A strike by staff and students at 47 Palestinian Christian schools in Israel had been taking place for a few weeks before the American broadcaster NBC took notice.
According to NBC’s headline, the protest was about “discrimination.” That it felt the need to put quotation marks around “discrimination” was indicative of how the mainstream media in the United States continuously fail to acknowledge that Israel is, fundamentally, a racist state.
The Christian schools represent some of the few independent spaces for Palestinian political, cultural and economic life within Israel. So the cuts in government funding that triggered the strike must be understood as the latest move in the Israeli assault on Palestinians’ right to education.
Its effects can be seen in the recent cuts (the schools have seen the proportion of their operating costs covered by the state fall from 70 percent to 29 percent), the violation of the freedom of movement of schoolchildren and teachers in the occupied West Bank and harassment by Israeli settlers and soldiers, the targeting and arrest of politically active students, the raiding of Palestinian universities at will and the firing of tear gas into campuses, the bombing of schools in Gaza, the denial of exit visas and travel permits to Palestinians wishing to study abroad or even elsewhere in Palestine and of entry visas to Palestinians with American and other citizenship who wish to teach in their homeland.
These assaults on education are part and parcel of a larger structural assault on the very heart of Palestinian social life. Meanwhile, semi-private Jewish religious schools, which fall in the same category as the Christian Palestinian schools, have seen their government funding increase to 100 percent of their operating costs.
The historical context of today’s crisis in Palestinian education is critically important for a full understanding of why the recent cuts are viewed as the latest attack in the ongoing assault on Palestinian culture, identity and leadership. It also helps explain the Palestinian call for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel, until educational apartheid is ended, as well as the broader demand that the Palestinians’ right to education be guaranteed.
The Nakba had a devastating impact on Palestinians and their education, and as with all examples of Palestinian dispossession, the harm is ongoing.
In the mid-1940s, there were 478 schools governed by the British Mandate authorities in Palestine. There were also 317 private schools, of which 135 were Islamic religious schools and 182 were Christian religious schools.
In 1948, after the establishment of Israel, only 45 Arab elementary schools and one high school survived. Islamic private schools were eliminated, because Islamic Waqf endowments — religious endowments by a Muslim council established in 1921 — were terminated. Waqf property was considered “absentee property” according to Israel’s law and these schools came under the jurisdiction of the state.
Israel allowed some of the Christian schools to reopen on condition that they operated under the auspices of the state’s education ministry. Until 1957, Israel did not recognize any of the Christian schools or their certificates.
Today, Palestinian schools in racially segregated towns and villages inside Israel are severely underfunded. Some Palestinians don’t get any education services at all.
More than 90,000 Palestinian Bedouins who live in villages “unrecognized” by Israel in the Naqab (Negev) and Galilee regions do not receive the full services normally provided by the state, including education. Even when such villages are granted “recognized” status by the Israeli government, as happened in 2003 to Abu Tulul and seven other villages, the authorities have dragged their feet, delaying the lengthy process to build a school.
Educational apartheid in Israel must be understood for what it is: an attempt at cultural genocide. Under the United Nations’ 1948 definition of genocide, this crime may include imposing conditions of life on a racial or ethnic group with the intent of wholly or partly destroying that group.
Denying essential services to Palestinians, or forcing them to accept a lower quality of education than provided for Israeli Jews, fits that description.
With the exception of a handful of mixed schools, schools in Israel serve Jewish Israelis and Palestinians separately. This separation is within secular government-funded schools, not just the religious schools.
Discrimination in East Jerusalem
Because East Jerusalem has been illegally annexed by Israel since 1967, the educational situation for Palestinians there is in a bizarre category of its own.
Separation and unequal funding policies governing the education sector in East Jerusalem are designed to maintain the economic gap between the Jewish (largely settler) population and Palestinians there. The infrastructure is pitiful, creating unsuitable conditions for learning, which must sometimes be conducted in rented houses or apartments, and frequently lacking in equipment and specialized rooms such as science labs.
The al-Tur neighborhood is an especially disturbing example.
The neighborhood is densely populated and the land reserve on its western edge, which had been zoned for a Palestinian girls’ school, was bought in the early 1990s by Irving Moskowitz, a wealthy American businessman whose “philanthropy” seeks to create a Jewish majority in East Jerusalem. Today, a yeshiva (Jewish religious school) stands there, as well as Beit Orot, the first Israeli settlement to be built in the heart of a Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem.
The neighborhood’s remaining land reserve has been zoned by the Israeli-controlled Jerusalem municipality for a nature reserve and national park.
Only half of Palestinian children in Jerusalem were enrolled in the public school system, a study conducted in 2010-2011 found. Meanwhile, costly private schools are largely unsupervised and often fail to provide basic learning conditions. Palestinian children have limited opportunities of going on to study in Israeli universities or to obtain jobs with decent pay.
The Israeli government recognizes only one politicized curriculum — its own Zionist one.
This curriculum uses Zionist terminology to describe geographic areas in Palestine, like Judea and Samaria for the West Bank and Temple Mount for Haram al-Sharif, the compound that houses al-Aqsa mosque.
The Jerusalem municipality has offered a financial incentive of $550 per student to Palestinian schools in East Jerusalem not under its control — including Christian schools — to follow the Israeli curriculum, The New York Times reported last year.
The paper added that Israel revised the Palestinian Authority textbooks used by more than 32,000 Palestinian children who study under Israeli control, taking out, in a third-grade history textbook, for example, large sections of text and several images, including the Palestinian flag, text from the Quran, and information about the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Education must be empowering, enriching, liberating. Yet the Israeli government is using discriminatory funding and red tape to deny Palestinians this basic right.
Parents, teachers and human rights activists must stand up to this latest attempt at cultural genocide, and hold Israel accountable for its violation of the right of Palestinian children to learn their own history.
One strategy to hold Israel accountable is heeding the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions until Israel respects the right of Palestinians to equality, dignity and sovereignty. Otherwise, Israel’s education system will remain one in which the indigenous people of Palestine are required to learn the Zionist rationales for the racism inflicted on them.
Nada Elia and Rima Najjar are members of the steering collective of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI).