Arab East Jerusalem schools go on strike to protest edits to ‘inciting’ textbooks

Municipality says Education Ministry backed plan to change texts deemed to support terror, but organizers say it is their right to present Palestinian viewpoint

Illustrative photo of a school in East Jerusalem. June 16, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a school in East Jerusalem. June 16, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Palestinian schools in East Jerusalem went on strike Monday to protest attempts by Israel to impose curriculum reforms, with some tens of thousands Arab students reportedly staying home.

The dispute revolves around content in some textbooks that the Education Ministry deemed is incitement and demanded be removed. The Jerusalem municipality edited and reprinted the textbooks to remove the problematic content, the Haaretz daily reported.

Among the content removed from the books were Palestinian flags, pictures of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and texts about the Palestinian right of return, the Ynet news site reported, citing protest organizers. References to “prisoners and refugees” were changed to “teachers and women,” they complained, and a sentence about the Muslim commandment to “carry out jihad” was removed.

“We want our children to learn our Palestinian curriculum, and it’s our right that [the curriculum] be in all Jerusalem schools,” Ramadan Taha, a spokesperson for the striking schools, told Ynet.

He claimed 95 percent of Arab school in East Jerusalem were participating, though Haaretz said only some 60% of the 117,000 Arab pupils in the city were kept home.

Organizers have threatened to keep the schools shut until the city backs down from a plan to earmark extra funds to schools that adopt the Israeli-approved textbooks, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

The Jerusalem Municipality said in a statement that it is “making great efforts to enable all pupils in the city to study as they want, giving them the option to choose the Israeli curriculum without forcing it upon them.”

Illustrative image of Palestinian schoolgirls in their small playground in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat, on March 30, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The municipality claimed that the strike was declared by “political entities in East Jerusalem, and not by the schools or the parent teacher associations.”

It said that the protest is about instructions from the Education Ministry, backed by the municipality, that suitable textbooks should meet “the standards of the UNESCO education charter, having no incitement in study material.”

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton claimed on her Twitter account that the edited texts had portrayed Israeli soldiers as murderers and glorified terrorists, threatening to pull operating licenses from schools that did not get rid of such material.

“We won’t allow schools we fund to push incitement, hatred and terror,” she wrote.

In July, Shasha-Biton gave six schools in East Jerusalem a year to remove what she said was incitement against Israel and the Israeli army from curriculum, or they would lose authorization to operate.

Illustrative: A Palestinian class at the Salem School, East Jerusalem, December 6, 2017. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

The schools were found to be using textbooks that included “the glorification of prisoners and their armed struggle against the State of Israel, conspiracy theories about withholding treatment from patients and intentional harm to medical staff, accusations of [Israel] being responsible for the water crisis in the Palestinian Authority and grave claims about killings, displacements and military massacres,” the Education Ministry said in a statement at the time.

Israel has for years attempted to change what is taught in Arab East Jerusalem schools. In 2018, the government launched a five-year plan that aimed to pump NIS 445 million ($122.8 million) into overhauling East Jerusalem schools, which had suffered from decades of neglect. But nearly 47 percent of the funds were to be conditioned on schools moving to the Israeli education system, drawing complaints from locals and rights groups.

The plan has tripled the number of students using the Israeli curriculum, according to Haaretz, bringing it from 5,000 students five years ago to 16,000 currently.

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