Terra Incognita: Nationalism by proxy

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

Arab shuk 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Arab shuk 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
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.
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 thecurriculum was based on the Jordanian system, meaning that graduateshad a tough time getting into an Israeli university. Christians andMuslims attend separate classes on religion once or twice a week. Thegraduates of Rosary Sisters are of the highest caliber and most attenduniversity, which is certainly a departure from the norm amongPalestinian women. Several have become important personalities, such asGuevara al-Budeiri and Shireen Abu Akla, the fiery reporters forAl-Jazeera. The general trend is for women to study science (pharmacyand medicine).
The Christian schools have been incubators of Arab nationalism. Theyhave mostly sacrificed their secular and currently nonsectarian stanceto please their constituents, who today tend to be Muslim andnationalistic.
A deeper question is why the Muslim community has failed so clearly tocreate an elite school network, instead relying on others to educateits best and brightest. It’s not charity, the Muslims attendingChristian schools pay for the privilege. According to my sources, theeast Jerusalem school system that caters to local Muslim children isrun by Arab functionaries from Israel who do little for the schoolsthey are asked to administer.
Almost all the Christian children in the West Bank and east Jerusalemattend private Christian schools along with the wealthiest mostwell-connected Muslims. In Israel the pattern is similar, Haifa’s bestschool from a standpoint of matriculation was, in 2004, the NazarethNun’s Catholic school (established 1858) and the third best was theOrthodox School, with 95% matriculating (the national average is 52%).In second place was the Jewish Leo Baeck school. While the privateJewish school Reali charges NIS 10,000 a year, the Christian schoolscharge only NIS 1,200. The Orthodox School is 50% Muslim.
The Christian school system in the region has provided an education tothe Arab elite for generations now. They foster love and pride in thePalestinian nation alongside an excellent education. The Jews, in thisrespect, could learn something from the nuns at Rosary Sisters: How tocreate an atmosphere where the cultured elite are devoted to theircountry and its people.  
The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University and afellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.sfrantzman@gmail.com