In Israel - Palestinian Battle Waging Over Higher Education

The battle over Jerusalem has extended to higher education. A firestorm erupted over Israel’s offer to East Jerusalem Arab schools to teach the Israeli curriculum instead of the Palestinian one. The Israeli curriculum could open the door for Arab students to take the Israeli matriculation exams and study at its high-ranked colleges and universities. Many East Jerusalem parents realize that access to Israel’s colleges and universities would boost their children’s careers. To that end, the Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Ministry designated 20 million Israeli shekels (more than $5.5 million) for physical plant upgrades to the seven East Jerusalem municipality schools that accepted the option.

Not surprisingly, Palestinian educators slammed Israel’s offer as a “racist” ploy. Higher Education Minister Sabri Saidam called it a “declaration of war against Arab and Palestinian existence in East Jerusalem.” The official PA daily denounced Israel’s endowment as a conditional, arm-twisting “temptation” to force its curriculum down Palestinians’ throats. Though the curriculum is elective for both schools and students, the PA daily accused Israel of deliberately “imposing” it to “control the minds of Palestinian students and falsify Palestinian history.”

Palestinians are skittish about Israeli history, possibly because they expect Israel to teach history like they do—as a tool for propaganda and brainwashing. Palestinian leaders also distrust Western standards of scholarship, and its commitment to free thought and inquiry. They vilify Israel’s historical and archeological records—evidence of the ancient Jewish connection to the Land and Jerusalem—as attacks on Palestinian national identity. Educator Ziyad Al-Shamali threatened legal action against any schools allowing the “Judaization of education.” Like the classic ’70s Coca-Cola ad, detractors who don’t comprehend Israeli education should try “The Real Thing.”

Taste and See

Israel’s robust educational innovation and ingenuity powers its economy. Israel spends a higher share of its GDP on research and development than any developed nation, according to the Financial Times; and its universities rank among the world’s top 100 in science and engineering. A star in the nation’s high-tech crown is the Israel Defense Force Talpiot Computing and Cyber Defense Academy, a collaboration between the IDF and Hebrew University.

“Talpiot’s mission isn’t to learn how to fight. It‘s to learn how to think,” said author Jason Gewirtz. Talpiot requires not just high IQs, top grades and a scientific bent; interviewers also scan candidates for leadership potential—inquisitiveness, ingenuity and creative thinking—willingness to leap beyond the boundaries of what is known. Talpiot is a dynamic driver to the country’s defense and economy; graduates have launched high-tech and security start-ups that have stimulated jobs and foreign investment, and their expertise has enhanced cooperation between allies.

Talpiot is a stellar example of Israel’s educational tradition—founded on democratic values that foster tolerance, academic freedom and coexistence. In research designed to undergird Israel’s “equitable” public policies so as to “advance the wellbeing” of all citizens, a Taub Center for Social Policy study notes: “The low percentage of Arab Israelis with academic degrees indicates the importance of increasing accessibility to higher education for these citizens.” Sadly, those who politicize education are misinterpreting Israel’s good intentions for all its citizens.

The numbers speak

There’s a story behind the low numbers of Arab Israelis with academic degrees. The furor over the Israeli curriculum is fueled by Palestinian fears that their claims on Jerusalem and the Temple Mount will be weakened by the facts of history, and the possibility their youth might thrive and prosper in Israel’s democracy. According to Palestinian Media Watch, an East Jerusalem neighborhood leader slammed the Israeli curriculum as “no less dangerous than the Judaization of Al-Aqsa Mosque and its takeover.”  

One hopes that Palestinian leaders will want more for their youth than a politicized education that prepares them for jihad rather than a hope and a future. Talpiot’s greatest lesson is the blessings inherited because leaders nurtured youth to excel, and they in turn blessed their nation.