Liberating the Palestinian and Zionist narratives in Israeli schools

by Ayman Agbaria
UMM-AL-FAHM, Israel - Last August, the Israeli Minister of Education, Gideon Sa’ar, presented to the government his programme entitled “The Israeli government believes in education”. The programme aims to fulfil two basic goals: enhancing the values that guide education and improving its results in international assessment examinations. With regard to the values, the programme aims to enhance “education for Zionist, Jewish, democratic and social values”, and this includes deepening identification with Jerusalem as the capital of “Israel and the Jewish people”; encouraging army recruitment and “civil-national service”; developing a new study subject-matter about Judaism and Zionism; and activating a programme on the national anthem. The programme does not include anything about Arab students and their national and cultural particularity; this is a complete denial of their presence and their need to learn about their history and heritage.

That denial and the strong emphasis on the Zionist and Jewish identity coincide well with the state of ethnic obsession that Israel has recently been going through with unusual fervour in what seems to be an official adoption of the extreme right's rhetoric. The programme is also in tune with anti-Arab legislative acts, including a draft law that bans and criminalises the marking of Israel’s Independence Day (the day the state of Israel was established) as a day of mourning, as well as the draft law to impose the study of the history of the land of Israel and Zionism, including in Arab schools. This denial is a translation on the ground of the Palestinians’ usurped right to cultural liberty, through which they would be able to exercise the right to education, not only at the level of attainability but also at the level of influencing educational policies and curricular content, especially identity-building subjects, such as history, geography and literature.

Indeed, it might be acceptable for the State of Israel to employ, just like other countries, the tool of education towards entrenching the political legitimacy of the state. It might also be acceptable, for instance, to teach Jewish students in a way that helps produce a collective identity through which the Jewish student can see the State of Israel as the outcome of previously exerted efforts leading to the Jewish people’s exercise of the right to self-determination. Having said that, it is not acceptable, and it is unfair, for the state to oblige Palestinian students to deny their own historical narrative. The whole matter seems to be a flagrant act of oppression, when the state insists on dominating the historical consciousness of Palestinian students and attempts to mould their identity in such a way as to suit the plan for “Israelizing” them. To “Israelize” their collective identity and memory means creating a social cognition or a public mind in which Palestinians accept their inferiority within Israeli society and adopt the Zionist discourse when explaining the reasons and consequences of their Nakba (catastrophe) and considering their future visions and struggles.

There is also a problem regarding teaching the history of Jews to the Palestinians, as the official curriculum renders a homogeneous version of the history of the Jewish people that marginalises Jewish voices and groups outside the Zionist canon. Jewish history is being reduced to a history of Zionism. Here, there is a need for Palestinian students to study the history of Jewish cultural, political and religious pluralism. At the same time, there is a need for the Palestinians to study the history of the Jewish people and the Zionist movement from a critical, Palestinian point of view that is detached from what Zionism narrates of itself to achieve inner reconciliation and congruency. What is at stake is the ability to claim responsibility not only for one's own narrative, but also for the other's, by helping the other recognise and acknowledge the plurality of narratives within Israel. A critical perspective on the history of Zionism is much needed for both Palestinian and Jewish students, as it would induce mutual recognition and liberation from the ghosts of the past.


* Dr. Ayman K. Agbaria lectures at Haifa University on education policy. He is also a senior advisor for the Arab Follow Up Committee on Arab Education and “Dirasat”, the Arab Centre for Law and Policy. This article is part of a special series on nationalism in the Israeli educational system and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 29 October 2009,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
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Memories of a graduate of the Israeli mainstream school system
The Israeli education system and the question of shared citizenship
Toward an equal Arab-Palestinian education in Israel
Equality in education is essential for saving Israeli society
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of a teacher
Educating for tolerant thinking within a conflict zone
An empty land?
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Other articles in this series

Memories of a graduate of the Israeli mainstream school system by Michal Haramati
The Israeli education system and the question of shared citizenship by Khaled Abu Asbah
Toward an equal Arab-Palestinian education in Israel by Yousef Jabareen
Equality in education is essential for saving Israeli society by Muli Peleg
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of a teacher by Itzik Hoffman
Educating for tolerant thinking within a conflict zone by Catherine Rottenberg and Neve Gordon
An empty land? by Yonathan Mizrachi