What Isn’t Taught in Israeli Schools
A Palestinian mother’s perspective.
June 10, 2021
Jun 10, 2021
14 Min read time
A Palestinian mother’s perspective.
On a Tuesday morning last month, a few days after the uprisings in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah intensified, my daughter called me. The school principal, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, denied her and other students entry to the school because they were wearing black and covering their shoulders with the Palestinian keffiyeh. “Go home or call your parents to bring your uniform!” the principal said. The kids were dressed in solidarity with Palestinians in Jerusalem and Gaza. It might seem odd that their actions would so alarm a Palestinian school principal in Israel, but the incident encapsulates the paradoxes of Palestinian life there.
Israel has always administered and maintained two, segregated schooling systems: one for the Jewish, Hebrew-speaking majority and one for the Palestinian, Arabic-speaking minority.
Israel has always administered and maintained two, segregated schooling systems: one for the Jewish, Hebrew-speaking majority and one for the Palestinian, Arabic-speaking minority. While this arrangement might seem to accommodate sociocultural differences, it in fact upholds the divides that privilege the Jewish majority. Unlike Jewish students who read the literature and poetry of the Zionist movement celebrating the establishment of Israel in 1948, Palestinian students do not read the Palestinian literary classics taught throughout the Arab world. Nor do they learn about the Nakba or Palestinian history. They are required to learn about Jewish values and culture. Indeed, although Palestinians use Arabic as the language of instruction in their schools, Palestinian students spend many more class hours on the study of Hebrew, Jewish history, and Jewish culture than they do on Arabic literature and history. Moreover, right-wing Israeli politicians routinely defame Palestine’s poet laureate, Mahmoud Darwish, whose work they have tried to ban in both schooling systems. Israel’s former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman once called Darwish’s poems “fuel for terror attacks.”
The Israeli state has always perceived the Palestinian national-cultural identity as a threat to the Jewish nature of Israel. The education system thus serves a dual role: as a nationalizing apparatus for Jews and as a denationalizing apparatus for Palestinians. It does so by promoting Zionist narratives and erasing the Palestinian national identity. To show solidarity with the plight of Palestinians is to defy the main tenet of the Israeli education system.
In other words, the school principal was right: the symbolic gesture of my daughter and her schoolmates really was an act of resistance. The students insisted that they be allowed in, and the principal eventually acceded. But that was as far as the school staff was ready to go. When students initiated a discussion of the events unfolding in Jerusalem and Gaza, the principal and teachers shut it down. “This is an educational institution; we are not allowed to discuss political matters!” they responded.
The following day, my son called me to report that right-wing Jewish activists were targeting Palestinian students at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, where he studies data science engineering. I sensed the panic in his voice, though he was desperately trying to hide it. He asked to come home. While I’ve grown a thick skin to cope with the continuous harassment, discrimination, and racism that I have experienced, I was not prepared for this horrifying moment: the understanding that I might not be able to protect my children when their lives are in danger simply because they are Palestinians. The hour-long drive to Haifa seemed endless. Neither I nor my husband exchanged a word. We listened to a local radio station as it played Julia Boutros’s song, “Ana betnafas horiya, ma tekta ane elhawa”—“I breathe freedom, don’t cut off my air”. Finally, we arrived. “How are you?” I asked without thinking. His face was pale and his hands were trembling; my trivial question was suddenly unbearable. I felt both relief and horror on the drive home.
Whether we maintain our separate systems of education or merge them, Palestinians and Israeli Jews must learn of both narratives, cultures, and identities.
To be a Palestinian parent in Israel is to feel broken in two. The parental drive to protect your kids from life-threatening danger lives in tension with the ethical drive to raise them as dignified human beings who are proud of who they are and where they come from. Maintaining a sense of normalcy requires navigating these commitments in a life full of conflicts. We speak Arabic as our mother tongue but conduct our daily activities—education, work, medical services, and shopping—in the state’s official language, Hebrew. We identify with one history, but we are forced to learn and teach our children a history that the Ministry of Education imposes on us and that invalidates our own experience as Palestinians. We strive to liberate ourselves from cycles of victimization, to speak up and make our voices heard, but our victimizers continue to describe our existence as citizens of Israel as “a problem.” We are constantly called upon to justify our existence in this place, as if we came here of our own volition and were not born to this land. Most importantly, we are expected by the state to be good, law-abiding citizens while being officially and practically treated as second-class citizens in a country that defines itself as a Nation-State of the Jewish People. And there are conflicts to negotiate within our own community, which is religiously and culturally diverse. This welcome diversity can pose its own challenges.
As I write, I can hear the voices of Israeli Jewish parents calling attention to their own suffering and hardship. It is true that how I feel as a Palestinian parent does not invalidate the suffering of others. On the contrary, I believe that through our common sense of parenthood we should be able to open up an affective space for new possibilities and a better, fairer future. Living in a society saturated with conflict has short- and long-term emotional, social, and even existential implications for everyone. All of the citizens of this state must allow our humanity to reign supreme, or else—as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once warned of racial divides in the United States—we will “perish together as fools.”
Today, weeks after May’s violence in Israel and Palestine, voices from both sides call “to mend the wounds.” But there can be no mending, no remedy, without widespread acknowledgement of the profound inequality between Palestinians and Jews in Israel. In the absence of such acknowledgement, we can work toward it by uncovering the ideological frameworks that bolster it. Nancy Fraser calls these efforts “transformative remedies.” I believe critical thought about the Israeli school system is the transformative remedy par excellence, and I try to take my part in this hopeful project by advancing transformative pedagogies.
• • •
My own education and my experience as a teacher are the wellspring for both my hope in pedagogy and my suspicion toward it. I was born in Nazareth to a middle-class Palestinian family. Both of my parents were born before the Palestinian Nakba in 1948—my father in Nazareth, my mother in Haifa. My parents always believed that, despite difficulties, dialogue and collaboration are our best human resources. To sustain their Palestinian identity, they made sure that my siblings and I learned about our Palestinian roots, as well as our identity as Israeli citizens. We read Palestinian literature and heard the community’s stories; we listened to Eastern-Arabic music, ate Palestinian food, and followed Arab media; and, crucially, we spoke Palestinian Arabic.
As both a Palestinian and an Israeli citizen, I call for a basic transformation of the education system in Israel.
My upbringing fostered in me a respect for learning about, learning from, and appreciating other people in the world, people who were different from myself. I chose to major in English, as I believed that the discipline would open the door to opportunities across cultures. Soon, my fascination with English and everything positive that I thought it represented turned into critical inquiry. While working as an English teacher in Palestinian high schools located in the Upper Galilee, I was required to use textbooks and literature authorized by Israel’s Ministry of Education. Through these texts, I started to question cultural representation in English educational discourses and their connection to the social reproduction of power and dominance. My hardest lesson was the realization that, despite my enthusiasm for English, I simply did not exist in English textbooks. As Adrienne Rich so perfectly expressed, it was “a moment of psychic disequilibrium”—“as if” I was looking “into a mirror and saw nothing.”
That revelation sparked my scholarly work on ways to combat the ideological reproduction in educational discourses and facilitate social transformation. I believe that our pedagogical practices must first foster the ability in students—and educators—to engage in a critical dialogue. Inspired by Paulo Freire, I understand dialogue to be an existential need that provides a way of knowing and not merely learning. Our ultimate ethical mission as educators, who work and live in societies troubled by long-standing conflicts, is to turn dialogue into a philosophy of life. When students engage in dialogue, critical reflection and action become routine, not only around urgent issues in their own lives, but also around others’ needs and hardships.
Enabling Israeli students—both Palestinians and Israeli Jews—to examine critically how we and they differ, what we and they share, and how all of us must take responsibility to affect social change constitutes the basis of a transformative critical pedagogy. Instead of continuing to treat the other as a “problem,” students must learn how to accept the other as “different” but also, importantly, as equal. Teaching students how to challenge dominant practices is not simply an exercise in diversity training: its purpose is to create agents of change.
• • •
One may wonder whether such a dialogue is possible. I would say that it is necessary. Despite the asymmetrical power relations on display in the tragic events last month, people from both sides revealed disturbing levels of intolerance, racism, and hatred. Yet I believe that students can learn to see the other as different while simultaneously equal and equally worthy. At the heart of the problem today are the exclusive narratives that each side tells. The Israeli narrative, a celebration of independence, is for Palestinians the opposite: the narrative of the Nakba, the catastrophe. Our task is acknowledging and bringing these narratives into dialogue.
At the heart of the problem today are the exclusive narratives that each side tells. Our task is acknowledging and bringing these narratives into dialogue.
During early Arab history, according to Muhammad Abū Zahra’s accounts, religious communities (Jews, Christians, Moslems) were competing against one another to gain control over Arab lands. It was through jadal, the art of controversy, that these communities were able to settle their disputes. The Moroccan feminist writer Fatema Mernissi contends that “where jadal is used, force is unnecessary.” At the core of a transformative critical pedagogy are both dialogue, as a philosophical tenet, and jadal, as a pedagogical technique.
To that end, I share my own story. Having been raised with the narrative of the Nakba in my home and community, I always felt responsible for passing it on to my children, as my parents did to me and my siblings. It was critical to our identity, and I feared that without that narrative my own children would grow up without a feeling of belonging and self-worth. Yet knowing that Palestinian identity is avoided and silenced in Israeli public spaces, I, like other Palestinians in Israel, have nurtured my children’s sense of self as Palestinians mainly in the privacy of our home. This fear is not ungrounded. Israeli institutions have tried to ensure the denationalization of the Palestinian community through a sophisticated system of surveillance that was instilled in Palestinian schools. Surveillance directly prevailed during the military rule that Israel imposed on the Palestinian community between 1948 and 1966, which restricted their movement, political organization, and access to means of livelihood. Remnants of this period continue to govern relations between the Palestinian community and state institutions to this day. Indeed, the politics of the military rule operate in the form of a discursive regime deeply enshrined in the Palestinian consciousness, limiting what Palestinians can express about their identity and experience.
The politics of the military rule operate as a discursive regime deeply enshrined in the Palestinian consciousness, limiting what Palestinians can express about their identity and experience.
The incidents of the last few weeks, however, deeply shook my belief that cultivating and expressing our identity in private was either sufficient or ethical. Why, as a parent, is “adapting” to being surveilled an adequate objection to the public erasure of our narrative? What responsibility lies on my shoulders, as an academic and pedagogue, in making the voice of my children and community heard and fighting for our right to teach our children, freely and proudly, about who we are and where we come from? And what responsibility to enable such voices lies on the shoulders of Israeli Jewish academics and pedagogues, who hold most of the power in Israeli academic and decision-making institutions? Can we sincerely speak of our desire to bring about “peace” and “co-existence” while knowing that only one narrative is legitimized and the other is negated?
I am aware that these questions are not easy for either side. We all, Israeli Jews and Palestinians, are driven by fear. We fear that to acknowledge the other’s narrative invalidates our own. We fear that opening the door to such discussions might eventually lead to fundamental compromises (or what we think is fundamental). We fear stepping out of our comfort zones because resolving conflicts requires full dedication and massive efforts. We fear discovering the humanity of the other when we’ve accepted the dominant systems of othering. We fear the heavy price we might have to pay for speaking up against the Israeli institutions, which have often persecuted both Palestinians and Israelis who support Palestinians in their struggle for social justice and equality. In short, we fear social transformation.
• • •
But it is precisely through the effort to break the shackles of these fears that we can promote a transformative critical pedagogy. Palestinian teachers, for example, might start by allowing their students to openly and freely ask and learn about their history and identity as Palestinians. Israeli Jewish teachers might also start by helping their students to question the one-sidedness of the narratives that they learn in school. Engaging in these dialogues might challenge the way school textbooks and curricula tend to erase the Palestinian narrative.
We all, Israeli Jews and Palestinians, are driven by fear. We fear that to acknowledge the other’s narrative invalidates our own.
I don’t claim to know how these strategies will play out. Yet I’m confident that overcoming our fears will allow us to clearly see the underlying frameworks that generate social injustices. To carry out this work, we need teachers committed to transforming themselves and their schools—students and parents, as well as the broader communities—from being passive receivers of dominant ideologies to becoming creative agents of social change. Transformative teachers require serious consideration of the ethics of their vocation as well as their role as mediators of knowledge construction about the other.
As both a Palestinian and an Israeli citizen, a mother and a critical pedagogue, a minority member and a social agent, I call for a basic transformation of the education system in Israel. Whether we maintain our separate systems or merge them into one, Palestinians and Israeli Jews must learn of both narratives, cultures, and identities. I also call on the Jewish Israeli educators and academics to pay attention to me and my community’s troubled voice. Listening is a condition for dialogue between equals.
Dialogue doesn’t imply agreement, of course. Palestinians and Israeli Jews need not accept each other’s narrative as their own, but they can nevertheless understand it and appreciate its significance for those who live by it. We must be ready to entertain these tensions between our worldviews, deep and frightening as they might be, if we are to acknowledge each other at all.
Palestinians and Israeli Jews need not accept each other’s narrative as their own, but they can nevertheless understand it and appreciate its significance for those who live by it.
My whole life I have been proud to be a Palestinian who is part of Israeli society, and I have worked to make this identity possible for others. When my daughter’s protest was shut down and my son’s life threatened, nothing seemed possible anymore. The danger of being Palestinian in Israel became so palpable that I felt the ground opening beneath me. Writing this, I have rediscovered my conviction. I do not know how to achieve equality for Palestinians, but I know that we are capable of living in this land as partners. One important first step is adopting transformative pedagogies in the Israeli educational system. They must be implemented by Palestinians and focused on their agency and their ability to take part as fully engaged citizens of Israel.
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June 10, 2021
14 Min read time