Immediately upon independence, Israel introduced co-education and made school mandatory and free for children between the ages of five and 13. But the young nation’s leaders could not agree on a clear policy for dealing with its Arab minority. Recommendations ran the gamut from complete separation to complete integration. Some argued in favor of what was dubbed an “assimilationist policy,” designed to minimize feelings of difference. As a 1949 government memo suggested, this approach might make Arabs “closer to us but also to take them away from the Arab world surrounding us.” But J.L. Benor, the deputy director general of the education ministry in the 1950s, argued that general citizenship “values” had not yet developed among the Arab population and counseled in favor of both separation and control.
Curricula for Arabs was a divisive subject early on, with Arabs pushing for greater control over content. In 1961, textbooks that included a chapter on Arab history were introduced, and over the years, other concessions were made to Arab educators. A watershed moment came in 1971 when Israeli sociologist Yohanan Peres published a study that showed that the lack of national Arab content in the curricula was alienating Arab youths from the state. In response, directives that Arab students celebrate Israel’s Independence Day with parades and parties were phased out.
Following the 1993 Oslo Accords, optional units on Palestinian history and the Arab national movement were introduced in Arab schools. In 1999, Jewish schools began to use new history textbooks that portrayed the conflict in a more nuanced manner. In addressing the fighting in 1948, some departed from the traditional Zionist narrative: Arabs were described as not simply fleeing but, at least in some cases, as being driven out.
Some Arab educators like Al-Haj remain dissatisfied. “The entire question of civil culture is missing in these books,” he complains. “The spirit of these books merely reinforces the ethno-nationalist culture that dominates Israeli society.”
Segev says the tension over textbooks is unlikely to be fully alleviated as long as the struggle between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East continues. “Israel’s Arabs now are very much aware of the importance of education and this is their way of developing their society and identifying as Palestinians,” he says. “They have realized that they need to do things for themselves and this is what Israeli democracy allows them to do. It reminds me very much of the Jewish community under the British.”
Policy analyst Abdullah Hadib, head of the Ministry of Education’s Arab department, is optimistic: He believes that there is finally substantial movement to improve Israel’s Arab schools. “New investment and commitment are being seen on the ground,” says the former teacher and principal who is the highest-ranking Arab in the ministry.
Last year, he tells me, the government pledged additional funding for all Arab third graders to receive supplemental classroom hours in math, science and Arabic, and more tutors will be assigned to those subjects in 20 percent of schools. There is more funding to improve Hebrew-language instruction and reducing school violence and drop-out rates. The ministry is underwriting 3,200 new classrooms, about half the number needed. There’s even progress, says Hadib, on the content debate. New curricula are being developed that include “Arab world” culture and Islamic history in the context of Israeli and world history. “Descriptions,” he adds, will be “within the consensus. They won’t deal with politics.”