UNRWA reforming curriculum in schools

Teaching students Jerusalem is holy city for three religions, not the capital of "Palestine," is one alternative scenario.

April 20, 2017 01:25
2 minute read.
Palestinian students

Palestinian students. (photo credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS)


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The United Nations Relief Works Agency wants to reform the curriculum for some 300,000 Palestinian students in schools the organization maintains.

The initiative is part of a reform started by the UN body in 2013 that seeks to remove bias from educational materials related to national symbols, gender and age-appropriateness.

Palestinian textbooks and educational materials often present one-sided versions of history and make references to controversial national symbols such as “martyrs.”

Since launching the reform, UNRWA has authorized a team of experts to search for material in host-nation textbooks, which it considers not be neutral. If such material is found, the experts develop “alternative scenarios” in the form of supplements for teachers to use. While UNRWA has developed many potential “alternative scenarios,” it still has not introduced them into the classroom.

Moreover, the organization has never published examples of alternative scenarios, but the Palestinian news agency Maan leaked a document in March that showed some of them.

In one example, instead of using a map that shows modern-day “Palestine,” UNRWA advises teachers to present it as showing “historic” Palestine.

In another example, it suggests teachers call Jerusalem the “holy city for the three Semitic religions” instead of the “capital of the State of the Palestine.”

While many of the alternative scenarios relate to national considerations, they also pertain to gender issues and age appropriateness.

A third example provides an alternative scenario for a photo that depicts only boys playing with animals. In lieu of that, the organization tells teachers to present a photo of boys and girls together.

While the curriculum reform has won praise from the IDF, which called it “positive,” the Palestinian Education Ministry has strongly resisted it.

The ministry largely refrained from public protest, but following the news agency leaks it took a firm position against the reform.

“The Education Ministry completely rejects any amendment or change to Palestinian curricula,” the ministry said in a statement on March 24, the same day on which the document was leaked. “Any attempt to change the Palestinian curriculum is considered an act of aggression against Palestine and a targeting, obliteration, and liquidation of Palestinian national identity,” the statement continued.

The PA ministry stepped up its rhetoric after that initial response until last Thursday, when it suspended ties with UNRWA.

“Palestine has not announced its surrender to anyone and will not accept bartering its dignity,” PA Education Minister Sabri Saidam said following the decision to end cooperation with the agency.

The suspension, however, only lasted three days.

In an effort to mend relations, PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and UNRWA Commissioner General Pierre Krähenbühl met on Sunday to discuss the situation.

They agreed that all possible reforms to the curriculum in UNRWA classrooms would be carried out in “complete consultation” between the agency and the PA Education Ministry, according to the official PA news site Wafa.

UNRWA’s policy is to discuss the proposed reforms in dialogue with the PA, but not to seek its approval. While tensions between UNRWA and the PA seem to have calmed, it is unclear how the PA will react if UNRWA begins to introduce alternative scenarios into its classrooms.

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