Leaders of Israel’s large Palestinian minority have begun creating an alternative syllabus for Arab schools, in what they are terming “a revolutionary” step towards educational autonomy.
It will be the first time in Israel’s history that the Palestinian minority has tried to wrest control of the curriculum taught in Arab schools from the Israeli education ministry.
The move follows the Israeli education ministry’s decision to revise the civics textbook, a central part of Israel’s matriculation exam.
Traditionally, civics has been the only subject that uses the same textbook in both Jewish and Arab schools.
The changes have triggered a wave of protest from Israeli civic teachers’ associations. They have urged members to boycott the new textbook, due to be published in the next few weeks.
The move is likely to face stiff resistance from Israeli officials. Successive governments have refused to countenance educational autonomy for Israel’s Palestinian citizens.
Israel’s 1.6 million Palestinian citizens are a fifth of the population.
Education officials have been accused of downgrading democratic values to place a much greater emphasis on Israel’s Jewish character.
Mohammed Barakeh, head of the High Follow-Up Committee, a coalition of the main Palestinian political factions in Israel, told Al-Jazeera that he had approved the decision to issue Arab schools teachers with an alternative civics course.
He said the ministry’s new textbook had pushed the Arab education system to “crisis point”.
“Our teachers are now being required to present us as immigrants in our own country. And our students are being taught that the Jewish identity of the state is far more important than its democratic identity,” he said. “It is time for us to take the initiative and teach our children the true meaning of democratic values.”
Although Palestinian and Jewish students are segregated in Israel, the curriculum in Arab schools has always been strictly controlled by Jewish officials, Asad Ghanem, a politics professor at Haifa University, told Al-Jazeera.
The Follow-Up Committee has given Ghanem responsibility for overseeing the development of an alternative civics curriculum in time for the next academic year, in September.
The Palestinian leadership in Israel has grown increasingly concerned about the direction taken by the education system since Naftali Bennett, leader of the far-right settler party Jewish Home, took over the education ministry last spring.
Dirasat, a legal and social policy think-tank based in Nazareth, will take charge of writing the new curriculum sent to Arab schools. Dalia Halabi, its director, said a survey of the existing curriculum by Dirasat and ACRI, an Israeli civil rights group, found that it had become increasingly right-wing and nationalist.
“It does not encourage critical thinking or questioning from students,” she told Al-Jazeera. “It aims at indoctrination.” Ghanem said control over civics was vitally important because it determined the values of the next generation.
“Since [Benjamin] Netanyahu came to power in 2009, efforts have intensified to delegitimise the Palestinian minority’s standing in every field – politics, education and culture,” he said.
The textbook produced by the Follow-Up Committee would present the Palestinian minority’s perspectives on major historical and political issues that had always been excluded from the Israeli curriculum, Ghanem added.
Among them would be discussions of the Nakba, the mass dispossession of the Palestinians during the 1948 war that created Israel, and a critical analysis of Israel’s definition as a Jewish state.
“At the moment the curriculum relates to us in terms of our sectarian identities – as Muslims, Christians, Druze – rather than recognising our Palestinian identity,” he said. “That has to change.” He said he hoped other parts of the ministry’s curriculum, especially history and religious studies, would also be rewritten in the future.
The Follow-Up Committee also intends to make the new civics material available online for parents.
Halabi said some teachers were “very afraid” of retaliation by the education ministry if they adopted the alternative curriculum. “We can’t put them in the front line alone,” she said. “We have to support them.”
Ghanem said the break with the official curriculum became inevitable after work by the education ministry on the new civics textbook – which has not been updated since 2000 – accelerated rapidly under Bennett.