Meet east Jerusalem's Arabs going west for education

It is interesting to note that this direction is mainly led by young women, who understand that only academic studies in the west of the city will guarantee them the future they seek for themselves.

 AT THE Hebrew University alone, 710 Palestinian students from east Jerusalem are studying this year. (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER)
AT THE Hebrew University alone, 710 Palestinian students from east Jerusalem are studying this year.
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER)

In the framework of changes occurring within Arab society in east Jerusalem, encouraging higher education has been a major focus. This follows the government decision to invest large budgets to improve the conditions there (plan 3790).

The 3790 plan’s budget of NIS 2.2 billion is ending next year, but the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry, still under Ze’ev Elkin but in a new government, recently approved the next quinquennial plan, doubling the sum – with more matriculation and Hebrew learning at its center.

According to a high-ranking source in the ministry, this time the official goal is that within the next five years, there will not be a single school left in the east of the city that does not move to the Israeli matriculation program and full Hebrew studies. This applies firstly to all public schools, but there are high hopes that at least some of the private schools will follow the trend.

Are east Jerusalem residents on the way to completing a process of full Israelization? This is the main question that now hovers over Israeli matriculation and Hebrew studies in the schools there.

Opinions differ: Among the young generation, there is a feeling of no choice, and that if Hebrew studies and Israeli matriculation will allow for decent employment later on, it is the right thing to do.

 THE OFFICIAL goal: Within the next five years, every east Jerusalem school will have moved to the Israeli matriculation program and full Hebrew studies.  (credit: OREL COHEN/FLASH90) THE OFFICIAL goal: Within the next five years, every east Jerusalem school will have moved to the Israeli matriculation program and full Hebrew studies. (credit: OREL COHEN/FLASH90)

It is interesting to note that, at present, this direction is mainly led by young women, who understand that only academic studies in Israeli institutions of higher education in the west of the city will guarantee them the future they seek for themselves. One reason for this is the absence or dearth of decent employment opportunities in eastern neighborhoods. While there are municipal plans to develop employment, commerce and even hi-tech in a number of eastern sites, at the moment, most of these plans are still on paper and, at best, it will take years to see results on the ground.

Leyla (she chose not to reveal her full identity) was sitting one morning with two friends in one of the cafés at the First Station complex. She does not cover her hair, but her two girlfriends were wearing hijabs. All three were made up and dressed in the best fashion brands.

Leyla speaks good Hebrew; her two friends are only beginning their acquaintance with the language. All three are studying at an academic college in the city, completing a bachelor’s degree this year, all in education studies, and they intend to continue their studies for a master’s degree as well.

Asked what she likes the most about her studies, Leyla burst out laughing and said, “That as long as I study, my parents do not pressure me to get married.”

In the last five years, there has been a 160% jump in the number of students in the Israeli program, which also receives a higher budget. Increased Hebrew studies are expected to aid social mobility, but dilemmas are also emerging. After five-and-a-half decades of the single rule of the Palestinian curriculum, the Israeli program and the Israeli matriculation are gaining a foothold in east Jerusalem.

This is a long and complex procedure. It’s not just about exchanging textbooks and large investments in building new schools; it’s about questions of national and personal identity, and pedagogical dilemmas, which revolve around the question of whether to accept the Israeli presence or to continue to oppose it, mainly through a refusal to learn Hebrew and to study only in Palestinian educational institutions in the West Bank.

After 1967, the transfer of a child from the public to the private system was sometimes considered an act of resistance to the so-called occupation. This is how a huge and diverse private system grew in the capital's east side – from Christian churches to organizations suspected of being close to Hamas. But until recently, the private and the public systems have taught the Palestinian program.

Large investments and construction of new schools have greatly helped to encourage the transition from private to public. To this must be added the security barrier that cut off Jerusalem Arabs from Palestinian institutions in the West Bank, and a new generation of parents more concerned with ensuring their children a better future by transferring them to the Israeli system.

Correspondingly, facts are growing on the ground. No less than 32 educational institutions have been established in the last six years in east Jerusalem. Due to the shortage of available space, some of the educational frameworks operate out of rented buildings. Some are also built from the ground up, such as Alpha in Beit Hanina, one of the flagships of this education change, with 600 students from grades one to six.

The standard is similar to every new school in Israel but much higher than the average standard on the east side, featuring all the modern equipment and design flexibility in classroom structure, with bright and wide corridors, large windows, a well-equipped soccer field, labs, a luxurious teachers room and even a special hall for parent activities.

Mayor Moshe Lion, on a visit to these eastern education institutions, indicated that Alpha is the standard of what can be expected in the future with regard to the new educational buildings there.

According to the municipality, in the school year that opened last September, about 13,000 students studied according to the program designed by the Education Ministry, compared to about 5,000 five years ago – a jump of 160%. This is a significant figure, even if the total numbers are still small, considering there are about 100,000 students in east Jerusalem, from kindergarten to 12th grade. (The small number is due to the fact that about half of them are still studying in private settings, or are in unofficially recognized classes run by Muslim organizations, churches or private associations.) Increasing the numbers is exactly what the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry and Lion are dedicated to do within the next five years.

But how did all this begin?

The change was kick-started by parental demands that their children learn the Israeli program to equip their children for a better future, and the practical step enabling this  came with the approval of resolution 3790 in 2018, an unprecedented economic plan. Out of the plan's NIS 2.2b., NIS 700 million went for education, allowing schools that move to an Israeli program or open a matriculation class to immediately obtain generous budgets. The rest was done by the parents, to smooth the path for their children with access to jobs available only for Hebrew-speakers.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, David Yellin College of Education, Hadassah Academic College and Azrieli College are the most popular institutions. At the Hebrew University alone, 710 Arab students from east Jerusalem are studying this year, compared with only 36 five years ago.

Introducing Israeli matriculation and the study of Hebrew in schools involves one central goal: to improve employment opportunities with good conditions and high wages for graduates. These opportunities are found, as mentioned, mainly in the west of the city.

A study conducted last year by the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research in cooperation with the Friedric    h Naumann Foundation for Freedom addresses the integration of east Jerusalem residents into the Israeli employment market. The study examines their challenges when seeking to integrate into the Israeli employment market and society, and the considerations guiding their personal and professional decision-making. It is based on interviews with 10 native residents of east Jerusalem neighborhoods, men and women who successfully integrated into the Israeli employment market.

An analysis of the interviews revealed that nearly all had attended private schools, and therefore approached the Israeli employment market from a problematic starting point – with a Tawjihi certificate (the Jordanian secondary education certificate) and almost no proficiency in Hebrew. The study also found that interviewees’ transitions to the Israeli arena occurred after completing an academic degree – characteristic of older interviewees. When they were younger, the possibility of studying in Israel seemed completely unrealistic, but after pursuing academic studies abroad or in the West Bank, they realized they had no employment prospects in the Palestinian market, thus opting to try to integrate into the Israeli market. 

Young interviewees described a prevailing change in outlook in east Jerusalem and the realization that because there are no employment prospects in the Palestinian market, it is preferable to pursue integration into the Israeli market.

On the ground, the move to integrate into the Israeli employment market entails specific steps. In general, the first step in transitioning to the Israeli market is to learn Hebrew in a mechina (preparatory course) or ulpan.

No one knows where all this is leading. Will Palestinian organizations like Hamas or those identified with the Palestinian Authority accept this new trend? Will ideology prevail over private needs and prevent students from studying Hebrew and the Israeli matriculation exams, needed for many jobs and higher salaries? Will the next flare-up, which might occur at any moment, take everyone back to the days of separatism and resistance to any sign of normalization?

Stay tuned. ❖