An UNRWA school in Shu'fat refugee camp, East Jerusalem, January 14, 2020

Credit:

© 2020 UNRWA Archive Photographer Unknown

Feature Story

East Jerusalem Schools Deal with One Crisis after Another—Most Are Related to Funding

Snapshot

East Jerusalem schools struggle with financial challenges. State funding would put them at the mercy of Israeli bureaucrats who would impose an Israel-friendly worldview, and the schools are determined to resist that. But alternative funding is hard to come by.

Mrs. Mahera Dajani, chair of the board of the Hind Husseini Foundation, opened an old folder whose leather cover had become worn from excessive use and began flipping through its pages. The book included black and white pictures of children who are the nucleus of the Dar Al-Tifel Al-Arabi School in East Jerusalem.

The school was founded by Hind al-Husseini in April 1948 after she came across orphans of the Deir Yassin massacre, trembling in fear and weak with hunger, in the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Omar ibn al-Khattab Mosque opposite. She took them to live in her home, which later turned into the Dar Al-Tifel Al-Arabi (Home of the Arab Child) school. She insisted that the school be named Home of the Arab Child to include all residents of Jerusalem, regardless of their religion. This school still serves Palestinian orphans and girls in East Jerusalem. (Girls from other parts of the West Bank are unable to attend because of Israeli military closures, which make access to Jerusalem difficult to obtain, unpredictable, and highly constrained. See Closure and Access to Jerusalem.)

In an interview with Jerusalem Story, Mahera expressed her resolve: “Despite the great difficulties we face in the school, we are determined to keep this school standing for future generations. It is the address of Jerusalem.”

Hind Husseini Foundation (Dar Al-Tifel Al-Arabi)

The pioneering Jerusalemite women’s society that offers humanitarian, educational, and cultural services 

Mahera Dajani, chair of the board of the Hind Husseini Foundation

Mahera Dajani, chair of the board of the Hind Husseini Foundation, at her desk, May 17, 2024

Credit: 

Khalil Assali for Jerusalem Story

Bio Hind Taher al-Husseini

A formidable figure who dedicated her life to the care of orphans, education of girls and women, preservation of Palestinian culture, and social service

Dar Al-Tifel Al-Arabi is unique among Jerusalem schools because it provides a boarding section for girls who have lost one or both parents. This school is suffering from a stifling financial crisis because of the lack of domestic funding sources and the cessation of support from the Arab world. Israeli officials will make funding available if the school administration agrees to teach the Israeli curriculum; the school rejects this proposal. Other private schools, such as the waqf schools (owned and funded by the Islamic Endowment), Palestinian Authority (PA) schools, private commercial schools, and private Christian schools, face the same funding problems.

“We are determined to keep this school standing for future generations.”

Mahera Dajani, board chair, Hind Husseini Foundation

Some of the church-owned and managed schools are in equally dire straits. Mar Mitri School in the Old City of Jerusalem is owned and run by the Orthodox Patriarchate. The school’s financial debt caused the church to announce in April that it plans to close the school at the end of the school year and turn it into a vocational school, to be funded by the Jerusalem Municipality. The announcement produced fierce protests by teachers, students, and parents. In response, the church created a committee to recommend a robust financial plan, among other changes.

On May 11, 2024, the committee announced its recommendations. Audeh Qawwas, a senior advisor to the Patriarch who was on the committee, outlined nine components of the committee’s plan, which included a call on the Palestinian community at large to help support the school, a call on parents to pay outstanding tuition fees, and the creation of a board of trustees for the school to improve the quality of education and attract new students to help cover the monthly deficit. According to Audeh, the Orthodox Patriarchate contributed NIS 949,950 to the school budget in 2023, down from NIS 1,591,652 in 2022. The problem was compounded, Audeh said, by the drop in student enrollment due in part to more Jerusalem families leaving the Old City.1

Palestinian children and their teacher walk past the Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest sites in Islam.

Palestinian schoolchildren and their teacher walk past the Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest sites in Islam.

Source: 

Joel Carillet, iStock Photo

Generally speaking, the administration of education for Palestinian Jerusalemites is complex and not very functional. It is a product of the city’s history, in part from even before 1948, from the Ottoman Empire through the British Mandate, and then after, for 19 years of Jordanian rule, followed by Israeli occupation in 1967 and a strained patchwork agreement on shared responsibilities for education under the Oslo Accords. The end result today is a system run by multiple competing entities in which the Israeli state wields the most brute power and does not hesitate to use it.

The financial troubles facing all schools in East Jerusalem these days have often been remedied by reducing the number of teachers every year and reducing the number of classrooms due to decreases in enrollment. One of the big expenses facing the schools has been teacher salaries: Israel imposes the wages paid in East Jerusalem schools hiring Jerusalem residents. For a while, schools were able to avoid this restriction by hiring teachers from the Bethlehem and Ramallah areas outside Jerusalem and outside the wall and checkpoints. But this has become a major burden as travel permits that were normally given easily to allow those teachers to come to Jerusalem have become much more difficult to secure. After October 7, 2023, all checkpoints for Palestinians from outside to access Jerusalem were closed for months, and travel permits were generally suspended. The situation has improved somewhat in recent months, but schools had to find alternatives in the interim.

A report by the Palestinian NGO Miftah found that in 2020–1, about 89,795 Palestinians attended 238 schools in East Jerusalem; 141 of these schools (59.3 percent) taught the Palestinian curriculum while 91 schools (38.3 percent) were run by the Israeli Ministry of Education and the Israeli municipality and taught the Israeli curriculum.2

These numbers do not mean much to the teachers as a whole. A 32-year-old teacher from Jerusalem who asked that her real name not be mentioned and who teaches in one of the schools affiliated with the PA explained to Jerusalem Story why she decided to apply to the Jerusalem Municipality for a teaching job in one of its schools. “The salary is much higher than my salary in the current PA-run school. We have not received a full salary for many months due to the financial crisis that the PA is suffering from."3 The teacher also noted that female students in the school where she teaches have transferred in recent years to municipal schools, which have higher quality of teaching and more extracurricular activities (such as school trips and music lessons). Nevertheless, as far as the overall quality of education, she admits that the level of education in government and private schools is better than in Israeli schools, and the results in the high school exam (in Israel, this is called the Bagrut) prove that, she said.

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“We have not received a full salary for many months.”

Anonymous teacher, PA-affiliated school, East Jerusalem

Ahmed al-Safadi, an expert in educational affairs and advisor to the Palestinian Department of Education, told Jerusalem Story that the biggest problem facing education in East Jerusalem is the distortion of the relatively modern Palestinian curriculum.4 Prior to the occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, the Jordanian curriculum was followed, and the best teachers, headed by Husni al-Ashhab, director of education at that time, prevented the attempted imposition of the Israeli curriculum.

Most schools are receiving some financial support without changing the core curriculum, which is still connected to the Palestinian Ministry of Education; students from these schools can choose to sit for the Tawjihi exam managed by the Palestinian ministry. However, many private schools in East Jerusalem have opted to adopt international curriculums, such as the British International General Certificate of Secondary Education and the International Baccalaureate, as an alternative to both the Palestinian and Israeli curriculums.

Bio Husni al-Ashhab

A notable Palestinian educator who worked tirelessly to preserve the Arab curriculum in East Jerusalem after 1967

The struggle then shifted to some of the additional curriculum subjects such as civic studies, which is part of the Palestinian curriculum. This has produced a major Israeli crackdown that at times has resulted in Israeli police checking the students’ backpacks to see if they are carrying the PA civics books. In late 2022, the Ibrahimiyya and al-Eman schools were told that their licenses would not be renewed (and they might face cuts in school funding) if they distributed books published by the PA.

Israel has also vociferously targeted UNRWA schools in East Jerusalem—which served about 1,800 students—for closure, largely succeeding in doing so at the end of the 2018–19 school year. Only the UNRWA schools in Jerusalem’s sole refugee camp, Shu‘fat, remained open. This move was made during the Trump administration, which decided to remove all funding for the UNRWA. The mayor of Jerusalem at the time, Nir Barkat, said of the move, “The US decision has created a rare opportunity to replace UNRWA’s services with services of the Jerusalem Municipality. We are putting an end to the lie of the ‘Palestinian refugee problem’ and the attempts at creating a false sovereignty within a sovereignty.”5

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An Uphill Battle

Many education experts in Jerusalem agree that the Israeli curriculum taught in schools owned and run by the Israeli municipality is not compatible with lived experience of Palestinian Jerusalemite students; rather, it implants in their consciousness ideas that distance them from their Palestinian national identity and cultural heritage.

Schools in Jerusalem generally and especially in the Old City are facing an uphill battle due in large part to the loss of students and the funding problems. On the other hand, the Israeli Ministry of Education and the Jerusalem Municipality have been pushing harder to have a bigger say in the educational framework in Jerusalem by attracting students and quality teachers. In the absence of secure funding and with the continued separation of East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, schools will continue to face one crisis after another on a negative trajectory.

Notes

1

Mahera Dajani, interview with the authors, May 18, 2024.

3

“‘Israelizing’ Education in Occupied Jerusalem,” Miftah, accessed June 7, 2024.

4

Anonymous (teacher), interview with the authors, May 20, 2024.

5

Ahmed al-Safadi, interview with the authors, May 20, 2024.

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