Husni al-Ashhab was a Palestinian educator who made it his mission to preserve the Arab character of Jerusalem through the educational curriculum of high schools.
Education and Career
Al-Ashhab (b. 1917 in Jerusalem) started his educational formative years at al-Rashidiyya, a high school in Jerusalem where he would later teach. He continued his high school education and received a degree in chemistry from the Arab College of Jerusalem, which was first located in Herod’s Gate/Bab al-Zahra and then, after the 1936 Revolt, in the Jabal Mukabbir area. Until it was shut down due to the 1948 War, the Arab College was one of the most important educational institutes in Palestine. The principal personally chose the top students from across the country for a very select enrollment, with about 20 students in each grade. Graduates went on to excel and achieve distinctions as leaders in the Arab world, especially as doctors, professors, ambassadors, and ministers.1
As a child, al-Ashhab was already involved in political activities. He was hardly a teenager when he took part in the 1929 Palestine riots (the al-Buraq uprising). He had witnessed several attempts by the British as well as Zionist authorities to remove the Arab identity and presence from the land and would thus lead demonstrations and boycotts opposing those attempts.
In 1941, al-Ashhab obtained the Higher Secondary School Teaching Certificate. Immediately he began working as a teacher at al-Rashidiyya High School in Jerusalem. He would go on to teach in different schools, including in Jerusalem and Hebron, as well as in the cities of Amman, Karak, and Ma‘an in Jordan.
During that time, al-Ashhab was actively involved in the Arab revolt—the nationalist uprising against the British administration of the Palestine Mandate (1936–39). As a result, the British demolished his father’s house in Hebron.
After that incident, he went to Iraq. He furthered his education at the Baghdad University College of Law, but did not finish due to his serious involvement in the political struggle.
In the mid-1940s and during his time in Iraq, he became more engaged in the nationalist movement for Palestine. He also joined the Arab Socialist Ba‘ath Party and took part in its initial conference in Lebanon.
As a result of his activism, he was exiled to Ma‘an in Jordan.
In conjunction with his political activism, al-Ashhab held several positions in education. Among the prestigious roles he undertook, besides teaching in high schools, was heading the Examinations Department in the Ministry of Education. In due time, he would also be appointed as the Director of Education in Jerusalem. Although this role was no longer functioning after the 1967 War, yet he managed to make some changes in the system and to maintain this position until his death in 1998.
Critical Role in Opposing Hegemony of Education
Al-Ashhab believed that the Israelization of Jerusalem as a city would start with the Israelization of its educational curriculum, and he thus made it his personal mission to preserve the Arab character and identity of his beloved Jerusalem.
In this respect, he took it upon himself to fight against the Israelized transformation of the curriculum within the schools in Jerusalem. He joined forces with other esteemed professors, including the late Bahjat Abu Gharbiyeh, to reject the Israeli hegemony and dominance over the educational system.
With this mission in mind, al-Ashhab founded the secret teachers’ committee. This committee was made up of instrumental Palestinian teachers and educators who were likewise bent on preserving the Arab curriculum in the face of the Israeli Ministry of Education’s domination of the school system following the 1967 War.
Through his role in this committee, al-Ashhab famously announced—after the 1967 War—a general school strike. For several weeks, all Arab schools throughout the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem) were shut down. This strike’s goals came to fruition: with the support of Arab teachers and the Jordanian government, Arab students chose to abandon the enforced Israeli “formal” elementary schools and transfer, instead, to the private schools that al-Ashhab instituted. The Israeli Ministry of Education, following its occupation of Jerusalem, also aimed to control the educational system by enforcing an Israelized curriculum—and that is exactly what al-Ashhab fought against.
The schools that al-Ashhab established did not follow the Israeli curriculum but rather maintained the Jordanian curriculum—as it had been taught prior to the 1967 War. This goal to preserve the Arab curriculum proved to be so successful that the Arab schools were full of Arab students in the 1970s, compared to hardly any students in the Israeli schools. These private (nongovernmental) schools that al-Ashhab created became known as the Husni al-Ashhab schools. These schools continued to follow the Jordanian curriculum until 1994, when the Palestinian Authority took charge.
Before this success, however, al-Ashbab and his intellectual team of educators surely paid a personal price for their objectives. Six months after the establishment of the secret teachers’ committee in 1967, the Israeli forces arrested al-Ashhab. He was detained for 44 days, along with other members of the committee, in the maximum security Ramla Prison (today known as the Ayalon Prison) in Israel.
Detention did not deter him, however: as soon as he was released, al-Ashhab proceeded with vocal calls for boycotting the Israeli Ministry of Education’s schools and rejecting the curriculum they were aiming to impose.
What al-Ashhab and the secret teachers’ committee managed to do was provide alternative schools to the ones imposed by the Israeli Ministry of Education. In due time, they managed to establish about 45 schools—which mostly became known as al-Ashhab schools, and which eventually came to be administered by the Palestinian Ministry of Education.
Besides this notable accomplishment, al-Ashbab had key roles in establishing important Palestinian institutions. These include the University Graduates Union in Hebron, the Islamic Supreme Committee (1967) in Jerusalem, and al-Ummah University College (established in Jerusalem in 1983).
He also served as member of the Board of Trustees of the Islamic Endowment (Awqaf) Council, supported the roles of the Arab Institute (in Abu Dis), and worked on preserving the continuity of the Makassed Islamic Charitable Society, and the Blind Association—among others. He also directed the Muslim Orphanage School System, which was later named after him. To this day, the school of al-Ummah in al-Ram is named after him: Husni al-Ashhab School. In 2008, the school also launched a football (soccer) playground in al-Ram, again named after him.
Death and Legacy
Al-Ashhab passed away on September 25, 1998, in Jerusalem.
Twenty years after his death, in October 2018, the Israeli police banned the commemoration of al-Ashhab’s passing. In response, the Palestinian Ministry of Education created the first educational medal in his name.
The late King Hussein of Jordan as well as the late President Yasser Arafat also honored al-Ashhab with special awards in recognition of his significant work in education.
“Arab College of Jerusalem.” Encyclopedia.com. Accessed April 7, 2022.
al-‘Assa, ‘Aziz. “Husni al-Ashhab.” [In Arabic.] Riwaq al-Umma, September 19, 2014.
al-Ghad TV. “Jerusalem – Jerusalemite Personalities. Husni al-Ashhab – Pioneer of Education in Jerusalem.” [In Arabic.] December 27, 2018.
Ghanem, Manhi, and Maysa Bisharat. “Husni al-Ashhab and Comrades.” [In Arabic.] Qudurat, 2021.
Jaradat, Idris. “Husni al-Ashhab.” [In Arabic.] Sanabel Center for Studies and Popular Patrimony—Magazine 7, 2000.
The New Arab. “Israeli Forces Disband Palestinian Event Honoring ‘Notable Teacher.’” October 4, 2018.
al-Quds al-‘Arabi. “The Arab College in Jerusalem: A Beacon of Knowledge and a National Fortress.” [In Arabic.] May 13, 2018.
Talhami, Ghada Hashem. American Presidents and Jerusalem. London: Lexington Books, 2017.
Wikipedia. s.v. “Mal‘ab Husni al-Ashhab” [Husni al-Ashhab playground]. [In Arabic.] Last modified December 16, 2019, 23:09.
[Profile photo: alassaazizblogspot.com]