Education is a dangerous thing. The school curriculum and the teachers who impart it determine, to a great extent, the knowledge of an entire generation of Israelis.
That’s why MK Youssef Jabareen of the Joint (Arab) List, a law professor who specialized in minority rights at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, would like to see Arab citizens gain control over their own curriculum. If he had his way, the Arab education stream, which teaches 28% of Israel’s students from kindergarten to grade 12, would enjoy the same level of autonomy given to the National Religious stream, which accounts for 17% of Israel’s schoolchildren.
On behalf of his party, on May 25 Jabareen proposed an amendment to the National Education Law of 1953, outlining — for the first time in Israeli history — the goals of Arab education.
The amendment to Article 2 of the law includes innocuous generalities such as the need to provide “a safe and enjoyable learning environment,” but also more controversial elements such as “deepening the Arab-Palestinian identity [of students] as a national identity proud of its cultural achievements.” The draft law also calls on Arab education in Israel to foster “cohesion among the Palestinian people, strengthening of the Palestinian memory and narrative and clinging to the historical political rights of the Palestinian people.”
Those principles — which, according to Jabareen, form the credo of his party on Arab education — are a far cry from the current state of affairs in local Arab schools, where the poetry of Hayim Nahman Bialik and Shaul Tchernichovsky are taught alongside the Hebrew Bible. But where the works of Palestinian national poets, such as Mahmoud Darwish and Samih al-Qasim, are nowhere to be found.
“Palestinian students are not exposed to their narrative at all,” Jabareen told The Times of Israel. “The only narrative they are exposed to is the Jewish-Zionist one.”
The most obvious discrepancy between those two narratives takes place in history class. Textbooks teaching the war of 1948 refer to the event exclusively as an expression of Jewish political independence, not to the national catastrophe experienced by Arabs. The word “Nakba,” which denotes that sense of disaster, is never used in the Arab textbooks sanctioned by the Israeli Education Ministry.
A lone Arab textbook for elementary school — acknowledging the “Nakba” alongside “Independence” — was revoked by then-education minister Gideon Sa’ar, Jabareen said.
Literature is another touchy subject. When Umm al-Fahm native Jabareen went to high school in Nazareth, he was taught by renowned Palestinian poet Shakib Jahshan. Despite being worthy of inclusion in the Arabic literature curriculum, Jahshan was banned from teaching his own work as he was considered “too national,” remarked Jabareen.
“It was absurd,” he added. “So, as head of the student union, I came to an arrangement with Jahshan that he would teach us [his poetry] after school hours. I told him: ‘Listen, this makes no sense!'”
Confined to the study of either medieval poetry or mindless modern love songs, Arab students are growing alienated from their living language, and as a result, from their own Arab culture, Jabareen argued.
‘Language is the mark of identity and culture for any ethnic group,’ Jabareen said
“Language is the mark of identity and culture for any ethnic group,” he said. “When you’re alienated from your language, you feel disconnected from your cultural heritage.”
The teaching of the Arabic language in Israeli Arab schools is “technical and functional,” lacking the cultural depth provided by original contemporary literature, usually considered too nationalistic for Israeli sensibilities, he contended.
Autonomy in education is the best remedy for the Arab sense of alienation, Jabareen said. He would like to appropriate the model of the National Religious education stream, which, through its own Educational Council, controls the appointment of teachers and influences curriculum.
“I would adopt that model with open arms,” he said.
But Jabareen realizes that educational reform in Arab schools is greatly dependent on a structural overhaul of the entire system, and its priorities.
Last year, the Bank of Israel concluded that NIS 5 billion ($1.3 billion) is needed to equalize the Arab and Jewish education systems, making up for thousands of missing classrooms and teaching hours. According to data released by the Education Ministry in 2013, Jewish pupils on average receive 2.9% more school hours than their Arab peers.
That gap manifests itself in achievements. Arab students are approximately half as likely as Jews to receive a matriculation diploma; and even those who do, often don’t have the grades to enter university.
But Jabareen’s legislation doesn’t attempt to solve all those problems. Admitting that the draft law is unlikely to pass in its current form, he nevertheless hopes it will start a conversation on the subject.
“It’s important to present what we want, not only condemn what we don’t,” he said.