Segregated Schools

Why are Palestinian students channeled into a segregated school system within Israel lasting from 1st grade through high school? Segregation for Israel’s Palestinian students, who make up roughly 20 percent of the country’s student population, is a result of rigid geographic and residential segregation. Palestinian Israelis live largely in Arab villages or neighborhoods and rarely mix with Jewish Israelis until they begin working or until they attend university. Israeli governments have never tried to promote the integration of Israel’s public school system. 

In the United States, we call this de facto, rather than de jure (legal) segregation. However, our democracy has recognized the harm that results from de facto segregation and has tried to address it in many ways to promote equal opportunity. These efforts followed the famous 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown v Topeka Board of Education, which ruled against the so-called “separate but equal doctrine.” The Supreme Court found that segregation was inherently unequal because it isolated black students from the dominant white culture and therefore put them at a disadvantage in a competitive workforce.

Israel’s funding for education is rarely reported in detail. However, in 2004 the government released statistics showing its system was not only separate but also unequal. The statistics revealed that Israel spent 3 times as much on schools for Jewish students than it did for Palestinian schools, according to an analysis by Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. The same 3 to 1 ratio in spending occurred in schools in Jerusalem, where Jewish schools in West Jerusalem received three times more funding than schools in the largely Arab East Jerusalem, according to a separate study by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. 

Further evidence of inequality can be found in the decisions by the Israeli government in designateing certain communities for “high-priority status” for improving the local educational system. In recent years Israel has designated 553 Jewish communities for high-priority status, compared with 4 Palestinian communities.

The Israeli government also attempts to control the curriculum to prevent Palestinian and Jewish students from learning about the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”), the 1948 expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and land within present-day Israel. The Israeli parliament, the Knesset, recently passed a law that forbids commemoration of the Nakba in school curricula or textbooks in an effort to prevent all Israeli students from learning the truth about the country’s origins as an apartheid state founded on ethnic cleansing. 

Moreover, curricula and readings for Jewish students emphasize racist stereotypes of Palestinians and Arabs in general, according to a five-year-long study by the Israeli Jewish professor Nurit Peled-Elhanan of Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Peled-Elhanan found that Israeli textbooks for Jewish students routinely depict Palestinians “as vile and deviant and criminal, people who don’t pay taxes, people who live off the state, people who don’t want to develop. The only representation is as refugees, primitive farmers and terrorists. You never see a Palestinian child or doctor or teacher or engineer or modern farmer.”

Progressive Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel have attempted to defy Israel’s de facto segregation in recent years, creating five mixed Arab-Jewish alternative schools in defiance of the segregated system, according to the Israeli Jewish historian Ilan Pappe. Successive Israeli governments, however, have opposed any effort to establish equal rights for all by insisting that Israel can only be a Jewish state, rather than a state for all its citizens.