It was hardly reported by the mainstream media, but the Palestinian woman who won the $1 million Global Teacher Prize in recognition of her innovative educational techniques for overcoming violence was herself motivated by trauma experienced under Israeli occupation.
She was chosen from among 8,000 applicants. Finalists included teachers from the UK, Pakistan, Kenya, the US, Japan, Finland, Australia and India.
The methods that earned her worldwide recognition emphasize teaching nonviolence through play as a means of helping children traumatized by exposure to violence.
Pope Francis announced her name as winner in a video message shown at Sunday’s award ceremony in Dubai, and spoke of all teachers as “builders of peace and unity,” particularly for children who grow up in the midst of war.
Remarkably, few mainstream reports have mentioned the personal trauma that motivated al-Hroub’s innovations.
But in a video for the Varkey Foundation, which sponsors the prize, al-Hroub tells how Israeli military violence traumatized her own family:
“My husband and children were shot at on their way home from school. My children saw their father injured which shocked my children and also shocked me.”
The video is at the top of this article.
Feeling isolated and lacking support for coping with the emotional impact of the incident, al-Hroub invented games at home and invited neighborhood children. As a result, her daughters’ negative behaviors changed and grades improved as they grew more confident and sociable.
Inspired by her success, al-Hroub decided to study elementary education. In the course of her studies, she adopted nonviolence as an ideal. While it’s a major focus of her teaching, she does not present it in a dogmatic way.
“When I say no to violence I pass it onto the student without them noticing it through behaviors and ethics that I teach the students through playing games,” says al-Hroub.
In comments directed at teachers in Palestine and around the world, al-Hroub says, “We must teach our children that our only weapon is knowledge and education. It is the only way we can get back what was taken from us.”
“We Palestinians are a people that suffer from all forms of obstacles and violence that is forced upon us,” adds al-Hroub. “We just want to live in peace. We want our children to enjoy their childhoods in peace.”
Al-Hroub’s comments and methods contrast sharply with the accusations often made by the Israeli government and its supporters — including Hillary Clinton when she was a US senator — that Palestinian schools and textbooks incite violence and anti-Jewish hatred.
Such claims were conclusively debunked by a 2013 US State Department-funded study which found that not only did Palestinian textbooks not demonize Jews, but that Israeli textbooks contained more instances of “extreme negative characterizations” than did Palestinian materials by a count of 27 to 6.
While Palestinians are often accused of wanting to “wipe Israel off the map,” the study found that Israeli textbooks are more often guilty of the reverse: 76 percent of the time only Israel is labeled between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, with no mention of Palestine, the Palestinian Authority, or even the internationally recognized “Green Line” that demarcates East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza as the Palestinian territories Israel occupied during the 1967 war.
By comparison, 58 percent of Palestinian textbooks contained maps that name only Palestine — without mentioning Israel — between the river and the sea.
The study ultimately found — unsurprisingly — that textbooks from each side characterize the other as the enemy while almost always positively portraying their own side’s actions.
Prior to that study, a book by Israeli education professor Nurit Peled-Elhanan examining 17 Israeli textbooks found that the materials cultivated anti-Arab racism.
In recent weeks, Israeli teachers and academics have raised renewed concerns that the Israeli education ministry, now controlled by the right-wing Jewish Home party, has altered civics textbooks to dilute emphasis on democracy and the Palestinian minority within present-day Israel in order to focus more on the Jewish religious identity of the state.
Palestinian teachers’ strike
While al-Hroub’s award could help further dispel the myth that Palestinian schools “teach hate,” it comes at a time when Palestinian teachers are protesting that they are not valued by their own political leaders.
Just last month, Palestinian schools were shut down during a teachers’ strike over their terms of employment.
Strike action was suspended on the same day as al-Hroub’s victory — though there was no apparent connection — after the Palestinian Authority promised to raise teacher salaries.
But teachers have said they are ready to resume their strike if PA promises are not kept.
The current starting salary for a Palestinian teacher is about $440 per month.
Other demands included equal retirement benefits for women and democratic elections for their labor union.
Though Rami Hamdallah, the prime minister of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, praised al-Hroub and teachers in general following her win, he had previously refused to meet with union representatives.
For her part, al-Hroub is committed to the success of the Palestinian education system, telling the Associated Press that she will use her prize money to fund scholarships to encourage students to choose careers in education.
In her acceptance speech, delivered while wearing a traditional embroidered dress, al-Hroub offered words of encouragement and challenge, declaring her victory to be “a win for all teachers in general and Palestinian teachers in particular.”
“You are the power. You are the true power,” added al-Hroub. “Believe in your ideas, work on them, convince people of your ideas, challenge the whole world.”