Hundreds of thousands of Jerusalemites woke up Saturday morning to the sound of tens of thousands of explosions. Five minutes earlier, tens of thousands of Palestinian families had been waiting anxiously by their cellphones.
The announcement was supposed to come at exactly 8 A.M. Some people set their clocks to count down the minutes and seconds. But the first messages arrived at 7:59, bringing students’ grades on the Tawjihi, the Palestinian matriculation exam.
A few minutes later, fireworks and guns went off. In Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem and in West Bank towns, the streets filled with smoke from the fireworks, people celebrating and cars honking their horns and playing loud music.
Palestinians have trouble explaining to Israelis the joy that erupts at this moment. A good grade on the Tawjihi doesn’t just pave the way for admission to college and a good financial future; it also affects students’ self-image, the way their families view them and the way others view their families.
A bad grade, in contrast, is a turning point in students’ lives. There are almost no makeup exams, and course grades during the school year don’t count; all that matters is the Tawjihi grade. And until three years ago, every student’s name and Tawjihi grade were published in newspapers and online.
In recent years, parents and educators have increasingly criticized the Tawjihi. But it’s still seen as a Palestinian national symbol, and efforts by Israel’s Education Ministry and the Jerusalem municipality to replace it with the Israeli equivalent, the bagrut matriculation exam, haven’t succeeded.
The Tawjihi consists of six to 10 tests (depending on which track the student chooses) taken over the course of two weeks at the end of 12th grade. It’s a huge challenge, and the entire family mobilizes to help.
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“When your child is in 12th grade, the whole house stops for the whole year,” said Fuad Abu Hamed, who lives in Jerusalem’s Sur Baher neighborhood.
“This is the only number you’ll be asked about all your life,” added Tharaa Kirresh, a researcher at Hebrew University. “It’s the most important number in Arab society. They won’t ask you how you did in college, only how you did on the Tawjihi. It puts enormous pressure on students and parents.”
Khaled Salhab, who teaches Hebrew at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is one of the exam’s critics. “It’s a very outdated, bad curriculum,” he said.
Moreover, he said, “There’s huge social pressure. Mothers, fathers, grandfathers, grandmothers, all treat the Tawjihi as if succeeding at it means you’ve succeeded in life, even though life is only now beginning.
“Every year there’s talk of changes, but nothing happens,” he added.
One problem with the Tawjihi is that it doesn’t prepare students for the Israeli job market. Since Hebrew isn’t one of the subjects it tests, most high schools neglect the language. Consequently, Tawjihi takers tend to have a very low level of Hebrew compared to either high school dropouts or students who take the bagrut.
Additionally, the enormous pressure and the rote learning on which the exam is based lead to a high dropout rate, which reaches 33 percent among high school seniors in East Jerusalem. And in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, every year there are students who die by suicide due to failing or fear of failing the Tawjihi.
Critics also accuse the Palestinian Authority of deliberately making the tests hard to prevent too many students from going on to college, since the unemployment rate among PA college graduates is already high.
The Palestinian Education Ministry, which now has sole authority over what was originally a Jordanian exam, has made a few changes in recent years. Students who fail three tests can now take the Tawjihi again, and only schools’ names, rather than the students’, are published alongside the grades.
Many Palestinians, especially residents of East Jerusalem, would like to see much greater change. But because the Tawjihi is viewed as a Palestinian national symbol, changing it is hard.
“It’s the only thing they can be 100 percent proud of that isn’t tainted by anything Israeli,” said Rawan Sabbah Munayer of Hebrew University’s school of education. “But pedagogically, it’s a problem.
“Compared to the bagrut, it’s a much more primitive system, because you have to learn material by rote, the grade is sanctified without looking at the process, and ultimately, it’s what determines my future and how much I’m worth. If someone is sick or afraid of tests, he’s had it,” Sabbah Munayer said.
“Nevertheless, there’s a sense that the Tawjihi is ours, it’s our culture and ideology,” she added. “It’s a national celebration.”
A grade of 50 is enough to pass, but to enter a Palestinian university, a grade of at least 65 is necessary. Israeli universities have also begun accepting students based on the Tawjihi in recent years, but there, acceptance requirements are even stiffer. Hebrew University, for instance, requires a grade of 80 for acceptance to its preparatory program and 90 for acceptance directly to a department.
This year, 72 percent of students in East Jerusalem scored at least 65, while just 7 percent scored below 50.
Many East Jerusalem residents view the Tawjihi as a victory over Israel’s attempts to enforce its control. Immediately after capturing East Jerusalem in 1967, Israel tried to introduce its own curriculum, but was forced to back down by fierce opposition and a lengthy school strike.
The Tawjihi also enables Palestinians in Jerusalem to maintain close ties with the West Bank, where almost all of them attend college.
But in recent years, more parents have demanded that schools start preparing students for the bagrut, which they think will give their children a better future. The Jerusalem municipality and the Education Ministry have also started pressuring schools to open bagrut classes in exchange for generous funding.
The ministry said the number of twelfth-graders taking the bagrut has increased 154 percent in recent years. And the number is expected to increase further in the coming years, since several recently opened schools prepare students for the bagrut. Nevertheless, 90 percent of East Jerusalem students still study the Palestinian curriculum.
Aside from the political and social obstacles, the bagrut’s spread has been impeded by the fact that Palestinian students tend to do poorly on it. Very few even pass, and university admission requires a grade well above passing.
On the other hand, students who study the Israeli curriculum end up with better Hebrew.
Explosions from the Tawjihi celebrations continued intermittently throughout Saturday. According to Abu Hamed, they are usually prompted by students who scored 50 to 55, “because then the family is very surprised that he passed, so they go out and shoot. Someone who scored 90 doesn’t fire into the air.”
The Jerusalem police’s hotline collapsed due to countless frightened calls from Jewish residents, and later, right-wing politicians and angry residents complained on social media about police’s failure to stop the shooting. Deputy Mayor Arieh King, for instance, assailed police for not stopping the “over 10,000 fireworks” set off “over the course of 15 hours.”
In the afternoon, police arrested 38 people suspected of shooting off guns or fireworks. But the shooting didn’t stop until after nightfall.
Even East Jerusalem Palestinians said the shooting seemed especially loud this year, apparently both because Saturdays in Jerusalem are usually so quiet and because the coronavirus has diluted the police presence in Palestinian neighborhoods, enabling residents to acquire bigger stockpiles of fireworks and bullets. And many agreed with their Jewish neighbors that this custom should be stopped.
“It’s disruptive and doesn’t do anything,” said Daoud Siyam, who lives in Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood. “A lot of people suffer. ... It’s a custom from the Middle Ages; we’re in the 21st century.”