September 2017
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Mahmood K. M. Eshreteh, Hebron University, Hebron, Palestine

Relying on my own perception and experience of the situation in Jerusalem, I explore education in the region by identifying the overlapping and competing identities that have shaped the lives of Palestinian students and teachers, such as myself. Since I work as an assistant professor of English linguistics who teaches English Major BA and MA students from Jerusalem at Hebron University, I will focus on the experience of the Palestinians who have fought to preserve their identity despite the systematic Israeli efforts to control the economy, society, the media and educational institutions. More specifically, I have observed that the formal educational system for Palestinian students in Jerusalem that is currently run by Israel is designed and forced to control, shape and manipulate the national identity of Palestinians.

In spite of the many challenges facing education in Jerusalem, English language teachers can have a vital role in promoting a culture of peace at school and in their social networks and communities by favoring the positive management of conflict and the prevention of violence, stimulating tolerant attitudes that are respectful of oneself and others, and promoting critical awareness about social injustices.

The Education System in Jerusalem

After the Arab-Israeli War in 1948, more and more Jewish people began migrating to the newly established country of Israel, despite it being Palestinian land. A goal of the Zionist movement was to expel all Palestinians from the land as they believed this land was promised to them by God as a place to return to escape the hostility towards the Jewish people (Pappe, 2007). According to Rosner and Ruskay (2017), Israel frequently calls Jerusalem “the capital of the Jewish people.” This has been condemned by international actors, and declared null and void by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 478 (UN Security Council, 2245th meeting). Hulme (2006) states that this “identification with the city” became an aspect of identity that is supported by ideological considerations expressed through association with political youth movements or Zionist (Israeli)/Palestinian nationalist organizations. In other words, both Palestinians and Israelis state they are the rightful inhabitants of the land. However, Palestinians feel they have a stronger claim as they have lived on the land for generations.

Therefore, it seems to me, and to many scholars before me, that the Zionist movement has tried to deny the existence of the Palestinian people. (Schoeman, 1988; Makkawi, 2008). Zionists continue to claim that Palestine was a land without people for people without land. According to Makkawi (2008), this was intentional. As he writes, “within their internal circles, the Zionists were well aware of the fact that the native Arab people of Palestine, aspiring for their own independence and self-determination, had populated the country for centuries” (p. 23).

In fact, Palestine, and Jerusalem in particular, has remained inhabited by Arab Palestinians who have their own language and culture. However, it is clear to me that the Israeli view avoids telling this reality which is, in most cases, expressed and manipulated in Israeli educational texts and curricula to achieve certain ideological advantages through the promotion of social beliefs that portray Israelis as victims and Palestinians as aggressors. Such Israeli attempts ignore contradictory arguments, especially facts connected to Arab-Palestinian history.

Israel's law for Public Education, which was passed in 1953, privileged the Jewish identity at the expense of Palestinians, and aimed to “raise youth on the values of Israeli culture, and love of the Jewish nation and people of Israel” (Eideen, 1976, p. 10, cited in Barghouti, 2009). Despite the fact that one quarter of the students in Israeli schools are Palestinian, they are forced to learn the Israeli Zionist narrative in the public education system, since no religious schools are available for Palestinian Christians or Muslims. According to Barghouti (2009), the erasure of the Palestinian identity and the imposition of the Zionist perspective in schools was the intention of the Israeli politicians. Along these lines, Al Azza and Alqasis (2012) state that Palestinians in Jerusalem “are forced to operate within a structure that serves the Zionist character of Israel as ‘the state of the Jews’. In other words, they have been subjected to attempts to erase their national identity” (p. 7).

According to a colleague of mine from Jerusalem, there are about 150 schools in Eastern Jerusalem and some of these schools have taught the Palestinian curriculum to more than 110,000 students. This curriculum was developed after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994 and is now used in West Bank and Gaza. However, I have observed that the Israeli government has omitted material from the Palestinian school books, including the Palestinian flag, poems and Quranic texts, as well as the commemoration of crucial Palestinian historical events such as Al Nakba, the 1948 displacement of the Palestinians. Israel has provided greater support for schools that have relented to their approach, and threatened to take harsher measures against ones that have not. Israeli authorities use their control over the city and exploit the schools’ need for financial support, renovation, aid, recruitment of new teachers in order to impose compromises that suit them.

The Jerusalem Municipality then set the adoption of the Israeli curriculum instead of the Palestinian one as a precondition to renovating Arab schools, which some schools followed and others resisted. For example, two years ago I observed that the Israeli Ministry of Education and the Jerusalem Municipality called principals and directors of Palestinian schools to stop using a specific third grade civic education book because the new book included a chapter called “I like my motherland Palestine.” Key elements of this chapter focused on the Palestinian identity, teaching the Palestinian national anthem and referring to Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.

Another example of the Israeli attempts to control and shape the identity of Palestinians was when the Israeli authorities ordered Arabic high schools in Eastern Jerusalem to adopt the schedule of Israeli holidays. Two of my MA students, who work as teachers in Jerusalem, informed me that a memo from the Israeli Education Ministry was sent to directors of the Arabic schools in Jerusalem ordering them to work in accordance with the Israeli holiday schedule. Due to lack of dialogue, this step provoked the parents of Palestinian students, who refused to apply this schedule, since they had not been consulted. In response to these Israeli actions, the Palestinian Authority urged students and their parents to reject the schedule.

Sabri Saidam, the Palestinian Education Minister has voiced his concern that the Israeli government “seeks to Judaize these schools, aims to combat the Arabic-Palestinian identity, and usurps Palestinians’ right to maintain their identity and freedom in choosing their culture” (Ziboun, 2017, para 8). He has also pledged to fight against any attempts to sever the history, culture, and identity of these Palestinian-Arab students promising that interference in the Palestinian education system would not stand as attempts to marginalize the history and culture of Palestine in school is a violation of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The group identity of Palestinians in Jerusalem is reshaped and endowed with new meanings and symbols by these types of social and political events. According to Hasson (2001), “social and political struggles might remould the nature of group identity, providing it with new experiences and myths” (p. 312). Identity construction, in other words, is associated with historical developments, everyday experiences and recent political events.

Languages and Identities in Jerusalem

The main languages spoken in Jerusalem are Hebrew, by Jews in western Jerusalem, and Arabic, by Arabs in eastern Jerusalem. Most people throughout the city speak sufficient English for communication. In particular, English is widely spoken in areas most visited by tourists, especially the Old City. My own impression is that students and teachers make decisions to use English, Hebrew, and Arabic—the three regional languages—based on issues of hegemony and social influences. Schools in Jerusalem and the Israeli Ministry of Education blame each other for the current state of affairs.

English is studied formally in East Jerusalem. Outside contact with English speakers is very slight because there is no direct contact between the Arabs in Jerusalem and an English-speaking community. English is important because of its role as the international language of science, technology and commerce; the popularity of American culture, and the close relationship between the United States and Israel. While interacting with my students from Jerusalem in English classes, I have noticed that though the Arabs in Jerusalem express positive attitudes toward English, there is a lower level of priority for learning English because Arabs see learning Hebrew as first priority.

The problematic nature of the diglossic situation in Jerusalem is not only linguistic, but also social and ideological. It is clear to me that education in Jerusalem faces a state of disintegration in general. This is due to the conflicting policies, in addition to the Israeli occupation and its efforts to alienate the educational system from its Palestinian context, which directly and adversely influence the social harmony as well as collective norms and values of Arabs.

Thus, taking into consideration the abovementioned Israeli practices against Palestinians in Jerusalem, I can confirm that the Israeli authorities aim to marginalize or even wipe out the Palestinian identity and to weaken the national feelings and identity among Palestinian youth. Moreover, these authorities, for so many decades, tried their best to deform and change facts in the Palestinian curriculum and delete any issues related to the national context.

Can English language teachers foster the ideology of tolerance and co-existence among students in Palestinian schools? Can Arab and Jewish students learn English with an aspiration toward equal representation of both their cultures? Can TESOL teachers bridge the gap between Jews and Arabs? It is clear that identity formation is associated not only with positive identification, but also with a reactive act that distinguishes between “our experience” and “their experience.”

I have no doubt that education in Jerusalem faces a lot of challenges negatively affecting its quality. I can tell that the greatest negative impact is related to the collective Palestinian identity, which mainly resulted from the multiplicity of educational systems and the supervising authorities, which, in turn, has affected the Palestinian social and cultural heritage and the social harmony. Therefore, because of the great danger threatening students in Jerusalem, it becomes necessary to coordinate efforts with international agencies and human rights organizations in order to document Israeli violations against Palestinian schools and for English teachers to foster the ideology of tolerance and co-existence.


Al Azza, N & Alqasis, A. (ed.) (2012). One people united: A deterritorialized Palestinian identity - BADIL survey of Palestinian youth on identity and social ties - 2012. (Working Paper No. 14). Bethlehem, Palestine: BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency & Refugee Rights. Retrieved from

Barghouti, S. (2009). Palestinian history and identity in Israeli schools. Al Majdal 42, 16-20.

Hasson, S. (2001). Territories and identities in Jerusalem. GeoJournal, 53(3), 311–322.

Hulme, D. (2006). Identity, ideology and the future of Jerusalem. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Makkawi, I. (2008). Cultural hegemony, resistance and reconstruction of national identity among Palestinian students in Israel. Arab Studies Quarterly, 30(4), 23- 42.

Pappe, I. (2007). The ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications.

Rosner, S. & Ruskay, J. (2017, July 2). What JPPI’s 2017 global Jewish dialogue on Jerusalem Teaches us about the Kotel crisis. Retrieved from

Schoenman, R. (1988). The hidden history of Zionism. Santa Barbara, CA:
Ventes Press.

UN Security Council, 2245th meeting. Resolution 476 (1980) [On the status of Jerusalem]. 1980. UNISPAL. (20 August 1980). Retrieved from

Ziboun, K. (2017, March 21). Education in eastern Jerusalem maintains Palestinian identity. English Edition of Asharq Al-Awsat. Retrieved from

Mahmood K. M. Eshreteh is from Daherieh, Palestine and worked for 10 years as a high school English teacher in Palestinian public schools. Currently, he is an assistant professor of linguistics at Hebron University in Palestine. His research interests include translation studies, pragmatics, and discourse analysis.

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