Terra Incognita: Nationalism by proxy

A private Christian school system educates the Arab, mostly Muslim, elite in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

June 15, 2010 23:36
The Arab shuk.

Arab shuk 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)


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The best schools among the Arabs of Israel and the Palestinian territories are the private Christian schools. It may seem a strange irony of history, but the educated elite among the mostly Muslim Palestinians, and to a lesser degree among Israeli Arabs, is almost all a product of a private Christian education. The Christians among these two Arab groups are about two percent of the population. Christian schools provide the tiny minority of Christian students an education, ensuring that they remain among the most cultured members of society (Israeli and Arab), and the schools increasingly cater to Muslims.

Forerunners of the current school system can be found in the 19th century. The first of these was Bishop Gobat’s school which was founded in 1853 on Mount Zion. It was an Anglican school established at the initiative of Samuel Gobat, a Swiss-born German and Anglican bishop in Jerusalem (1846-1879). His intention was to bring the light to Orthodox and Catholic Christian Arabs in place of the former policy of his Protestant precursors who had concentrated on converting the Jews.

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The school was a success, in the sense that it was Jerusalem’s best boys’ school, but it was also a political success and an incubator of extremism. Abdel Khader al-Husseini, the commander of local Arab units around Jerusalem in 1948, briefly attended the school. Israel’s two leading Arab communists from the 1950s, Tawfik Toubi and Emil Tume, were both students. Edward Said’s father and uncle were graduates. St. George’s school at the Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem played a similar role (Emil Ghuri, prominent Christian politician and briefly military commander in Jerusalem and Ibrahim Touqan, a nationalist poet, were graduates).

Another well known school in the region is the Ramallah Friends school, a Quaker institution founded in 1869 and extended in 1919 to include a girls’ school. Famous graduates include Hanan Ashrawi, the female politician, and Raja Shehadeh, the Palestinian writer. Many of the graduates of these schools during and after the British Mandate period would usually continue their studies at the American University of Beirut, which was founded by American Protestant missionary Daniel Bliss in 1866. Graduates of this institution included such notables as the PFLP terrorist, and Arab Christian, George Habash along with Ashrawi.

The German-Catholic Schmidt school and its cousin Lutheran institution, Talitha Kumi, pioneered education among Arab Christian women in Jerusalem. Kumi was founded in 1860 outside today’s Hamashbir department store at the top of Rehov Ben-Yehuda. After 1948 it was transferred to Beit Jala near Bethlehem.

BUT THE premier institution for Arab women in Jerusalem is the Rosary Sisters school in Beit Hanina.

The Rosary Sisters is a unique institution. Founded in 1880, its origins were local. Soultane Ghattas Danil, a Christian Arab woman from a prominent Jerusalem family, was, according to a biography written in 1952, the first Palestinian woman to become a nun. She took the name Sister Marie Alphonsine and was active in founding institutions for poor and married women. Together with Don Joseph Tannous, a Nazareth-born Catholic priest, they realized that a local Catholic school for women run by Arab female clergy could reach out to Arab women and educate them better than foreign born nuns.

Sister Alphonsine died in 1927 at 84 in a convent in Ein Kerem, but by 1952 her order, the Rosary Sisters, had 32 houses and 150 sisters, all Arab born. Today it has 44 properties and 166 nuns. The schools are located primarily in the West Bank and Jordan, with a few in Israel (Haifa, Jaffa), and outposts scattered in such far off places as the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. The flagship school is in Beit Hanina, a wealthy Arab community that has developed in the last 50 years between Jerusalem and Ramallah and is within the municipality of Jerusalem.

The Rosary school in Beit Hanina educates girls from four through 18. By my estimate, it is less than 15 percent Christian. Until 2000 the curriculum was based on the Jordanian system, meaning that graduates had a tough time getting into an Israeli university. Christians and Muslims attend separate classes on religion once or twice a week. The graduates of Rosary Sisters are of the highest caliber and most attend university, which is certainly a departure from the norm among Palestinian women. Several have become important personalities, such as Guevara al-Budeiri and Shireen Abu Akla, the fiery reporters for Al-Jazeera. The general trend is for women to study science (pharmacy and medicine).

The Christian schools have been incubators of Arab nationalism. They have mostly sacrificed their secular and currently nonsectarian stance to please their constituents, who today tend to be Muslim and nationalistic.

A deeper question is why the Muslim community has failed so clearly to create an elite school network, instead relying on others to educate its best and brightest. It’s not charity, the Muslims attending Christian schools pay for the privilege. According to my sources, the east Jerusalem school system that caters to local Muslim children is run by Arab functionaries from Israel who do little for the schools they are asked to administer.

Almost all the Christian children in the West Bank and east Jerusalem attend private Christian schools along with the wealthiest most well-connected Muslims. In Israel the pattern is similar, Haifa’s best school from a standpoint of matriculation was, in 2004, the Nazareth Nun’s Catholic school (established 1858) and the third best was the Orthodox School, with 95% matriculating (the national average is 52%). In second place was the Jewish Leo Baeck school. While the private Jewish school Reali charges NIS 10,000 a year, the Christian schools charge only NIS 1,200. The Orthodox School is 50% Muslim.

The Christian school system in the region has provided an education to the Arab elite for generations now. They foster love and pride in the Palestinian nation alongside an excellent education. The Jews, in this respect, could learn something from the nuns at Rosary Sisters: How to create an atmosphere where the cultured elite are devoted to their country and its people.  

The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies. sfrantzman@gmail.com

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