The education system in Israel is one of the many areas in which Arab Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel are segregated from each other as the schools are strictly divided into different sectors, based on both religion and ethnicity.
The system in its current form was established in 1953 by the state education law which provides the legal framework for the establishment of two sectors: A Jewish secular and a Jewish religious one. While the Palestinian minority is not mentioned in this law, the establishment of an Arab school sector that is separate from the two Jewish ones followed inevitably from it.
Despite an amendment to the law in 2000, the Arab sector has no official legal standing, but exists alongside the two “official and recognised” Jewish sectors as an “unofficial but recognised” one. Thus, from the inception of the Israeli state school system in 1953, Arab Palestinian and Jewish Israelis were generally prevented from attending school together.
Recent efforts at singling out the Arab Christian population in Israel regarding conscription and education suggest that the education system in its current form is more than just a provider of knowledge for the citizens of the state. The Israeli Ministry of Education has complete control over the school curricula of all types of schools – Jewish, Druze and Arab public and private, from kindergarten to high school.
There are two main ways the state education system promotes divisions among Palestinian citizens in Israel: Directly through the separation of different religious communities into separate schools, the determination of the curriculum and the appointment of teachers and principals; and indirectly through issues regarding funding, infrastructure, private schools and access to higher education.
Therefore, the Israeli education system can be seen as a political tool used by the government to advance its goals of furthering the Jewish character of the state rather than to provide the best possible education for all citizens.
The divisions created among Palestinians with Israeli citizenship also have consequences for the wider Palestinian quest for statehood and self-determination. As a result, dividing the Palestinian communities into one inside and one outside of Israel, as in this piece, is purely done for the purpose of analysis and is not intended to undermine the concept of a collective Palestinian nation.
DIVIDING THE POPULATION: The main and most apparent active interventions in the Israeli education system in order to divide the country’s Palestinian population have been made in attempts to separate the community based on religion.
Divide-and-rule as a practice within the education system dates back to 1956 when a separate school system for the Druze in Israel was established. This development has to be seen in the broader context of Israel trying to single out the Druze community as “a people apart” and not belonging to the Palestinian community.
Instead, the Druze’s loyalty to the Israeli state was emphasised and ensured by conscribing all male Druze to the Israeli army and promoting it in Druze schools. As Raafat Harb, a Druze political activist told the present writer last summer, both the atmosphere and the curriculum in Druze schools in Israel differ from those in other Arab Palestinian schools.
The result of the segregated, limited and biased education in the Druze schools is that Druze identity is remodelled in a way that suits the goals of the Israeli state and the Jewish majority. Of course, identity is always a shifting concept that differs individually and collectively and that can manifest itself in various ways. According to Harb, there are Druze who identify as Palestinians, as Arabs, as Israelis or even as Zionists.
However, through the education system the Israeli state actively suppresses the development of the Druze’s Arab and Palestinian identity and instead imposes a separate uniquely Druze/Israeli identity on them. In doing so, it clearly follows an agenda of steering the Druze away from the Arab Palestinian community.
Another major division created within the Palestinian community in Israel by the education system is that between Christian/Muslim Arabs on the one side and Bedouin Arabs on the other. Most Bedouins in Israel live in the Naqab (Negev) in the south of the country where they face abject living conditions as a result of Israel’s attempt to uproot them from their land and to relocate them in a few concentrated villages and towns.
As inhabitants of often unrecognised villages, the Bedouins suffer from the poorest living conditions in the country, according to Noga Dagan-Buzaglo, a researcher at the Adva Centre – Information on Equality and Social Justice in Israel, an Israeli NGO. While the state is obligated to provide education for all its citizens starting at age three or four, schools in the Naqab can only be found in recognised villages and towns. This makes it difficult for parents in unrecognised villages to send their children to school on a regular basis.
Because parents can face legal prosecution if they fail to send their children to school, some families have moved from unrecognised to recognised villages in order to facilitate school attendance and to avoid criminal charges, according to Mohamed Zidani, a researcher, and Muna Haddad, a lawyer, both with Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.
Here again, education is used as a political tool to force the will of the Israeli state to its Arab citizens, in this case by removing parts of the population from their ancestral land.
A third, fairly recent development has been the attempt made by Israel to single out the Christian Arabs as has been done with the Druze for the past 60 years. In 2013, state efforts increased to encourage Christian Arabs to join the Israeli military, taking advantage of the fact that they are numerically inferior to the Muslim Arabs in Israel and trying to create fears of a “growing Muslim threat in the region”. The current efforts of the Israeli state to ascribe to the country’s Christian Arabs a new “Aramaic ethnicity” are part of this.
Odna Copty, who works for the Follow-Up Committee on Arab Education (FUCAE) in Israel, an NGO, says that Christian Arabs like her are now described as “Aramaic” instead of Arab in Israel. “They say that we are a group of different religions and have nothing in common,” she said. “When I speak with somebody else who is Arab, it will never occur to me to actually ask him about his religion because culturally it is not polite for Arabs to ask somebody about that.”
The attempt of the Israeli state to single out Arab Christians and make them adopt a new “Aramaic” identity has not yet taken hold. On the contrary, many Arab Palestinians like Copty mock these efforts as being unnatural and bound to fail. However, the past shows that similar efforts have been successful in the Druze context. Therefore, this new divide-and-rule strategy should be taken seriously instead of being dismissed out of hand as absurd.
SOMEONE ELSE’S HISTORY: The second important area in which the Israeli state directly implements its divide-and-rule policy is in the content pupils learn in the country’s schools. The whole education system is based “on the values of Jewish culture and the achievements of science, on love of the homeland and loyalty to the state and the Jewish people,” according to Israel’s 1953 education law.
In practice, this means that the curricula designed for the Jewish secular and religious sectors aim at teaching pupils Jewish Zionist values and points of view. As a result, Arab Palestinian pupils do not learn anything about their own people’s history or culture during the 14 years they attend school. Furthermore, the image of Arab Palestinians that is portrayed to them in Israeli school books is negative, if not outright racist.
Differences among Arab Palestinians are highlighted in a new and controversial civics textbook introduced by the current Israeli Minister of Education Naftali Bennett in May. Despite protests by the Arab Palestinian community, Bennett insisted on the publication of this book that, among other things, “needlessly divides Israel’s Muslim, Christian, Aramean and Druze segments and focuses more attention on the latter’s army service than on the largest subgroup,” namely the Muslim Arabs.
Connected to this issue is the appointment of teachers and principals in Arab schools in Israel. In the Palestinian community in Israel, it is commonly known that the Ministry of Education does not appoint the individual most suited for the task, but the one that cooperates most with the state.
The fact that the Shabak (Shin Bet), Israel’s internal security service, is involved in appointments – and the preceding screenings – of teachers and principals in Israel shows how crucial the state considers the appointment of the “right people” to be. By choosing loyal or at least not openly critical teachers and principals, the state makes sure that only the content provided for in the school curriculum will be taught. Even in private schools in Israel, which have a certain degree of freedom regarding the appointment of teachers and the content of the curriculum, teachers are aware of their role within the system and mainly stick to the dominant narrative.
All these things taken together ensure that the state, by its direct intervention in the education system, transmits only the dominant Zionist narrative that is supposed to protect the Jewish character of the Israeli state. This practice aims at sowing divisions among Arab Palestinian pupils because it denies the existence of a Palestinian nation and instead emphasises all aspects that separate the community on religious or other terms.
But Israel also tries to undermine cohesion among the Arab Palestinian community in a more indirect, subtle way. While the exact numbers vary, it is obvious that the Ministry of Education allocates far fewer funds to the Arab schools than to the Jewish ones, resulting in a severe lack of resources in all Arab public schools in Israel.
Bedouin schools are considered to be well-equipped if they consist of buildings made of bricks with running water and electricity. As a result of the persistent work of FUCAE, the Israeli Ministry of Education is fully aware of the amount of money needed per student to close the gap between Jewish and Arab students in the country.
According to FUCAE director Aatef Moadei, however, Israel is interested in managing this gap rather than closing it. The indifference of the state is all the more remarkable when one considers that it is directed against people who make up 20 per cent of the citizenry, all of whom pay taxes and expect to see meaningful investments in return.
As a result of the lack of funding and the poor infrastructure in most public schools in Israel, Arab private schools have become the preferred alternative for parents who want their children to receive a better education. Most Arab private schools are run and partly funded by churches, which means that they have more funds to draw on and gives them more freedom in handling the internal affairs of the school. Arab Church schools are open to all Arab pupils and not only to Christians.
However, as parents pay tuition fees for these schools, poorer Arab families, generally Muslim, are excluded from this alternative. As a result, by intentionally underfunding the public schools and forcing the Arab community to divert their resources to private education that is partly self-paid, the Israeli state again enforces a separation of the community based on religion, in addition to highlighting stratification along class lines.
KEEPING ARAB STUDENTS UNDEREDUCATED: The Israeli state’s strategy regarding the Arab education system seeks to ensure that Palestinian citizens in Israel remain undereducated, whilst providing enough education to mask the reality to both the international community and the Israeli public.
The severe deficits in the school system result in the low participation of the country’s Arabs in higher education: Only one in every four Arab pupils goes on to higher education, compared to one out of every two Jewish pupils in Israel. As a result, the direct and indirect measures carried out by the state do not only lead to the reinforcement of differences within the Arab Palestinian community.
On a greater scale, these measures also result in a system that produces a relatively low-skilled labour force, for example by producing badly trained Arab teachers who, in turn, have an effect on the next generation of Arab Palestinian pupils and ensure the continued marginalisation of the Palestinian minority within Israel.
The Israeli state thus interferes directly and indirectly in the Arab education sector in the country and aims at enforcing separations among Arab Palestinian citizens in Israel based on ethnicity, religion, geography and social class. The country’s school system, as it currently exists, clearly caters to the best interests of the state rather than to those of the students.
Palestinians in Israel are aware of their community’s diversity. However, they claim that the government uses the education system to reinforce existing differences, which would not be so problematic if it was not stressed so continuously by the state. The control of their schools by the Ministry of Education and especially the complete lack of freedom regarding the content that is taught are two practices that are most widely rejected.
As a result, the Arab Palestinian community in Israel demands complete autonomy for the Arab educational sector, taking over full responsibility for the allocation of funds, the content of the curricula and the appointment of teachers in Arab schools. The autonomy of the Arab educational sector in Israel would be an important step towards the improvement of Arab education in general in the country. Moreover, it would provide a chance for Arab Palestinian citizens in Israel to halt the state’s attempts to divide them into ever smaller communities in order to jeopardise the Palestinian national movement.
While these goals might appear to be utopian, it is of crucial importance that Israel starts treating all its citizens, Jews and non-Jews, equally if it wants to continue calling itself, and being called, a democracy.
The writer is at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) in Geneva, Switzerland. This research was carried out with the support of the Baladna Association for Arab Youth in Haifa.