On June 3, Palestinian Authority Education Minister Sabri Saidam will unveil a new school curriculum for Palestinian students that he hopes will better prepare them for the job market.
Saidam, who is overseeing an overhaul of the PA education system, said the focus will be on skills training and entrepreneurship and not traditional rote learning, which has been the method for the past half century.
But while the new system looks to prepare the next generation of Palestinians for the jobs of tomorrow, what will it teach students about the conflict with Israel?
In a recent interview with The Times of Israel on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Jordan, the minister defended the PA curriculum against the longstanding Israeli accusation that it incites against the Jewish state and perpetuates the conflict. He argued that contentious parts of the PA curriculum, including maps that don’t recognize Israel, and praise of so-called “martyrs” — many of whom are considered terrorists by Israel — derive from “the ripple effects” of the conflict.
Israel defends its maps and heroes, he argued, so the Palestinians do likewise. “End the conflict and you will end this whole saga,” he said.
Addressing criticism over the absence of Holocaust studies, Saidam said incorporating the subject into the curriculum “is being considered.” He demanded, however, that Israel take reciprocal action and teach about the Nakba (“catastrophe”), a term used to refer to the dispossession of land and the consequent Palestinian refugee crisis that accompanied the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.
Teaching a Palestinian Steve Jobs?
A major part of Saidam’s reform is altering the Tawjihi — the Palestinian matriculation exam — which the minister said has been a “terror and pain” for students and parents.
In the new system, students will be allowed to retake up to four exams — similar to the British A-levels — if they fail or want to improve their grades.
Teachers will now also be keeping a portfolio for each student in which their performance will be measured, according to Saidam, “in terms of innovation, initiative taking, time management, presentation skills, leadership skills, teamwork skills, and ability to work under pressure and meet expectations.”
The idea is to foster and value creativity and other less quantifiable skills, which might lead to students becoming successful entrepreneurs, along the lines of the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs (two titans who didn’t earn college degrees).
In 2016, the unemployment rate for young Palestinians (15-29) reached 39%. Interestingly, young Palestinians without college degrees fare better in the job market than those who pursued academic studies. In this context, another important aspect of the reform is vocational and technical trading, which Saidam believes is “the way forward.”
There is currently a glut in traditional careers like law and medicine, and the minister hopes to diversify the Palestinian labor force. To do this, starting in the next school year, students in grades 7 through 9 will study nine vocational skills to “meet modern needs”: mobile phone maintenance, irrigation and agriculture, environmental solutions, modern carpentry, construction, hotel management and tourism, computer programming, computer design and systems analysis.
“The idea of filling universities with students is going to lead nowhere, especially if the specialties are duplicated and there is a state of saturation in employment,” Saidam said.
Maps and martyrs
Saidam insisted that the major critiques of the PA curriculum, such as the use of maps that don’t recognize Israel and the inclusion of so-called “martyrs,” are “ripple effects” of the conflict.
“We are in a conflict, not in a picnic. It is a world of disagreement that we live in. And this disagreement will obviously have effects and an aftermath,” he said.
When it come to the use of maps, he added, “I will only stick to the map that the Palestinians desire.”
Asked why he could not conform Palestinian maps to internationally recognized borders of Israel, he responded with an oft-repeated Palestinian canard: “According to what’s written in the Knesset, the land of Israel is from the Nile to the Euphrates. The [current] map of Israel does not reflect the final end of the aspirations of Israelis. The map is still fluid — there has not been any confirmation of where things will stand.”
Regarding the inclusion of “martyrs” in the curriculum — this sometimes comes up in elementary school textbooks — Saidam argued that both Palestinians and Israelis honor those who they view as their national heroes, no matter how the other side views them.
“It is peculiar that Israel names streets and major installations after its own founders and so-called heroes, and the Palestinians are not allowed to do so,” he said, mentioning former Israeli prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin.
“One’s man hero is another man’s terrorist,” he said.
Saidam’s ministry has also been accused of intentionally leaving the Holocaust out of the curriculum. On this point, the minister does believe there is improvement to be made.
“In the new curriculum, this matter is being considered. If it’s not part and parcel of the curriculum, then it will be something that is going to be in the instructions sent to the field,” he said. “It is part of the history of Nazi Germany, and that’s something that has to be covered in history for sure.”
He added: “It’s important that people in our schools are aware of the atrocities that Jews have been subjected to. We tell our students that the slogan ‘never again’ should be upheld and respected, and what exists now is conflict with the Israeli occupation, and not a conflict with Jews.”
Saidam, however, demanded that Israel take “reciprocal” action and teach about the Nakba.
While the PA’s education ministry is eager to implement its own reforms, back in April, it briefly suspended ties with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) over plans by the international agency to modify the curriculum.
UNRWA has over 312,000 students in its schools across the West Bank and East Jerusalem (50,000) and the Gaza Strip (262,000).
UNWRA apparently proposed potential modifications with “alternative scenarios” that the agency believed should be used in place of the PA curriculum where it failed to meet UN standards. Examples included removing maps that didn’t include Israel and pictures of Israeli soldiers abusing Palestinians. The proposed changes were leaked to the press, causing outrage among Palestinians.
Saidam explained the whole affair as a misunderstanding. According to his version, his ministry believed UNWRA was making additions to the curriculum unilaterally. But when it was “clarified” the agency was reviewing and not amending the curriculum, ‘the issue was eradicated totally,” he said.
He confirmed that no party outside of the PA reviews the curriculum before it is implemented. “Nobody reviews the curriculum. The curriculum is produced by the curriculum center. It’s written by Palestinians for Palestinians. It’s never been reviewed by foreign agencies [before publishing],” he said.
Saidam said some of UNWRA’s suggestions were “unfounded,” but some were not, and “those that align with our principles and our curriculum map, we will go ahead [with them].”
He said anyone was “invited” to submit an opinion, including UNWRA. There is an email address on every textbook where suggestions can be sent, he said.
However, there are limits to this. “As education minister, it’s my responsibility to safeguard the Palestinian narrative. We cannot give our books to the Israelis to write.”