The Palestinian Literature Vanished on the Way to the Classroom

The Arab literature curriculum taught at Israel's Arab schools was last updated in 1981. This was the first time that Arab professionals, and not Jewish specialists in Arab affairs, had led the writing of the new curriculum, one of the main reasons it was viewed as bold and revolutionary.

The Arab literature curriculum taught at Israel's Arab schools was last updated in 1981. This was the first time that Arab professionals, and not Jewish specialists in Arab affairs, had led the writing of the new curriculum, one of the main reasons it was viewed as bold and revolutionary. Dr. Mahmud Ghanayim, head of the Department of Arabic Language and Literature at Tel Aviv University and a scholar of modern Arab literature, recalls showing the curriculum to Egyptian colleagues in 1991. He says they were surprised to discover that it contained works by Ali Ahmed Said ("Adonis") and Salah Abd al-Subur - works that had yet to be taught in their own country.

Some of this boldness, however, disappeared somewhere on the way from the curriculum to the literary anthologies used in Arab schools. So did some important literary works, such as poetry by Mahmoud Darwish and other prominent Palestinian poets, like Rashid Hussein and Samih al-Kassem. The committee that drew up the 1981 curriculum had tried to avoid controversy by choosing texts of a universalist nature. But the committee's only Jewish member, Immanuel Koplewitz, the head of the Education Ministry's Arab Education Department who later supervised the publication of the anthology, recalls having some doubts about what had been decided. He says he asked the publisher to remove from the anthology texts that, as he puts it, "verged on being works that create an ill spirit."

One need not look very far to find the poems of Darwish, and not only those dealing with universalist themes. They, like other works by Palestinian writers, are included in the state's literature curriculum for Jewish high schools. So are various other Arab works translated into Hebrew in the last decades. The Jewish curriculum includes poetry and prose by Yusuf Idris, Taoufik el-Hakim, Naguib Mahfouz, Mahmoud Darwish, Samira Azzam, Siham Daoud and Salman Masalha.

One chapter of a Hebrew anthology is, according to the editors, devoted to the Palestinian tragedy. It features Ghassan Kanafani's story "The Land of the Sad Oranges." Kanafani, born in Acre, is among the foremost writers of Palestinian political literature. He was the spokesman for the People's Front for the Liberation of Palestine until 1972, when he was killed in a car bomb blast.

The historical preface to the story tells the reader (that is, the Jewish high school student) that the war that broke out in 1948 is known among the Jewish Israelis as "The War of Independence" and among the Arabs as "the 1948 war" or "al-Nakba" (the catastrophe). The preface also describes the circumstances under which the residents of Arab settlements began to abandon - in some places, according to the text, "they were driven, at times forcibly, from their homes," while "in the Deir Yassin village near Jerusalem, expulsion was accompanied by a massacre perpetrated by Irgun [Jewish pre-state underground militia] forces." This does not mean that every Jewish student is necessarily exposed to Arab literature. The texts are merely included in the elective sections of the curriculum, and they can easily be ignored.

Dr. Mahmud Abu Fanni, the Education Ministry's veteran supervisor of Arabic studies in the Arab sector, admits that some of the works easily taught to Jewish students would be very difficult to include in the Arab schools' curriculum. However, he claims that "this time we will not be able to run from Mahmoud Darwish and Samih al-Kassem. It simply isn't possible." Abu Fanni is referring to the work of a committee (of which he is the coordinator) that has spent the last two years formulating a new Arab literature curriculum. The committee intends to demand that Arab literature, currently included within Arabic language studies, be recognized as a separate, two-credit subject of study for Arab high schools.

This will be a chance to fix one of the oddest flaws in the Arab students' literature curriculum: its exclusion of world classics. Although a curriculum for general literature studies in the Arab sector was published in 1990, it is not part of the mandatory matriculation material. Unless their school specifically insists on it, most Arab students can graduate without having studied Chekhov, Kafka, Shakespeare or Moliere. Ghanayim says that this exclusion of world literature could be part of "the government's attempt to create an Arab student who is not open to the world."

Abu Fanni hopes that the committee will conclude its work within a year, at which point the new curriculum will be submitted to the ministry's Pedagogic Secretariat for approval. Dr. Abdalla Khateeb, who three months ago became director of the Education Ministry's Arab Education Department, believes that this will happen even sooner. Khateeb intends to demand that mandatory Arabic studies be expanded into a four-credit subject. He says the additional hours will be available thanks to the 2002 Shoshani report, which changed the distribution of class hours in a way that benefits the Arab sector.

Hebrew literature: Bialik

The 1981 Arab literature curriculum seems cutting-edge compared to the list of Hebrew literary texts taught at Arab schools. Compiled back in 1977, this curriculum is so outmoded that it has been virtually ignored since 1995. In the absence of a new plan, an interim solution was devised: four printed pages, which the supervisor of Hebrew studies in the Arab sector, Dr. Hany Mosa, pulls out of his pocket whenever he is asked about the curriculum. Mosa is working on a new curriculum, which Khateeb pledges to have approved within six months.

The Hebrew literature curriculum includes, among other things, a choice between the first four chapters of the Book of Genesis and the first four chapters of the Book of Ruth, as well as 11 mishnayot (verses) from the Avot Tractate. The "Criticism and Philosophy" section includes essays by philosopher Martin Buber; under "Fiction," one can find works by Chaim Nachman Bialik and Y.L. Peretz; and the "Poetry" section includes the poetry of Rachel and Shaul Tchernichovsky and one poem by Yehuda Amichai. This curriculum, while more up-to-date than the one from 1977, seems pitifully meager compared to the one used by Jewish high schools.

But Dr. Mosa, it seems, does not plan to stop there. He recently launched two Web sites, which he uses to float trial balloons. Literary works that are being considered for the new curriculum are posted on the sites, and surfers are invited to comment on them. On one of the sites, teachers of Hebrew literature at Arab high schools recently held a fascinating discussion of Savyon Liebrecht's story "Apples from the Desert." The story follows an ultra-Orthodox Jewish mother from Jerusalem as she travels to a kibbutz to visit her daughter, who is living there with her boyfriend. The daughter has abandoned Orthodox Judaism, and the mother is hoping to bring her back into the fold. "I think it would be very hard to include this story in the curriculum, mostly because it uses all kinds of erotic expressions," wrote one of the teachers in the forum. The daughter's actions in the story, another teacher added, "are not consistent with the conventions, values and norms of Arab culture." Ultimately, however, the second teacher agreed with what seemed to be the majority opinion - that "this story could be taught in high schools, provided the teacher is equipped with the proper tools."

Mosa plans to add to the curriculum some of the best contemporary Hebrew poetry (among his suggestions: "Pride" by Dahlia Ravikovitch, and "The Poverty Line" by Ronny Someck). He even wants teachers and students to be able to choose a full-length Hebrew novel over some of the shorter selections, an option that has never been available to Arab schools. Among the novels Mosa hopes to include are Amos Oz's "Black Box," David Grossman's "The Zig Zag Kid" and Sayed Kashua's "Dancing Arabs."

Mosa gets the greatest amount of encouragement from his students. In recent years, the vast majority of Arab teens have taken an accelerated-level matriculation exam in Hebrew. Some schools begin teaching Hebrew in the second grade, instead of in the third grade, as had been the custom. The plan to expand the mandatory Hebrew studies is in line with this trend. According to Khateeb, the revision of the curriculum will extend beyond teachers' forums on the Internet. "We've begun the change," he says, "just give us time."

History: Stuck in the editing

The bright green cover of the history curriculum for Arab high schools hints at its status as one of the most recently updated study programs for this sector. Published in 1999 as a trial edition, it is based on a previous curriculum that dates back to 1982. However, the difference between them becomes evident as soon as one looks at the committees that created them. The 1982 curriculum was formulated by a mostly Jewish committee (which included Koplewitz), headed by Professor Joshua Prawer. The committee that rewrote the old curriculum was led by Professor Butrus Abu-Manneh from Haifa University, and only one of its nine members was Jewish.

The chapter describing the curriculum's teaching goals also heralds significant change. One of these goals is "to deepen the students' sense of belonging to the Arab Palestinian people, to the Arab nation and its culture, and to the State of Israel and its citizens." Those familiar with the evolution of Arab school curricula call this language a historic achievement: previous curricula mentioned only the need to foster kinship with the "Arab nation and its culture," not with the Palestinian people. An examination of the topics included in the curriculum suggests that the change is not merely rhetorical.

Like their Jewish peers, Arab high school students are required to take a two-credit matriculation exam in history. One credit is devoted to Arab and Muslim history and to modern Middle Eastern history, while the other covers the history of the Jewish people in the last generations and 20th century world history. The section on the modern Middle East includes a brief chapter on the history of the Palestinian people. The 1999 curriculum featured a new and extensive chapter dealing with "The History of Arab-Palestinian Society," comprised of 15 study units - from a debate of the term "Palestine" and a discussion of Arab presence in the land before the Muslim conquests to the "1948 war." A chapter in the final unit even deals with "The Development of the Refugee Problem - Expulsion or Flight?"

However, this revolutionary section, which was supposed to take up a hefty chunk of class time, suffers from the same syndrome as the Arab literature curriculum - it is simply not taught. The supervisor of history and civics studies in the Arab sector, Dr. Sa'id Barghouthi (who recently completed his term in this position), claims that there is no available textbook with which to teach this material. Such a book, he says, was being prepared by researchers at the Hebrew University's Truman Institute, in cooperation with the Mercaz Hagalil Society, but it got stuck near the end of the editing stage. According to Barghouthi, after the steering committee that shepherded the book's preparation on behalf of the Curriculum Department had commented on the initial draft, "we never heard from them again. We have tried to find out what's happening with the book, but we got no answer."

Higher-ups at the Education Ministry blame Barghouthi for the textbook debacle. Ali Assadi, who retired at the end of last year after a decade as director of the Arab Education Department, claims that he never heard anything from Barghouthi about a shortage of textbooks. Nava Segen, director of the ministry's Curriculum Planning and Development Department, claims that this is the first she has heard of a textbook shortage keeping the program out of classrooms. Meanwhile, the students themselves have found a way to address current national issues: according to Barghouthi, the majority of final projects in history submitted for his approval deal with this subject.

Barghouthi has also overseen the civics curriculum in the last few years; here there seems to be a rare concordance between the curriculum, the textbooks and the material actually taught in class and included in the matriculation exam. In 2003 an identical curriculum was instituted at all Jewish, Arab and Druze schools. Meanwhile, Jewish students have also started to use a new textbook, "Being Citizens in Israel - A Jewish and Democratic State." The book has been translated into Arabic, with some editorial changes. Its title was shortened to "Being Citizens in Israel," and its order of chapters is different. The Hebrew edition opens with "What is a Jewish State," whereas in the Arab edition the first chapter is "What is a Democracy." According to Barghouthi, the goal of this change is to have "Arab schools place a greater emphasis on Israel's democratic nature than on its Jewish character."

In the Arab edition, which now also includes a preface about "The Geographical, Political and Historical Background of the Establishment of Israel," there is a chapter dealing with the "national rift" between Arabs and Jews that provides examples of institutionalized state discrimination against the Arab sector. The preface also mentions, rather unusually for Israeli Arab textbooks, that "nakba" is a term parallel to "War of Independence."

The Education Ministry responds: During the past two years, a new literature curriculum has been formulated for the Arab sector, which will include world literature as an integral part of the study program. In addition, a new curriculum for teaching Hebrew to Arab students of all ages is being put together. This is part of a general effort to upgrade curricula for all populations, including the Arab sector, the ministry says. The new curricula are due to be finished within a year.

Regarding the teaching of history, supervisors are supposed to develop teaching materials, the ministry says, adding that the head of the curriculum planning and development department will look into the matter.