Forced Israeli curriculum violates Palestinians’ education rights

Thousands of Palestinian children in East Jerusalem face crowded, sub-standard classrooms while Israel attempts to censor Palestinian identity in school. 

Ryan Rodrick Beiler The Electronic Intifada

Palestinian activists, parents and students are fighting against the Israeli authorities’ recent push to impose an Israeli curriculum on East Jerusalem schools, which they say threatens the city’s Palestinian culture and identity.

“Through the move of distortion in the Palestinian curriculum, the Israeli occupation authorities are willing to complete the project of achieving total domination over both the Palestinian land and the Palestinian human while depriving him from his culture and his history, thus tampering with the collective identity of Palestinians,” said Abdel Karim Lafi, the head of the Parents’ Committee Union, during a press conference in East Jerusalem in September.

“Our Palestinian curriculum expresses our past, present, and future. It fulfills what we need as an occupied Arab Palestinian community, and any [meddling] with that curriculum by the occupation influences it negatively,” he added.

In March of this year, the Jerusalem municipality sent a letter to private schools in East Jerusalem that receive allocations from the Israeli authorities. The letter stated that at the start of the 2011-2012 academic year, the schools would be obliged to purchase and only use textbooks prepared by the Jerusalem Education Administration (JEA), a joint body of the municipality and the Israeli ministry of education.

The move to introduce the Israeli curriculum came after Israeli parliament (Knesset) member Alex Miller from the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, who heads the Knesset’s education committee, stated that in East Jerusalem, “the whole curriculum should and must be Israeli.”

In addition to using Israeli textbooks, the Israeli ministry of education requested that the Israeli Declaration of Independence be on display in both public and private schools in East Jerusalem.

“That means that they are trying to promote the Israeli story at the expense of the Palestinian story. If we talk about Jerusalem, Jerusalem is occupied like any other part of the West Bank so what’s going on is illegal and Israel is trying to promote the annexation of Jerusalem,” said Zakaria Odeh, director of the Civil Coalition to Defend Palestinians’ Rights in East Jerusalem.

“The Jerusalem municipality and Israeli ministry of education are trying to promote Israeli politics and culture and identity. That’s what the Declaration of Independence is talking about. They are trying to spread these ideas among the Palestinian students at school. This is at the expense of the people [who] don’t have the right to express their identity, their culture,” Odeh told The Electronic Intifada.

Lack of resources crippling education

After Israel illegally annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, Palestinians in the city followed the Jordanian educational system. Then, shortly after the signing of the Oslo II agreement, schools in East Jerusalem began using the curriculum of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Today, four different authorities govern the education system in East Jerusalem: the JEA, the Islamic Waqf, the private sector, and UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees.

According to 2010-2011 statistics provided by the East Jerusalem Education Directorate, the JEA runs 50 schools in East Jerusalem, which are attended by 38,785 students, or 48 percent of the total number of Palestinian students in the city. An additional 22,500 Palestinian students attend 68 different private schools in East Jerusalem.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and Jerusalem-based organization Ir Amim released a report on the education system in East Jerusalem last year (“Failed Grade: Palestinian Education System in East Jerusalem 2010,” August 2010).

The report found that more than 4,000 Palestinian children living in East Jerusalem were not enrolled in school, and that over 1,000 classrooms were missing. Additionally, East Jerusalem schools suffered from a systematic lack of resources and facilities, which negatively influenced the desire and motivation of Palestinian students to complete their studies, the report found.

“Thousands of children do not attend school, and even those who attend school, do so in crowded and substandard classrooms, where the academic level is poor. The school dropout rate is 50 percent and only a few graduates go on to attain higher education. Only a true policy change accompanied by appropriate budgeting can bring about the necessary change and offer the children of Jerusalem a better future,” the report stated.

Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem are entitled to receive access to public education since they live under Israeli control in what is considered under international law to be occupied territory.

“The compulsory education law requires Israel to provide education services to all Palestinian children in East Jerusalem from kindergarten to 12th grade. The ministry of education and the municipality of Jerusalem recognize this duty and have even clearly stated it themselves during various legal proceedings over the past decade,” the “Failed Grade” report found.

“However, an overview of the policy of the ministry of education and the municipality of Jerusalem on this issue shows that their recognition of this commitment is not translated into actual policy.”

Protected under international law

Palestinians in East Jerusalem are protected by the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that, “the Occupying Power shall, with the cooperation of the national and local authorities, facilitate the proper working of all institutions devoted to the care and education of children.”

Article 13 of the International Convention on Economic and Social Rights also specifies that states must “undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents … to choose for their children schools … [and] ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.”

In February of this year, the Israeli high court gave the education ministry and Jerusalem municipality five years to improve the level of state education in East Jerusalem. The court also ordered the Israeli authorities to bear the cost of tuition for students attending “recognized but unofficial” schools due to the shortage of classrooms.

“It appears that the right of many children in East Jerusalem to receive an official education for free is not being fulfilled and at this point the authorities are not fully meeting their legal obligation to give every child in Israel a free official education,” wrote Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch in the ruling, as quoted in a report by Ir Amim and ACRI (“The East Jerusalem School System — Annual Status Report,” September 2011).

“The violation of the right to equality in education in East Jerusalem is not the plight of a few. It is the plight of a significant portion of an entire sector of the population, which is not able to exercise a basic right it is afforded by law and the constitutional values of Israeli law,” Beinisch continued.

According to Zakaria Odeh, the Israeli authorities have done little so far to improve the system, and devastating restrictions remain in place.

“The municipality doesn’t allow Palestinians to build new schools, so there has been no increase in the [number of] Palestinian schools in East Jerusalem. There has been a restriction on building, so the schools are using buildings, which were meant to be for housing, for residential [purposes]. Especially in the Old City, most of these buildings are more than 100, 200 years old. They need renovations. They are not appropriate for education,” Odeh said.

Odeh explained that the Jerusalem municipality and Israeli ministry of education are using the fact that they provide funding to private schools in East Jerusalem to impose the Israeli curriculum on those schools. To prevent this from happening, he said that the PA should step in and support the Palestinian education system in East Jerusalem.

“We talked to the [PA’s] education minister and the PA prime minister’s office in order to try to ask them to provide some support because the Israelis are targeting the private schools because these schools get financial support from the municipality,” he said.

“The PA has a responsibility to provide financial support for the education system, for the schools in East Jerusalem.”

Israeli curriculum threatens Palestinian identity

In June, Ir Amim sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denouncing the government’s plan to force an Israeli curriculum on Palestinian private schools.

“The right of the children of East Jerusalem to an education by their culture and national identity is also consistent with the basic right to education recognized in Israeli law and their right to equality in education, freedom and defense of their identity. Israel is obligated not only to avoid violating those rights but also has the positive obligation to support their realization,” the letter stated.

According to Abdel Karim Lafi, Israel’s attempt to introduce its own curriculum against the will of Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem reflects the larger goal of using education to harm Palestinian culture and identity.

“We call upon all the student frameworks and parents’ committees in all neighborhoods to unite, organize and take a fast action to stop this threatening plan, which forms the most dangerous battle against our Jerusalemite culture,” Lafi said.

He urged the Palestinian Authority to fulfill its obligations of providing education and resources to Palestinian Jerusalemites. He also called on Arab states, the US and Europe to protect Palestinians from attempts to alter the curriculum in East Jerusalem.

“This protection must include preserving Palestinians’ rights, culture, and civilization, consequently their right to confront the attempts to ‘Israelize’ the Palestinian curriculum in the schools of the city, as these attempts violate the most basic human rights of this nation, particularly their right in education which comes along with their needs and aspirations,” he said.

“This is [also] a message to the Israeli society and the Israeli leaders that we the people know how to maintain our curriculum and save the Palestinian face of Jerusalem.”

Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a reporter and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. More of her work can be found at