The Palestinian Right to Education
Fri 9th Aug 2013
A great deal is said and written about a person’s right to education. It would appear rather odd to talk about “a Palestinian” right to education as if the Palestinian student were a special case. But by virtue of living under occupation in the Palestinian Territories, of living as a minority inside Israel and of living as a refugee in a diaspora spread across the world, the Palestinian does become a special case.
S/he is a special case because living under Israeli occupation, as a minority in a Jewish state and as a diasporan, the Palestinian misses out on much that we, in the West, take for granted. S/he loses out on a liberal education firmly rooted in democratic values, the opportunities to make choices in a free society, the diversity of possible routes into further and higher education and the ability to make a choice in determining his/her future career and lifestyle within an independent and democratic state.
This article will focus on the Palestinian student living in the Palestinian Territories. They are likely to make up the resident population of the new Palestinian State who may or may not be joined by other diasporans or Israeli Palestinians. Those Palestinians living in Israel may be second class citizens within their own country, but they also happen to live in a democratic state wherein they could, in principle, mobilise and exert pressure for change. Admittedly, whenever Palestinians inside Israel tried to agitate for change, they were quickly and decisively crushed in order to maintain the status quo of Jewish civil supremacy in Israel. In the last few years the situation has improved significantly and we now have some Israeli universities with a large number of Palestinian students seeking a better life through education. The Palestinians living in the diaspora have, in a huge number of cases, made a success of their lives and gained a high level of education. Many live in Western democracies as full participating citizens, albeit on the margins of their newly acquired nationalities. The Palestinians living in the Arab world live mainly, though not exclusively, in shameful refugee camps relying on handouts to survive whilst their Arab so-called brothers and sisters at best ignore them and at worse discriminate against them in deplorable ways.
There are many reasons why it is supremely important for Palestinians living in the Palestinian Territories to receive a good, liberal and liberating education.
I remember visiting Beirut in 1973. As my wife and I were driven from Beirut International Airport on the wide highway recently renovated with large grassy areas separating the two lanes, with huge street lights turning the night into day, we saw hundreds of young men and women sitting under the lights and reading. Huge swarms of moths and other flies were circling the top of the street lights casting a multifarious and multishaped dance of shadows across both sides of the road. My wife asked why they were sitting in the middle of what was, effectively, a motorway. The taxi driver told her that they were Palestinian refugees from the Sabra and Shatilla Palestinian refugee Camps who always came out to read their books under the street lights because it was cheaper and brighter than what they had in their shacks in the camps. He added, “This is their only way out of poverty and out of the Palestinian Refugee Camp”.
Indeed, we Palestinians have been brought up on an exaggerated diet of respect for education. Education was everything. I never ever remember having the option of not receiving an education. At the age of three, the Palestinian child was sent to school. At the age of seven s/he went into the primary school. At the age of eleven s/he was sent to the secondary school. At the age of eighteen, if money were available, s/he attended a university.
I remember my father holding Palestinian land lease papers in his hand and shaking them at me. In his other hand he held his Universite de Montpellier License (equivalent to an MA) and waved it at me saying, “We lost our land to a conqueror who took it by force. I came out of Palestine with nothing but the clothes on my back. We had to rebuild from scratch and I was able to do so successfully because of this paper… Education. Education. Education. That is all that matters”. It often amused me to think, in later life, that my father used that famous trio of “education, education, education” well before Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and Sheikh Mohammad of Dubai were even born!
So, education is one way out of poverty. That is clearly not enough for a Palestinian. What has happened so far has been that, by being educated, the Palestinian could get out of a Palestinian Refugee Camp and get a fairly well paid job in a Gulf country where he remained a mere visitor with few citizen’s rights living in a far from free society. What we Palestinians need is an education that will equip us to live in a free and democratic Palestine.
The Palestinian in the Palestinian Territories needs a good liberal education for the following reasons other than as an exit door from a life of poverty:
(1) Every Palestinian child and youth has the right to be educated to live in a democracy. We Palestinians must learn the democratic values needed to live in a real democracy where every citizen has a say in the running of his/her country. Such an education rooted in democratic values is likely to be a liberal one that encourages critical thinking. The latter is crucial if we are to make a success of our society and country. We Palestinians need to become critical thinkers who are able to analyse, deconstruct and criticise without fear or favour. We need to be citizens who crave to take part in our communities both local and national. We need to know how to make choices based on logic and reason and not on historical accretion of unquestioning traditions and emotional fetishisms.
(2) We have the right to learn how to participate in the democratic process by choosing our representatives, holding them accountable and removing them when they fail in their duty to us as citizens.
(3) We have the right to learn how to live in peace with everyone both within and outside our country. Active pacifism must become a national characteristic in order to ensure that, never again, will the Palestinian people suffer what they have suffered since 1947, and, indeed, even before, under British and Turkish rule.
(4) Each of us Palestinians has the right to an education that equips him/her for the working world. This should be done through the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and understandings as well as through the ability to be deep critical thinkers. One aim of our education system must be to create a knowledge economy to enable us to make products, create businesses, produce ideas and do business with others in an ethical and environmentally friendly way.
(5) Each of us Palestinians has the right to follow an agreed school curriculum including, as a very minimum, Arabic, English, Hebrew, the sciences of biology, chemistry and physics, mathematics, art and design, citizenship (civics), history, geography, economics, politics, personal, social and health education and Islam. Each Palestinian student should be taught how to live according to his/her faith following the ideals propounded by the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). Other world religions should also be taught to all students in order to inculcate an understanding of other faiths, a compassion for other persons’ beliefs and a clear modesty of view that Islam is not an exclusive faith and that each citizen is free to choose what s/he wishes to believe in. On the contrary, Islam, in its strictest form, welcomes other faiths and lives in peace with them as happened in Andalusia and in the Islamic Empire before the modern political constructs narrowed down civic views and caused the current narrow mindedness so apparent all over the world.
These are only a few imperatives that infuse each and every Palestinian’s right to a liberal, liberating and successful education. As always, both teachers and students will no doubt add quite a few things to this rather modest list.
That would be perfectly all right for the content of education is relatively unimportant. What is important is its intent: to produce liberal, liberated, critical thinking, democratic, productive, self sufficient, independent and happy citizens.