Separate But Not Equal

By | Oct 27, 2011

Like Shube, Amnon Rubinstein, education minister from 1992 to 1996 and winner of the 2006 Israel Prize, is an advocate for integrated schools. “Mixed schools should be encouraged,” he says. “I believe the separation between Arabs and Jews is bad for the future.” But despite such calls for integration, there is no major push to desegregate Arab and Jewish schools. Most people in both communities prefer to study in their native languages and within their cultures. “I think the schools have to be separate,” says Moadi. “We are talking about two communities, two peoples, a different heritage and history and culture.” Hand in Hand’s Shube admits that the public lacks the will for modeling public schools after his own. “Our concept requires a great amount of mutual tolerance and respect, which is not something that pervades Israeli society right now.”

Gideon Saar is said to have his eye on the prime ministership. At 46, he is the education minister and a rising star of the Likud Party. The handsome bespectacled Saar is young for an Israeli politician. He lives in a trendy central Tel Aviv neighborhood and on many issues is socially liberal. But the liberalism of this fifth-generation sabra, raised on the slogan of “Israel, on both sides of the Jordan,” comes to a complete stop on the subject of Palestinians. A fervent Zionist, he has tried to inject a sense of patriotism into Israel’s public schools.

In some ways, his political opposite is Yuli Tamir, 56, whom he replaced as education minister in 2009 when Netanyahu became prime minister for the second time. Tamir, a former philosophy professor, is a founder of Peace Now, and while she was education minister allotted funds to teach about equality, mutual respect and partnership as a way to promote coexistence between Arabs and Jews. She infuriated the right in 2007 when she approved the use of the word nakba—“catastrophe” in Arabic—in history textbooks for third and fourth graders in Arab schools.

In 2009, almost immediately after his appointment, Saar reversed course, ordering the removal of the offending sentence: “The Arabs call the war nakba—a war of catastrophe, loss and humiliation—and the Jews call it the Independence War.” In his Knesset speech explaining the decision, Saar was indignant. “In no country in the world does an educational curriculum refer to the creation of the country as a ‘catastrophe,’” he said. “The objective of the education system is not to deny the legitimacy of our state, nor promote extremism among Arab Israelis,” he added.

The firestorm over the use of nakba in textbooks taps into more than a century of disagreement over how to address the national identity of Arab schoolchildren in what is now Israel. Arab education in the 19th century was, for the most part, run by Ottoman authorities. The language of instruction was Turkish, with Arabic taught only as a second language and usually as part of religious instruction. Education for Arabs was nearly non-existent outside urban areas, which led to illiteracy rates as high as 70 percent for men and 90 percent for women.

When the British took over in 1917, they changed the language of instruction to Arabic, but still only four out of 10 Arab children attended school, most of them boys, says historian Tom Segev, author of One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate. “In 1931, one director of the [British] education department said, ‘Keep your peasants happy, then they won’t make trouble,’” says Segev. Children of the Arab elite were often educated in Christian schools and many left the country to pursue higher education.

Meanwhile, most Jewish schools between 1917 and 1948 were funded by international Jewish philanthropy and were strong academically. “Nine out of 10 Jewish kids got an education,” says Segev. The disparity between Arab and Jewish schools had major political ramifications. “The result was that by 1948 Jews had produced a strong united community and national identity, much superior to that of the Arabs,” he continues. Segev goes so far as to suggest that the neglect of education was one reason the Arabs lost the 1948 war.

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