The long and winding road for Palestinian educational equity in Israeli schools

Reem Khamis-Dakwar

Mondoweiss  /  October 27, 2021

Palestinian students are forced to leave the mixed Israeli city of Nof Hagalil to attend school in nearby Nazareth. Why? Because local schools refuse to accommodate Palestinian students, which reflects the vision of local leaders — a town devoid of an Palestinian population whatsoever.

Nazareth Illit (literally translating to “upper Nazareth”) is the former name of a city built upon the hills overlooking my hometown. Like the very establishment of the Israeli state nine years prior, Nazareth Illit was founded in 1956 upon land confiscated from Palestinians in an effort to “Judaize the Galilee.” In 2019, the city was renamed Nof Hagalil in order to further disconnect it from Nazareth, the largest Palestinian city in the ‘48 territories. The intention of this performative gesture was clear; Nof Hagalil, formerly Nazareth Illit, is a Jewish city regardless of how many Palestinian citizens may now live there. After all, the city became one of few promising sites for Palestinian couples to relocate given the structural racism affecting the growth of Palestinian towns which Human Rights Watch has reported “stifles the community’s growth and undermines its well-being while promoting the development of a Jewish majority city next to it.”

As newly-weds caring for our first born son at the turn of the century, my family at that time were among these very couples. We lived in Nazareth Illit because it was the only feasible option for us given that we had no interest in investing the time necessary to build a home, if we were to even find a suitable plot of land in a welcoming community. We were simply seeking a place to park our car where there were communal green spaces through which we could take our son for walks, and access to playgrounds where he could play. Unlike the city fittingly below it geographically, Nazareth Illit offered all of these desires. However, there is one catch to living in Nof Hagalil as a Palestinian; there is seemingly a problem of disappearing children.

Currently, 28% of Nof Hagalil residents are Palestinian (about 12,000 people); 56% are Jewish, and the rest are defined as “Others” who mostly consist of non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Moreover, Palestinian children under 18 years old constitute about 40% of children in the city. However, the latest municipality report regarding these children’s school enrollment distribution has revealed a shocking reality. A total of 2,166 of these students leave the city in which they reside in order to attend schools in the Palestinian city of Nazareth, largely due to there not being a single classroom in Nof Hagalil that teaches in Arabic. This is in spite of the fact that Arabic was considered an official language in Israel until as recently as 2018 when the racist “Jewish Nation State Law” demoted it to “special status.” A similarly discriminatory Supreme Court decision—of which there had been no principled decision on the right of Palestinian residents for getting schooling in their mother tongue—only defined bureaucratic specifications that a collective of 25 Palestinian students of similar age (between 6 and 13 years old) are entitled to a classroom; 40 Palestinian students of the same age range with up to least a 2 year age difference between them are entitled to two classrooms; and 100 Palestinian students from 6 to 13 years old are entitled to an elementary school. It is noteworthy that these specifications are spelled out 62 years after the same specifications were defined in Compulsory Education and State Schools (Pupil Registration) Regulations (1959), but in relation to establishing Jewish religious classrooms in districts with secular public schools or vice versa, as Supreme Court Judge Elron wrote in the ruling “…much of the difficulty that arises in the appeal before us stems from the fact that neither in the law [of education] nor in the relevant regulations [of 1959] is there an explicit reference as to the conditions for the establishment of an official educational institution having unique characteristics for the Palestinian population.” Suffice it to say, the 2,166 Palestinian children residing in Nof Hagalil and attending schools in Nazareth would have been entitled to over 20 distinct schools had they only been Jewish.

It is no wonder then that only 331 Palestinian children residing in Nof Hagalil actually attend schools there. In fact, the total number of Nof Hagalil’s Palestinian students attending any school in their city of residence is less than those who attend just one school in Nazareth such as the Convent of Nazareth (hosting 441 Nof Hagalil residents) or the Baptist school in Nazareth (hosting 351).  In reality, some Nof Hagalil schools have no Palestinian student representation whatsoever. After all, 828 of the 3,182 students in Nof Hagalil attend one of four Jewish religious schools like Habad or Talmud Hatora which are simply not an option for non-Jewish Palestinian families. There are also three schools thus far to have been founded in segregated neighborhoods that have no Palestinians living there and therefore no Palestinian children among their student bodies. These institutions include Keshet, Shovo, & Natufa. If we exclude these from the calculation of Palestinian student distribution in Nof Hagalil schools, the average percentage of Palestinian students in Nof Hagalil schools rises from 8.4% with standard deviation of 8.5 (i.e, ranging from  0-17.6% representation) to 12.6% with standard deviation of 7.3 (i.e ranging from 3-17.6% representation), nowhere close to the city’s 28% Palestinian population. A municipality that cares for its residents’ well-being ought to be concerned with accounting for these disappearing children, but Nof Hagalil is no such place.

I cannot help but wonder whether municipality leaders and administrators have failed to act on these concerning statistics because they reflect their ideal vision for Nof Hagalil; one devoid of an Palestinian population whatsoever.

This reality results in a number of hurdles for Palestinian families in Nof Hagalil ranging from arduous commutes to a forced disconnect from their personal spaces during their children’s most significant developmental stages. I cannot help but wonder whether municipality leaders and administrators have failed to act on these concerning statistics because they reflect their ideal vision for Nof Hagalil; one devoid of an Palestinian population whatsoever. After all, their name change and rebranding efforts were aimed at directly disassociating from the Palestinian Nazareth down below. How better to achieve that goal than to systemically remind Palestinian children that these are not their streets? What more effective tactic is there to erase Palestinians’ language from a community than to assure that their children are unable to learn there or develop using it? 

The Palestinian turncoat, Issawi Frej, a Knesset Member from the so-called “left-wing” Meretz party who is currently serving as Minister of Regional Cooperation in Israel’s extremist rightwing government, recently took part in a conversation regarding growing insecurities in Palestinian towns. There, he said the quiet part out loud: “The lack of personal security in Palestinian towns is leading to a migration movement to Jewish towns and then you will have to open schools for the Palestinians there in Nof Hagalil, in Karmiel, in Haifa, in Acre, everywhere.” When Knesset member Ayman Odeh asked him to clarify whether he was stating that Palestinians living and studying in Jewish towns ought to be considered a threat, Frej addressed the Jewish Knesset members directly and said, “I am trying to get into your heads and tell you that personal security and development [in Palestinian towns] is a Jewish interest more than of an Palestinian interest.” I would argue that Palestinian safety and development should be considered more than just a potential threat to Jewish-Israeli hegemony.

For over 20 years now, Palestinian residents of Nof Hagalil have demanded the establishment of a local Palestinian school. In 2014, a collective of nine Palestinian parents and their children residing in Nof Hagalil took their case to the Israeli courts with legal representation by The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). These parents’ professional backgrounds varied widely and included psychologists, lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs, and engineers. Most importantly, they  also included those who had previously enrolled their children in Nazareth’s schools as well as those who chose Jewish nurseries and kindergartens in Nof Hagalil. Despite their distinct backgrounds and experiences, the communal necessity for Palestinian schools in their city coupled with the shared cost on their children’s well-being and development motivated these families to band together.

Unfortunately, their demands have fallen on deaf ears. In a recent Supreme Court decision that only specified the operational criteria for establishing an Palestinian class or school, the Court failed to recognize the right of minority communities to learn in their home language as stipulated by international law. The Judges also disregarded recent scholarly revelations identifying the universal successes of children from indigenous minority communities when given the opportunity to learn in their home language. Instead, the Supreme Court only extended the aforementioned numerical specifications of the law of education to also apply to Palestinian students. In other words, Palestinian children are now quantitatively taken into account when evaluating the viability for a new classroom or school, the table is turned on the parents to organize for the school to start, but those classrooms and schools will linguistically and structurally resemble the existing Jewish and Hebrew-only ones in Nof Hagalil. 

This decision ignored the entire reason why, despite all of the hardships involved, the vast majority of Nof Hagalil’s Palestinian residents enrolled their children in Arabic-speaking and Palestinian-run schools in Nazareth. The Court’s flawed approach exhibits the narrow lens through which Jewish Israeli establishments analyze and perceive the condition of the Palestinian minority in Israel. This is to be expected of an unequal and mostly segregated society in which judges are often Zionist, middle or upper class individuals who seldom have the experience or the professional training necessary to understand the complexities of existing within an indigenous, minoritized community. As a result of this, Israeli courts have often decided in favor of racist policies and practices, such as their continued support of the internationally illegal practices of administrative detention of Palestinians (adopted from the days of British Mandate on Palestine) for unspecified periods of time without an indictment, and their latest ruling which allowed for Palestinian family separation simply based upon national identity. Astoundingly, representatives of the Palestinian community in Nof Hagalil, the Joint List (with 3 members in the city council), offered their support for this latest educational “reform” and voted, like the rest of the Jewish city council members, against establishing an Palestinian school rather than advocating for the basic right of Palestinian children to learn in their mother tongue.

This course of events must have been a so-called wake up call for educators and administrators supposedly hoping to support Palestinian families in Nof Hagalil. Based on both a presentation from Oranim College’s Dr. Mila Schwartz and a letter from Dr. Orna Simhon to Nof Hagalil’s Director of Education and Community ​​District Manager, the City Council approved the development of a multicultural education pilot program guided by Dr. Schwartz. This has come with the stipulations that Arabic and Russian language classes would be “elective classes” and “not on the account of core studies” in Hebrew, and would require a sufficient number of interested parents, and approval by all parties involved of a curriculum that has yet to be defined and disclosed. Additionally, this pilot program was only approved for a single classroom, a first grade in a specific elementary school, and it goes without saying that this school is not mother-tongue based. The initiative claims to focus on multiculturalism by introducing cultural aspects from Nof Hagalil’s Jewish, Palestinian, and Russian communities with the intention of promoting collaboration between them. However, despite the fact that this program includes different speech communities, it disregards the well-documented best practices for multilingual multicultural education.

For a start, this program is not home language based which a variety of research has shown to be the best approach for multilingual programs involving minority students. In essence, this pilot program is advocating to maintain Nof Hagalil’s status quo of Hebrew as the dominant language in teaching despite it not being the mother tongue for the Russian or Palestinian students involved. However, it is important to acknowledge that Arabic speaking children are often treated differently than Russian or Amharic speaking children in Israel based on their religious identities. This is a distinction articulated by Israel’s Ministry of Education which explicitly differentiates students based on whether they are Jewish or from “the sector,” a purposefully vague term meant to delineate the Palestinian sector. The supposed multicultural framework proposed for this pilot program does not acknowledge that the Palestinian community in Israel, as part of the indigenous minority group, is treated differently than the Jewish community on behalf of structurally racist housing, education, health care, and land allocation systems. In addition, Palestinians in Israel suffer the tyranny of linguistic racism, most recently highlighted in the Nation State Law’s demotion of Arabic’s status. 

Given the vast amount of research on bilingual and multilingual education in the context of an indigenous minority, high quality educational offerings must include components that empower Arabic and children’s connection to it given that their lived experiences in Israeli society will have undoubtedly had the opposite effect. However, it is also undeniably the case that linguistic proficiency in Hebrew and English is a current necessity for Palestinian citizens of Israel to achieve any manner of success outside of their communities. This is a result of the same colonial systems that otherwise subjugate Palestinians in Israel but an unquestionable reality nonetheless. The question that policy makers responsible for the pilot program seem to be missing, however, is “how can we confer multicultural and multilingual success while doing as little harm as possible to children from marginalized backgrounds- in this case, Arabic speaking Palestinians?” Based on all the scholarly evidence available, the current program would be most harmful to the Palestinian children participating due to the targeting of their mother tongue in particular on behalf of surrounding socio-political conditions. The negative impacts reported on children’s confidence and identity formation in such cases cannot be understated. This is especially true given that these Palestinian children’s learning contexts are intended to focus on cultural connections all the while lumping Arab, Russian, and Hebrew speaking children in a Hebrew-speaking dominant learning environment within a Jewish-Israeli supremacist society.

Palestinian children, like all children, are observant and sensitive to their environments. Regardless of the different languages or cultures to which they are exposed, they subconsciously internalize the same discriminatory reality we all exist in, which gives preferences to some over others. In this case, Arabic-speaking children in Jewish towns like Nof Hagalil and in the Israeli state more broadly come to learn that their mother tongue is considered an inferior language by the public and governmental institutions. Meanwhile, Hebrew is granted complete authority in the public sphere and more “official” settings. (Ironically, this mimics a similar dynamic present within the diglossic Arabic speaking world itself which needs to be accounted for in the need for establishing an Palestinian school that I will address in another op-ed.) The only way to remedy these injustices in order to truly insure cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue is by designing programs guided by the latest research on antiracism, which affirms the impossibility of overlooking students’ socio-political contexts. Instead, it centers these contexts in order to circumvent them as much as possible and with as little harm as possible. The needs of Palestinian children can only be met by programs that recognize and reckon with their lived experiences, and current programs like that of Dr. Schwartz’s fail to do so.

I am calling on every professional involved in educational planning for Palestinian Arabic-speaking children in Israel to commit to meaningful change in order to avoid making the same mistakes and reinforcing the violent status quo. Such meaningful change requires centering Palestinian children and their families; listening to and collaborating with those families as well as Palestinian professionals and community organizations; adhering to the latest research in regard to multicultural and multilingual education; and addressing socio-political realities in order to provide a culturally and linguistically responsive educational plan. That is the only way to stop the case of the disappearing kids once and for all.

Reem Khamis-Dakwar is Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Adelphi University, Long Island, New York