East Jerusalem youth face dilemma of choosing between Palestinian and Israeli curriculums
By Lien S.
The cover of a textbook used by Palestinian high school students in East Jerusalem who have recently switched over to the Israeli Bagrut curriculum.
At the beginning of this school year, five high schools in East Jerusalem decided to provide their students with the opportunity to choose between the Bagrut (Israeli curriculum) and Tawjihi (Palestinian curriculum taught in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem). Many argue that taking the Bagrut curriculum would provide students with more opportunities for higher education, yet the choice has been the subject of heavy criticism ever since its introduction.
According to municipal officials, the Israeli curriculum was introduced at the request of Palestinian parents who wanted to increase their children’s opportunities for higher education and within the job market. Yet many see the move as an Israeli attempt to rewrite Palestinian history and alter the national identity of Palestinian youth in East Jerusalem. "It’s part of the attempt to totally de-Arabize and de-Palestinize Jerusalem, including our heritage," Nabil Shaath, commissioner for foreign relations of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement, told The Independent on 16 September.
Critics fear that this might be the first step towards making the Bagrutmandatory for all Palestinian students in East Jerusalem, as is already the case for the Palestinians living inside Israel. Their only chance of learning about the Palestinian history and their national identity is at home.
Opportunities for higher education
Taking the Bagrut facilitates getting into an Israeli university, as Israeli schools do not accept the Palestinian high school diploma. Palestinian students wanting to enroll, therefore need to take additional tests. Vice versa, many Palestinian universities do not accept the Israeli diploma and attempting to enter the job market in the West Bank with one is bound to cause difficulties.
Nadin, who’s last name has been withheld for reasons of privacy, is one of East Jerusalem’s seniors who switched to the Bagrut this year. "I want to go to university in Denmark, but they don’t recognize the Tawjihi there," she relates. "It’s hard because you need to decide where you want to go to college and what you want to study before you decide what system to choose in high school. By choosing the Bagrut, I can’t study and work in the West Bank anymore."
The Bethlehem based Alternative Information Center points out that job opportunities in East Jerusalem are extremely scarce. The fact that more and more Palestinian students in East Jerusalem are seeking to get an Israeli education and enter the Israeli job market is a logical consequence.
Teaching the Bagrut inevitably comes with teaching a revised Israeli history curriculum. Palestinian students are taught about the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem for instance and, contrary to international consensus, Jerusalem is presented as the undivided capital of Israel. In addition, maps of the country include the West Bank within the state of Israel and name Palestinian territories and cities by their Jewish Biblical names.
"They want to make the new Palestinian generation think differently about their culture and history. They try to teach us that we are Jordanians and that this isn’t our country," Nadin explains. "It is very hard for me psychologically not to be allowed to write 'occupied,’ or 'Palestine’ on my tests and to be given a false history lesson. I luckily know my history as a Palestinian, but I have to pretend that I don’t in order to pass."
Teaching the Israeli history curriculum is also hard on the teachers. "My history teacher is a Palestinian, but has to use the Israeli text books. Sometimes she takes a deep breath before class, tells us that what she is about to teach us is wrong, but that we have to study it to pass."
Palestinian students in East Jerusalem are thus faced with the dilemma of having to choose between the Palestinian curriculum which expresses their national identity and the Israeli curriculum which may provide better chances for higher education and job opportunities.
"As a Palestinian it is my duty to know who I am, because Israel is constantly trying to make me forget, so it feels very weird to be taking the Bagrut. It feels like they are lying to you about your history and culture and you have to tell them what they want to hear. But if I want to study in Denmark, it is the only option," Nadin concludes.
Thinking or memorizing
The Bagrut has, on the other hand, been lauded for its focus on reflection instead of memorization. Najwa Farhat, principle of the Ahmed Sameh al-Khalidi School for boys in East Jerusalem, argues in the same Independentarticle that the Israeli curriculum offers a better education than the Palestinian Authority’s, particularly for science subjects, because it allows the students to think for themselves.
"Tawjihi is about studying facts by heart, not about understanding them, so students don’t enjoy learning," Nadin agrees. "The Bagrut, on the other hand, teaches you how to think so that you can find an answer yourself. It trains the ability to reflect and be creative, not to memorize. We learn how to reflect about geography, instead of how to memorize the size of a country for example."
Students taking the Bagrut are also more thoroughly immerged in Hebrew. "TheBagrut really teaches us Hebrew, which is good, because speaking Hebrew gets you more respect from Israelis, which means more influence," Nadin says.
The whole polemic that arose after the decision to offer the Bagrut was announced, also voiced a plea by civil society activists to make some changes to the Tawjihi. "The Tawjihi must change. It is exceptionally hard, outdated and does not equip our children with the qualifications they need here in Jerusalem," parents’ representative Lafi told the Alternative Information Center.
"The Tawjihi is intimidating and stressful. If you fail one subject, you have to take everything again and your whole future depends on it, so many students get depressed," Nadin explains. "Israel realizes this, so they use it as a means to try and get us on their side by offering the Bagrut.""Even though the Tawjihi teaches Palestinian history and culture, it wasn’t done in a very engaging way in my experience. It was treated as just another subject to memorize for the students, so they don’t realize how important it is. This way it doesn’t translate to our daily lives and loses its value."