How Israel weaponizes education in occupied Golan Heights

Druze residents of the Ioccupied Syrian Golan Heights gather to contact relatives in Syria.

Ammar Awad Reuters

Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, classrooms in the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights have become a target for concerted Zionist propaganda and Israeli military recruitment efforts.

The 26,000 Syrian Druze residents of the Heights have long resisted assimilationist overtures from Tel Aviv. Prior to the 2011 unrest in Syria, less than 10 percent accepted the offer of Israeli citizenship, first made when the Golan was formally annexed in 1981.

However, the war that imperils Druze communities a few yards over the boundary has spurred newly intensified Israeli efforts to entice Druze youth deeper into Israeli life, according to a new report by the Al-Marsad Arab Human Rights Centre, exclusively seen by The Electronic Intifada.

Syria’s conflict has provoked a rise in Israeli citizenship applications among the Golan Druze, from an average of just 11 a year to more than 100 in 2015 and then to nearly 200 in 2016 – a significant increase, though still a modest number.

And Israel has sought to exploit this unease through extracurricular entities like the Israel Druze Boy and Girl Scout Association and the General Federation of Working and Studying Youth, or No’al. Both funnel graduates to the Israeli military, and both have expanded in the Golan as the Syrian conflict has spread to the United Nations buffer zone between the Israeli-occupied territory and Syria. A 2015 report on the No’al website touts its first Druze group, but also evinces dismay at the lack of Druze participation in Zionist youth activities, vowing to correct this.

Decades of deceit

Wael Tarabieh, 50, first experienced the Israeli-dominated Golan education system as a student and the son of a Druze schoolmaster in the fraught 1970s and 1980s. Now he has two children going through the system.

“It’s ridiculous [for] Syrian kids to be Zionist within their own homeland,” Tarabieh told The Electronic Intifada. He and other parents on school committees have spent the last two years lobbying through meetings with teachers, in public debates and the local media to keep No’al and the Scouts out of the Golan educational system.

The school committees have succeeded in blocking the two organizations from launching programs during school hours, Tarabieh says.

But from a promotional campaign which filmed Druze youth reading a script describing themselves as “living in the north of Israel,” through propagandizing trips to the occupied West Bank under the misnomer of “the desert of Judea and Samaria,” to a visit to a Druze holy place in the Galilee where a cleric spouted anti-Sunni rhetoric, young children like Tarabieh’s are now regularly experiencing fresh propaganda efforts.

Another link to Arab heritage was severed with the outbreak of war. Previously, hundreds of Golan Druze students were permitted to cross the boundary each year for government-funded study in Damascus.

With war raging now, Druze students are turning in increasing numbers to foreign universities. Israeli university tuition fees are often forbidding not least since Syrian Druze do not benefit from grants or scholarships offered to those who have served in the Israeli military. But the vast majority of Golan Druze who refuse to relinquish their Syrian identity hold only a laissez-passer reading “citizenship: undefined,” also posing an obstacle to studying abroad.

“Some EU states, such as Ukraine, are demanding an Israeli passport,” Tarabieh said. “And in all cases if you have Israeli citizenship it’s much easier, because [now] we have this travel document which is [seen as] suspicious all around the world.”

A history of propaganda

The attempts to militarize and assimilate Druze youth have precedents. Tarabieh told The Electronic Intifada that when he was “in primary school we even celebrated Israeli Independence Day.”

That celebration is synonymous across the Arab world with the day marking the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” in 1948 with the displacement of more than 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and lands and the massacres of thousands of civilians as the Israeli state burst violently into life.

The image of Arab children encouraged to cheerlead the exodus of their kin gives a picture of the last 50 years of what Al-Marsad calls the “Forgotten Occupation” of the Golan, the title of a new report examining “discriminatory Israeli policies” aimed at the full economic, cultural and political annexation of the Golan to Israel.

For many Syrian families, the expulsion of some 130,000 people from the Golan in the 1967 War was an equally catastrophic event. Thereafter only the mostly Druze inhabitants of five villages in the far north of the Golan remained, today numbering about 26,000.

Israel swiftly seized control of the classroom, according to Al-Marsad. Head teachers were fired and replaced by stooges directly appointed by and answerable to the military occupation, with ties to the Israeli security apparatus.

“Two Israeli soldiers taught me English and Hebrew,” Tarabieh recalled. “Both were Druze soldiers [on active] service, from Galilee villages in the north of Israel.”

This uniformed presence in the classroom was only the most obvious manifestation of a subtle attempt to divorce the Syrian Druze here from their Arab heritage. From 1975 onward, control of the education system was handed to a separate Druze authority.

Ever since, the Israeli authorities have ensured students in the Golan focus on Druze authors and historical figures, sit for Arabic examinations with Druze students separate from other Arabic language speakers, and go on exchange programs only with Druze- and Jewish-Israeli schools (as opposed to those for Palestinian citizens of Israel).

“It’s not a direct pressure on teachers,” Tarabieh said. “The curriculum is built to portray the Israeli narrative of history. Palestine is not mentioned here, [nor] the wars this century between Israel and the Arab states.”

Severing of Arab identity

As Tarabieh pointed out, a focus on Druze heritage is actually intended to “separate us from our roots, from our Arab citizenship.” Israeli educators align Druze in the Golan with their brethren across northern Israel. Druze men are required to serve in the military and some 60 percent do or have.

“It’s a narrative that you, as Druze, are different. You are not Arab, you are not Syrian, because we have Druze friends that serve in the army,” Tarabieh said.

Tarabieh recalled “embarrassment” in the classroom as teachers glossed over the region’s actual history, while he said of his own father that “there was a sense of fear … [Teachers] had to act by the book in order to keep their jobs.”

During the 1980s, Al-Marsad finds, members of the Golan Academic Association, a group comprising academics and those interested in politics, were even detained, interrogated and imprisoned for organizing summer camps and extracurricular educational programs that painted a fuller picture of Druze identity and regional geopolitics.

More often, as Druze mother Fadwa Abujabel Shoufi told Al-Marsad, it is “left to the parents” to explain Syrian heritage to their children. But the forcible displacement of Golan Heights Syrians who, along with their descendants, now number up to 500,000 – and the imposition of viciously restrictive blockades on travel between Israel and Syria – has broken up families and made it more difficult for older generations to pass on this knowledge.

Tarabieh compared Israel to both the Islamic State, for fostering sectarianism among Druze youth, and Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, for “using the fears of minorities [to] pretend they are their defender in this conflict.”

What is certain is that the Druze of the occupied Golan have a foothold in a pivotal region, and have long learned that even friendly overtures can mask an intention to absorb and thus eradicate their identity.

Matt Broomfield is a freelance journalist. He reports for VICE, the New Statesman and the New Arab, as well as publishing poetry and fiction. Twitter: @hashtagbroom. Website: mattbroomfield.contently.com

Tags