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Palestinian leaders, parents upset their students are using Israeli textbooks

| Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, 8:42 p.m.

JERUSALEM — It's the beginning of a new school year in Israel, and as the bells ring, girls dressed in button-down tunics, skinny jeans and head scarves are dashing into an entirely new kind of classroom experience — one where Palestinian children in East Jerusalem are for the first time studying Israeli textbooks.

In other cities, this might be just a bureaucratic tweaking of educational priorities. But here in East Jerusalem, the switch to Israeli course work — with its emphasis on not only math and science, but also Hebrew language and Israeli history — is potentially incendiary.

Israeli officials say that by offering an alternative to an antiquated Jordanian curriculum overseen by the Palestinian Authority, they are trying to do right by students by helping them succeed as citizens in a polyglot, knowledge-based economy.

But the curriculum has been branded by Palestinian officials in Ramallah, the administrative center of the West Bank, as a bullying tactic by an occupying power seeking to brainwash its young charges.

For Palestinians in East Jerusalem, education is especially thorny, for they are a people caught between passionate competing claims.

Israel has declared Jerusalem its undivided capital. Yet East Jerusalem is sought by the Palestine Liberation Organization as the capital of a future state. There are about 360,000 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem. A large but unknown number consider themselves Palestinian residents of “Occupied East Jerusalem”; others choose the term “permanent residents,” and a small but growing number are seeking Israeli citizenship.

The modest announcement that a half-dozen middle and high schools would begin to usher in the Israeli curriculum — with textbooks that use Hebrew names for Palestinian cities in the West Bank and fail to commemorate the anniversary of Yasser Arafat's death — sparked immediate condemnation from Palestinian officials.

Meanwhile, parents and teachers in East Jerusalem are struggling to do what's best for their children without being sure they know the answer. Some are being threatened because of their choices.

Teachers using the curriculum have been taunted via cellphones.

“The teachers have had many threats over the past week, and they are having many problems,” said Lara Mubarichi, Jerusalem's Deputy Director of Education for East Jerusalem.

“In one school, there were 300 parents who signed up, and now it has gone down to 86,” she said. “In another school, all the parents pulled out.”

Last year, Israel began a pilot program to offer parents in East Jerusalem the option of placing their children in the Israeli curriculum in a handful of the 125 schools that the Israeli government runs or funds there. This year, officials were hoping to double or triple the number of students in the program, to about 2,500 children or more — still a modest number in a part of the city with 100,000 school-age kids.

Though the program is voluntary, Palestinian officials have accused the Israelis of luring parents and teachers with additional resources and funds. Israeli officials deny there is any coercion.

“We consider this Israeli step an attempt to rewrite our history and undermine our national identity,” said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator now sitting with his Israeli counterpart in peace talks brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry.

Erekat criticized Israeli textbooks, saying they describe Israel “as a bastion of human rights and democracy” — a point with which he vehemently disagrees. Erekat said he doesn't like to see Palestinian students singing the Israeli national anthem or looking at maps calling the West Bank city of Nablus by its Hebrew name, “Shkhem.”

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