Pedagogy of Separation: Hebrew Education and Arab Education in British Mandatory Palestine

Pedagogy of Separation: Hebrew Education and Arab Education in British Mandatory Palestine

Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center for German-Jewish Literature and Cultural History; “Da’at Hamakom”: Center for the Study of Cultures of Place in the Modern Jewish World; The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Vom - Bis
22.06.2016 - 23.06.2016
Url der Konferenzwebsite
Adi Livny, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

In Mandatory Palestine, the sphere of education was also one of separation: while the British governmental system served exclusively the land’s Arab inhabitants, the Jews enjoyed a separate, independent system, run by the Zionist institutions. This two-day academic workshop held at the Hebrew University examined the Jewish-Arab conflict through the lens of Mandatory Palestine’s education systems, serving as central sites for the crystallization of the two competing national movements in the country. As an arena of potential encounter and learning of the “other”, education was also a place of missed opportunities. These “missed opportunities” stood at the background of the workshop, representing a prevailing research trend that examines the history of the conflict – and Zionism – precisely through its “roads not taken”. 1 The workshops focused on the relationship between these two national communities as reflected in their respective education systems, corresponding pedagogical approaches and curriculum; on the role of different agents, i.e. individual educators or the British administration, in facilitating separation or rather challenging it in the field of education; and on the different approaches towards instruction of the “other’s” language and its influence on the future dynamic between these two antagonistic communities.

JONATHAN GRIBETZ (Princeton), the author of “Defining Neighbors: Religion, Race and the Early Zionist-Arab Encounter” gave the keynote address. Gribetz contextualized the theme of pedagogy in Mandatory Palestine, by offering a broad overview of how Jews and Palestinians in Palestine/Israel learned about each other in different historical periods. In addition to firsthand encounters and reading the other’s canonical texts, Gribetz emphasized the role of translation: not only as means of learning about the other, but rather for learning what the other knows about you. In fact, as Gribetz illustrated through a series of episodes stretching from the late Ottoman period to the post-1967 era, both sides expressed great interest in accessing and controlling the other’s knowledge of them.

The panel opening the second day, “Neighbors’ Relations”, set the background for the discussion of pedagogy, referring to the general state of affairs between Jews and Arabs in the late Ottoman Empire and Mandatory Palestine. MENACHEM KLEIN (Bar-Ilan) spoke about mixed cities such as Jerusalem and Jaffa, which enjoyed a cosmopolitan and multi-lingual character. This reality, according to Klein, had distinct cultural influences, as exemplified by the penetration of words from Arabic to Yiddish. Paradoxically or not, this era of the late Ottoman Empire, according to Klein, also saw the development of a Palestinian conscience of indigeneity, to a great extent in response to the identity of Jewish Zionist immigrants, who wished themselves to be regarded as natives of the land. ELIA ETKIN (Tel-Aviv) presented the case study of the Jewish Hatikvah (“the hope”) neighborhood, established in 1935 in Tel Aviv’s Eastern frontier and inhabited mostly by Mizrachi (Oriental) Jews. Despite existing tensions between Hatikvah and the neighboring Arab village of Salamah, exacerbated by frequent attacks from the village during the 1936-1939 “Arab revolt”, the Arabic-speaking Jewish inhabitants of Hatikvah maintained relations – mainly of trade – with their Arab neighbors. These ties, Etkin argued, allowed Tel-Aviv, the modern “first Hebrew city” to distance itself from the marginalized Oriental neighborhood. At the same time the neighborhood was essential for creating a barrier – physical and imaginary – between the Jewish city and the Arab village and by extension, between the “white” city and the “black”, “backward” Arab city of Jaffa. MAHMOUD YAZBAK (Haifa) spoke about the city of Haifa, arguing that in order to understand the changes of the Mandate period, one must return to the mid-eighteenth century. Yazbak described a coexistence owing it roots to professional and economic ties, focusing mainly on relations between Arab landowners and Jewish renters which developed as early as 1870 2, many of them surviving and prevailing through tensions of events such as the 1930s Arab revolt, up until the 1948 point-zero. What these three presentations had in common, is the emphasis of existing relations – cultural, social and economic – between Jews and Arabs in Mandatory Palestine. Especially Klein’s and Yazbak’s talks gave the impression that there is a gap between the relations that existed between Jews and Arabs before 1948 and the all too well-known future of these relations from that point on. But does the mere existence of such ties rule out the prevalence of each community’s national conscience and identity in the Mandate time and in the times to follow? Strong as they were, these ties did not prevent “occasional bloodshed” between Arabs and Jews during the mandate, as one commentator sarcastically noted in the discussion. These ties seem out of place indeed from our current point of view, considering the present power relations and the overwhelming disconnect between these two societies. Yet this is slightly less surprising if we remember that the 1948 war, at least in its first phase, was a civil war; in this case, then, these ties perhaps seem natural.

The second panel delved directly into the issue of pedagogy, and was dedicated to Jewish and Arab educators, presenting a sort of a mirror image of both societies. MIRIAM SZAMET’s (Jerusalem) talk was dedicated to a group of progressive Jewish educators who were influenced by the German Reformpädagogik. Szamet showed how despite their progressive spirit, the school that they established nonetheless eventually fell into line with prevailing Zionist conventions, adapting and co-opting its progressive concepts to fit to the common Zionist ideology. ITAMAR RADAI’s (Tel-Aviv) talk was dedicated to the prominent Palestinian intellectual and educator Khalil al-Sakakini. Although perhaps more influenced by American pedagogy in the spirit of John Dewey, al-Sakakini had much in common with the Jewish reformists: both emphasized active, participatory learning and the freedom to experiment – in a spirit that even today diverts quite significantly from conventional pedagogical ideas. Yet like the Jewish reformists, neither did al-Sakakini’s progressive pedagogical approaches translate into a position challenging his own community’s common national views. The humanist, cosmopolitan al-Sakakini was at the same time one of the most outspoken preachers against Zionism among Palestinian intellectuals; meanwhile, on the Jewish reformists’ part, the idea of mixed education, i.e., of Jews and Arabs studying together, did not even occur to them as worth aspiring to. As this panel including both Arab and Jewish educators within the same framework made clear, the workshop did not only challenge separation in education in Mandatory Palestine, but also the fundamental disciplinary divide between Middle Eastern Studies and the History of the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine.3 The latter is commonly studied in the framework of Jewish History or within the fast-growing field of “Israel Studies”, but in either case in separation from the geo-politics of the Middle East, echoing the political as well as scholarly omission of Israel from its region.

The third panel brought to the forefront the fierce internal Jewish debate on the teaching of Arabic in the Jewish education system. YONATAN MENDEL’s (Jerusalem) broad overview unfolded the different approaches. Although, Mendel emphasized, there were more than two “pure” approaches, the most fundamental line of divide was between a philological approach emphasizing structure and grammar and treating Arabic as the “Latin of the Middle East”, and a more functional approach, considering Arabic a living language and focusing on its day-to-day usage, and – later on – on its military and security usages.4 At least in the first generation, these different camps adhered strictly to ethnic origins, as Mendel clarified: the “philological” approach was advocated by German-Jewish Orientalists who were educated in German Universities, while the “practical” approach was advanced mainly by Jews from Sephardi origins, “natives” of the land. AVIV DERRI’s (New-York) talk was dedicated to a distinct representative of one of these camps – Israel Ben-Ze’ev (Wolfensohn), a native of Ottoman Jerusalem, who served as an supervisor of Arabic studies in the Mandatory education system. Wolfensohn mounted strong criticisms against what he perceived as the “academization” of Arabic, as it was taught in Hebrew schools. AMIT LEVY (Jerusalem) presented a precisely opposite figure – of the German Jewish Orientalist Meir Martin Plessner – an uncompromising scholar and teacher who did not perceive his presence in Palestine as sufficient reason to deviate from the customs of the German classroom.

The concluding panel was dedicated to the role of the British, the Mandatory power, in facilitating relations between Jews and Arabs. WALID ABD EL GAWAD (Leipzig) referred to the similarities between the British education system in Egypt and in Palestine, discussing in particular the Government Arab College, which was established in 1918 by the British as a teachers’ training school (initially headed by Khalil al-Sakakini, discussed in Itamar Radai’s talk). Although the college was a British institution, in fact only Arab students were enrolled in it: with the exception of the iconoclastic Israel Wolfensohn (see Aviv Derri’s talk). Even if not directly through the channel of education, the British did nevertheless offer some place of encounter between Jews and Arabs, some rather surprising: BOAZ LEV-TOV (Beit-Berl) spoke about the Mandatory radio station, an alternative site for socialization, in which Arabs and Jews worked together side by side.

This workshop’s most significant achievement, as mentioned before, is the attempt to produce an integrative history of Mandatory Palestine which transcends the particularistic national narratives. Bridging the different narratives, however, does not necessarily produce an historical reading that undermines its nationalist undertone. In fact, probably to the discontent of the conference’s organizers, the different panels and its various lectures all came together to an overwhelmingly consistent conclusion: that the two education systems and their corresponding pedagogies were deeply embedded in the prevailing emergent national identities and in the existing communal borders. Despite the existence of marginal and unconventional educators and the exposure to progressive pedagogical ideas, it was nonetheless a national, particularistic identification that eventually proved to be stronger than any existing cross-communal ties and affinities, and defined – in education as elsewhere – the boundaries of the conceivable.

Conference overview:

Opening Panel

Greetings: Yfaat Weiss (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
Chair and Discussant: Jonathan Furas (Tel Aviv University)
Keynote Address: Jonathan Gribetz (Princeton University)
Defining Neighbors in Palestine-Israel: Before and After the Mandate

Panel 1: Neighbors’ Relations: An Overview of British Mandate Palestine
Chair and Discussant: Hillel Cohen (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

Menachem Klein (Bar-Ilan University): Natives, Immigrants and Colonial Regime: Mixed Cities as an Intersection of Identities
Elia Etkin (Tel Aviv University): Neighbors and Neighboring in the Urban Frontier
Mahmoud Yazbak (University of Haifa(: Distant Relatives: Jews and Arabs in Mixed Cities

Panel 2: Pedagogy and Nationalism: The Arab and Hebrew Education Systems in British Mandate Palestine
Chair: Gish Amit (Bialik-Rogozin School, Tel Aviv(

Itamar Radai (Tel Aviv University): Khalil al-Sakakini and the Education to Arab-Palestinian Nationalism in Mandatory Palestine
Miriam Szamet (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem): Between Theory and Praxis in the New Hebrew Education of the Yishuv
Hanan Harif (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem): Shlomo Dov Goitein's Educational Agenda and the Challenge of Integration in the Orient

Panel 3: The Study of Arabic in the Hebrew Education System in British Mandate Palestine
Chair: Liat Kozma (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

Yonatan Mendel (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem): Three approaches towards Arabic Instruction in the Hebrew School in the years 1920-1948
Aviv Derri (New York University): Power struggles and conflicts on the production of Oriental knowledge in the Zionist Administration in the 1940s.
Amit Levy (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem): Between the Language of the Bible to a Living Language: Me'ir (Martin) Plessner's Attitude Towards Arabic Studies.

Panel 4: Training and Explaining: The British Mandate between the Rivals
Chair: Ami Ayalon (Tel Aviv University)

Walid Abd El Gawad (Leipzig University): Educating Teachers: the British Mandate and the Evolution of the Arab Education System in Egypt and Palestine
Jonathan Furas (Tel Aviv University): Staying Within the Lines: Arab and Jewish Educators in Light of the Separation in Education in Mandatory Palestine.
Boaz Lev-Tov (Beit Berl Academic College): The Voice of Jerusalem and Al-Quds: The Case Study of Mandatory Radio and its Attempts to Educate Jews and Arabs.

1 This trend’s most characteristic expression is the vast scholarly literature on the association of Brith-Shalom (“covenant of peace”), which was active in the years 1925-1933 and advocated for bi-nationalism in Palestine. See for example, Adi A. Gordon (ed.) Brith Shalom and Bi-National Zionism. “The Arab Question” as a Jewish Question. Jerusalem 2008 [Hebrew]. For other literature representing the trend, independently from Brith-Shalom, see: Noam Pianko. Zionism and the Roads not Taken: Rawidowicz, Kaplan, Kohn. Indiana 2010; David N. Myers. Between Jew and Arab: The Lost Voice of Simon Rawidowicz. UPNE, 2009.
2 These relationships are described in greater detail in Yazbak and Yfaat Weiss' article, which unfolds the stories of two Arab-owned houses in Haifa from the early twentieth century through their destiny following their confiscation in the 1948 Palestinian Nakba. See: Mahmoud Yazbak & Yfaat Weiss, A Tale of Two Houses, in: Mahmoud Yazbak & Yfaat Weiss (eds.), Haifa Before & After 1948. Narratives of a Mixed City, Hague 2012, pp. 11-42.
3 See: Gil Eyal, The Disenchantment of the Orient: Expertise in Arab Affairs and the Israeli State, Palo-Alto 2006, pp.14-15; Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, Orientalism, Jewish Thought and Israeli Society: Some Comments, in: Jamaa 3.1 (1999), 34-60 (in particular pp. 45-52) [Hebrew].
4. On the eventual transition from the philological to the practical approach, see: Yonatan Mendel, From German Philology to Local Usability: The Emergence of ‘Practical’ Arabic in the Hebrew Reali School in Haifa 1913–48. In: Middle Eastern Studies 52.1 (2016): 1-26.

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