The big curriculum choice in East Jerusalem's occupied territory: Israeli or Palestinian?

Parents and pupils in occupied territory face a major dilemma

At the Abdullah Bin Hussein School for girls in East Jerusalem two Palestinian sisters are in disagreement over their future. The two are at odds over whether the chance to study the Israeli curriculum for  the first time was an opportunity or  a trap.

“I want to be a doctor and I want to study at the Hebrew University,” said the younger sister, in eighth grade. “I have chosen the Israeli curriculum because it is stronger in science and is better for getting admitted.”

The older sister, in 12th grade, said she thinks it better to stay with the Palestinian Authority curriculum which best expresses her national identity: “The Israeli curriculum teaches that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, not Palestine. They erase our history and teach their history.”

The two sisters, who asked not to be identified out of concern they could face problems with Israeli authorities, are caught up in a high-stakes struggle over the future of East Jerusalem which appears to be as political as it is educational – for both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The Palestinian Authority accuses Israel of undermining the national identity of Palestinian youth in East Jerusalem, which is considered occupied territory by the international community, by introducing the Israeli curriculum two weeks ago into selected schools for the first time since shortly after Israeli rule began in 1967.

The move, which city officials stress is optional, has met formidable opposition and inflamed passions over Jerusalem, the city resonant to Judaism, Christianity and Islam and one of the most emotive issues in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

After Israeli troops took East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 war, along with the West Bank, authorities sought to impose the Israeli curriculum. But the effort failed in the face of stiff opposition from parents. Jordan’s curriculum was taught until 1993, when the launch of Palestinian self-rule brought the Palestinian Authority curriculum that is studied in the West Bank.

But the start of this school year has brought a renewed effort at spreading the Israeli curriculum. Israeli officials say that seven East Jerusalem municipality schools are offering the option of taking the Israeli curriculum, up from two last year. The lessons will include more Hebrew, more science and changes in civics and history instruction. Municipality officials say the step comes at the initiative of Palestinian parents concerned with facilitating their children’s acceptance in the Israeli job market and universities.

“The Palestinian Authority, Fatah and Hamas may oppose this, but parents know that the future of their children is in Israel,” says David Koren, the municipality’s adviser on East Jerusalem. Most pupils in East Jerusalem continue to study the Palestinian curriculum.

Palestinians envision East Jerusalem as their future capital, but Israel insists it will remain under Israeli sovereignty and keeps expanding Jewish settlements there to back up the point. The city’s status is supposed to be negotiated in the peace talks that resumed under US auspices more than a month ago.

Palestinian leaders are furious over the Israeli move. “It’s part of the attempt to totally de-Arabize and de-Palestinize Jerusalem, including our heritage,” said Nabil Shaath, commissioner for foreign relations of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement.

A Palestinian parents’ association leader, Abdul-Karim Lafi, says that the overwhelming majority of parents are against the Israeli curriculum. Few pupils signed up for it and most of those who did have pulled out, he said.

City officials dispute this and deny that the curriculum is offensive in any way to Muslims or Palestinians, stressing it is the same as that used in government schools among the Arab minority in Israel.

At the Abdullah Bin Hussein School, the eighth-grader studying the Israeli curriculum said that out of 45 girls who were enrolled in her class at the start of the school year two weeks ago, 25 had quit, either because they found the adjustment too difficult or because parents were concerned it went against their child’s Palestinian identity.

At the Ahmed Sameh al-Khalidi School for boys in East Jerusalem, principal Najwa Farhat, an Arab citizen of Israel, says the Israeli curriculum offers a better education than the Palestinian Authority’s. “In the Israeli programme, the student can be his own investigator and think about matters and not just learn things by heart. The Palestinian curriculum does not give the student a chance to think about things.”

But at the Ibn Rushd School for boys in the Sur Baher neighbourhood, a tenth-grader, who identified himself only as Mustafa, said he wants history lessons to come from the Palestinian Authority, not Israel: “This is my country and the book should teach that what’s occupied is occupied.”

Basri Salih, assistant deputy minister at the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Education, termed Ms Farhat’s remarks “a totally false analysis of the situation. We want our children in Jerusalem to have an equal opportunity to get what they need in terms of their national identity, feeling of belonging and history.”

But despite the opposition from some parents, the young sister  who decided to study the Israeli curriculum is not worried about its influence on her views.

“The books can say whatever they want, but I know the truth,” she said.

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