation in 1967. Then the question arose of “Who are the ‘minorities’?”: citizens according to the law, or Palestinian nationalists – as the state preferred to see them?

A look at the field of education can teach us about the way these things evolved.

Toward the end of the 1960s, the state saw social and educational inequality between Ashkenazim (Jews of Eastern European descent) and Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin) as an acute political problem, and an obstacle to the process of nation-building. Simultaneously, the winds of democratization in education that were blowing across the globe had reached Israel and pushed to expand the post-elementary-school education to groups that had never enjoyed it before – especially Mizrahim in the outlying parts of the country.

This step, which actually began with the establishment of public state schools in the periphery in the early ’60s, accelerated the education reforms. At the center stood the addition of junior high schools as a selection and tracking stage before high school.

This change became an opportunity to deal with the frustrations of Mizrahi parents, who saw their children excluded from the best schools. As a result, the integration plan and reform was launched in 1968.

As a pedagogic program, the integration plan maintained that transporting children from the poorer neighborhoods to the “quality” schools would create a fusion that would lead to a positive educational, cultural and social change.

Exclusion from integration

Even if the pedagogical success is questionable, its strength was as a political idea. Integration was of great importance in the inclusion of Ashkenazim and Mizrahim within the borders of the national collective, and the placement of the Arabs outside these borders (they were excluded from the integration program).

While the Jews focused on establishing the borders of their Jewish-national identity, the ending of the military administration and start of the occupation posed a new challenge for the state.

The “fall of the borders” – first, the military administration that separated Jewish and Arab citizens, and, later, the war that removed the physical border that divided the Palestinians on both sides of the pre-1967 borders (the Green Line) – raised the question of the limits of the Arab collective in Israel.

In the early ’70s, the political and educational systems started to be concerned with the young Arabs in Israel who were beginning to identify with Palestinian nationalism.

These concerns were evident in the establishment of two committees to handle the matter on the educational level: one headed by then-Deputy Education Minister Aharon Yadlin in 1971; the other chaired by Dr. Mati Peled in 1973.

At the time, Peled was in the Arabic language and literature department at Tel Aviv University.

In light of the fact that, until the end of the military administration, Israel did not show significant interest in the Arab curriculum plan, except for considerations of control, the Yadlin committee’s innovation was in incorporating Arab education as part of the public debate on education.

It was accepted happily – albeit with some criticism – by Palestinian educators. They advocated defining pedagogic and learning goals for Arab education, but didn’t rule out the refusal to engage in the question of identity.

Education researcher Sami Khalil Mar’i claimed that not only did the Yadlin panel’s recommendations obscure the national identity of the Arab minority, they even did away with the value of Arab culture. Furthermore, they forced values and principles of the Jewish majority on the Arab minority, through the educational system controlled by the government.

This criticism instructed the work of the Peled Committee, which was established as part of the ministry’s efforts to define its goals for education in the ’80s.

The panel claimed that the Yadlin Committee report failed to deal with the question of the contradiction between the life of an Arab citizen in Israel and his identification with the Arab people, and his desire to live in peace in the State of Israel.

That’s why the committee recommended adopting goals for Arab education that were based on science, the aspiration for peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, shared patriotism, loyalty to the state, etc.

On the outside

The goals’ uniqueness, according to Mer’i – who was a member of the panel – was that included among them was a demand to base Arab education on the foundations of Arab culture. When Yadlin, by now education minister, adopted the panel’s recommendations on September 29, 1976, the word “shared” was deleted, in order to remove any doubt whatsoever from the call to base education on “shared patriotism.”

But this was not the only thing missing. The focus on Arab culture in its broadest sense left the nationalist Palestinian education on the outside.

So what do the education reforms teach us about the creation of building borders within the framework of the state?

The military administration helped strengthen the identity between Jews and the nation-state, leaving the Arabs as present absentees – so it should be no surprise that the idea of integration in education left the Arabs on the outside of the nation of citizens formed in 1949.

The removal of the military administration turned Israel, however briefly, into a nation of all its citizens. And the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem in 1967 united for a moment the Palestinian people.

Obligation of loyalty

Paradoxically, the border work required by the state needed to include the Arabs in the civil collective, but not fully. The recognition of Arabs as members of Arab culture emphasized both the boundary between them and the Jews, and their connection culturally to the Arab world from which Israel had distanced itself.

At the same time, viewing Arabs in Israel as citizens imposed an obligation of loyalty on them that differentiated them from the Palestinians in the occupied territories.

This is how “Israeli Arabs” became a category that defined these Arabs as non-Palestinian and non-Jewish citizens. While this may have granted citizenship for Arabs as having political significance, it also determined that citizenship in Israel is secondary to nationalism for the Jews.

If we ask ourselves where the symbolic borders between Mizrahim, Ashkenazim and Arabs were shaped, this crossroad is also critical to our political understanding of these identities within the present situation.

The writer teaches at the Open University, and researches civil and educational activism in the context of ethnic and class inequality.

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