While Politicians Rage Over Mahmoud Darwish, His Poems Are Quietly Being Taught in Israeli Schools

Israeli high schools offer poems by the late writer Mahmoud Darwish as electives in advance literature and Arabic courses, despite the objections of politicians through the years to his role as a voice of Palestinian nationalism.

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Poet Mahmoud Darwish in Ramallah in 2007, a year before his death.
Poet Mahmoud Darwish in Ramallah in 2007, a year before his death.Credit: Nir Kafri

Israeli schools teach some of the poetry penned by the late Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish, whose name made headlines in Israel some eight years after his death because of an Army Radio show on his poems

Darwish born in Galilee in 1941 and died in 2008, was widely considered as a Palestinian national poet whose work embodied aspirations to achieve independent statehood and opposition to Israeli occupation.

On Wednesday, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman called his poems "fuel for terror attacks" and summoned Army Radio chief Yaron Dekel because of the broadcast about Darwish – part of a series on formative Israeli texts in the station’s “University on the Air” program.

However, high schools offer Darwish's poems as electives in advanced high school literature programs. His poem entitled “Think of the Other Person” is a part of a program about the Holocaust taught to Arab high school pupils.

Even a new civics textbook that was criticized by the left for incorporating dismissive references to Arab culture and focusing on Jewish religion includes passages about Darwish, as part of a chapter entiteld "the challenge of coexistence in Israeli society."

The text also quotes Darwish in a passage about Israel's military rule over its own Arab citizens that lasted through 1966, a year before Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza, whose Palestinian residents are not Israeli citizens.

That chapter quotes Darwish writing fondly of a Jewish teacher he had who he said was like a mother figure, "rescued me from hatred," and taught him about the bible and Israel's national poet, Haim Nahman Bialik. 

Darwish's poems are taught as electives in Arab high school literature programs, and some of his poetry is offered in other Israeli Arabic language and literature curricula.

A veteran teacher told Haaretz that although school authorities had sought to include his poetry in lesson plans, “I don’t know anyone who teaches that material.”  

But Iris Maimon, a teacher of Arabic language in Givatayim, said she does teach Darwish's work.

“There are a few teachers who teach about Darwish, myself included, and I find the pupils enjoy it very much,” she said.

Maimon called Darwish’s work “among the best of Arabic poetry." "In my opinion you cannot teach Arabic in Israel without teaching about Mahmoud Darwish,” she said.

The late Israeli writer and politician Yossi Sarid tried but failed as education minister in 2000 to insert Darwish’s work into the Israeli school curriculum.. 

Even some left-leaning politicians opposed Sarid's efforts at the time, led by former prime minister Ehud Barak who said then that ‘the conditions are not yet ripe for teaching about Darwish in the schools.”