Al-Ahram Weekly Online – 8 November 2001
Israel’s “Margaret Thatcher” is forcing more than 370,000 Palestinian students to learn Zionist values and salute the Israeli flag. Jonathan Cook writes from Nazareth
Head teacher Faisal Taha raised the Israeli flag over his dilapidated secondary school in Nazareth last week for the first time since the outbreak of the Intifada. There was nothing nationalistic, or even voluntary, about the act.
Had he not done so, the school risked losing thousands of dollars in funding.
Taha stopped flying the flag in October last year in response to anger from pupils and parents at the slayings of 13 Arab citizens of Israel by the police in the Galilee, including three deaths in Nazareth itself. Local education officials objected to his decision and withheld a $9,500 grant.
But this year the stakes are far higher. Arab head teachers like Taha are risking the wrath not just of local bureaucrats but of the education minister herself. Limor Livnat, one of the most hawkish Likud ministers in Ariel Sharon’s coalition government, is on the warpath in classrooms across the country. She is insisting that only Zionist values be taught and has warned that any schools disobeying will face severe penalties.
Until recently Livnat was a political unknown, but her popularity is soaring on the back of promises to create a generation of young soldiers for Zionism. She readily compares herself to Britain’s Margaret Thatcher — more than a hint that she is preparing for the battle to be Sharon’s successor. And should Livnat mount a challenge for the premiership, the right and the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party’s vital allies appear only too happy to rally behind Israel’s Iron Lady.
Livnat was one of the architects of the “school flag law,” which was introduced five years ago but remained largely unenforced until she became education minister last February. She is now pushing for other nationalistic reforms, including piping Hebrew music through school public address systems, requiring every child to attend Jewish heritage classes and forcing pupils to sing the national anthem, the Hatikva [Hope], at assemblies.
She recently said: “What I would like is for there not to be a single child in Israel who doesn’t learn the basics of Jewish and Zionist knowledge and values.”
Caught in the firing line are the country’s 370,000 Arab pupils, one in four of the student population. She has warned Arab schools that if they refuse to “show loyalty to the state” they risk draconian cuts to their budgets.
In interviews Livnat has spelt out what she means by “disloyalty”: commemorating Nakba Day, which marks the catastrophe that befell the Palestinian people with the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, rather than Israel’s Independence Day, and flying the Palestinian flag. She recently told the Israeli weekly The Jerusalem Report: “This isn’t Palestine. It’s the State of Israel and all its citizens must be loyal to it and its symbols.”
Her comments have angered the Arab leadership inside Israel, including the chairman of the higher monitoring committee, Shauki Khatib, who has pointedly called her the “Jewish Minister of Education.” Livnat’s policies fly in the face of attempts by Israel’s Arab population to win recognition as a national minority. Both the Israeli flag and the national anthem are viewed as excluding the Arab population because they contain only Jewish symbols and sentiments.
Arab schools already struggle with textbooks that either ignore the plight of the Palestinians, both inside Israel and in the occupied territories, or portray them negatively.
The committee’s education spokesman, Raji Mansour, said: “We are Israeli citizens but our children need to learn about their own history and their identity as part of the Palestinian people. Livnat should not be telling us to deny our nationality. The suggestion that we should lose our funding for doing so is outrageous.”
Yossi Sarid, the former education minister from the left-wing Meretz Party, has called her plans “racist” and says they are probably unconstitutional. Undeterred, she is seeking legal advice.
There is no love lost between Sarid and Livnat. She has been rapidly dismantling his legacies. Over the summer she announced that “democracy and peace” classes were being scrapped, and spending on coexistence projects, including schemes to bring Muslim and Jewish pupils together, was being cut.
In a similar vein, she ordered all copies of a new history textbook, A World of Changes, written by a panel of scholars to be destroyed, arguing that the text was a “substantive failure in terms of Zionism.” In some of the Israeli press she garnered headlines that compared her shredding of the textbooks to book-burning by Nazis in Germany.
Heritage classes and book pulping are apparently much higher on her agenda than reversing decades of under-investment in Arab education. A three-day strike in September by students and teachers to protest against decades of discrimination was condemned by Livnat as “unjustified.”
The figures, however, do not support her. Even by conservative estimates, the Arab sector needs an additional 1,600 classrooms, hundreds more teachers and huge extra spending on programmes for those with learning difficulties. Recent state audits have shown that almost all of the poorly- funded local authorities are Arab. In 1997, for example, the poorest authority in the country, Rama, received $17 for each pupil a year compared with the highest, the Jewish town of Mitzpe Ramon, which received $850. A disproportionate number of Arab schools are also not connected to the electricity and water supplies. They lack textbooks and libraries, and have no sports facilities.
The budget cuts of $100 million which Livnat must make this year are likely to fall most heavily on Arab schools. The winners are likely to be the ultra-Orthodox schools run by Shas, whose support Livnat is eyeing.
She has allocated an additional $7 million to pay for extra teaching programmes for Shas schools even though, according to Sarid, they already receive money for this scheme from the Ministry of Religious Affairs. In other words, the Shas schools are getting paid twice.
In contrast, the schools in real need are in the Negev, particularly those serving the 56,000 Bedouin living in villages the state refuses to recognise. Recent surveys show that there is not one special needs school for the whole Bedouin population, and 600 additional classrooms urgently need to be built.
Livnat, however, has not shown herself much concerned with the views of the Bedouin. She has refused to dismiss the head of their education authority, Moshe Shohat, after he made racist comments during an interview with an American magazine in July. He called them “bloodthirsty people who commit polygamy, have 30 children and continue to expand their illegal settlements, taking over state land.” He also said they did not “know how to flush a toilet.” Bedouin groups are now challenging Livnat’s decision in the Supreme Court.