The Education of Palestinians in Israel

The Education of Palestinians in Israel
Struggling to Break Free from a System of Marginalization

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Children writing Arabic in a school in Israel

Alamy Stock Photo
Eddie Gerald

The education of Palestinian citizens of Israel is shaped by the same Israeli policies of discrimination and neglect that apply to other areas of their life in their homeland. Similarly, education constitutes one arena, among others, through which they struggle to promote their social advancement and ascertain their identity.

The Israeli Ministry of Education oversees all kindergartens, primary schools, and secondary schools. Arab children attend either state schools (which, like public Hebrew education, is directly administered by the Ministry of Education) or private schools, the majority of which are affiliated with Christian churches. Jewish education in Israel consists of three primary tracks: state (“secular”) education, state-religious education, and ultra-orthodox religious education (Haredi). Table 1 shows the number of Arab and Jewish children in preschool programs and kindergartens, based on registrations with private or governmental/municipal institutions, and registration levels relative to children of their age in 2013–14. Table 2 provides the number of schools, classrooms, and students at the primary, intermediate, and secondary school level in 2016–17.

Education in Israel is subject to a number of laws passed by the Knesset. The first of these was passed in 1949, and they have been amended periodically ever since. The most important of these laws are the Compulsory Education Law, 1949 (for children aged 3 to 17), the State Education Law, 1953 (which defines the goals of state education, and regulates the Ministry of Education’s administration and supervision of state schools as well as the procedures for setting curricula and appointing teachers), the School Inspection Law, 1968 (which regulates the conditions for licensing and supervising non-governmental educational institutions), the Special Education Law, 1988 (concerning the rights of students with special needs), and the Students’ Rights Law, 2000 (which, among other things, forbids corporal or demeaning punishment as well as discrimination among students for political, ethnic, or socio-economic reasons, or because of their parents’ occupation).

The titles and text of these laws appear to grant all educational rights to Palestinian children and students in Israel on an equal basis with Jewish children and students. But a closer look reveals that the overall effects of these laws add up to the deliberate neglect and marginalization of Palestinian students. For example, Article 2 of the State Education Law, 1953 (amended in 2000) lists the eleven objectives of state education. These include instilling “the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” and “teaching the Torah of Israel, the history of the Jewish people, the heritage of Israel and Jewish traditions, and promoting remembrance of the Holocaust and heroism.” Although the article does refer to “being acquainted with the unique language, culture, history, heritage, and traditions of the Arab population and other groups in the State of Israel,” it does so only at the end of a list regarding the education of Jewish students (to preempt accusations that Hebrew education is racist). The “Arab population” is distinguished culturally but not identified as a national group, and there are no defined goals for the education of Arab students in Israel altogether.

By not clarifying the standing granted to Arab education, Israeli law aims to control the Arab education sector and to transform it into a tool of “voluntary” submission to Israeli superiority and as a means for securing loyalty to the state. It also works to prevent state education from becoming a tool for the development of a collective Palestinian identity.

Despite the emergence of some Jewish voices counseling the recognition of a separate Arab education sector, and calling for broader cooperation with Arab educators, the dominant trend remains state control. This is reflected in the way the state education apparatus is run, as well as in its programs and budgets. Within the education system itself, Arab education is kept both directly subordinate to the state system and separate from Jewish education. The Arab Education Department in the Ministry of Education is directed and supervised by Jewish bureaucrats who have no independence from the government and do not involve Arab educators in creating policy or implementing programs. The role of Arab educators is further marginalized through procedures for appointing school directors, teachers, and inspectors. Appointment procedures are also subject to interference from the Israeli security agency (the Shabak).

Because of the lack of educational goals for Arab students and the centralization of decision-making in the hands of Jewish officials, students in Arab schools follow curricula derived from the curricula used in Jewish state schools. This is particularly clear in the teaching of Arabic language, history, and civics. The Arabic language curriculum focuses on linguistic competence, at the expense of learning about Arabic literature or the symbols of committed Palestinian literature. While texts by Fadwa Tuqan and Ghassan Kanafani were approved in 2006, they were removed from the compulsory section of the curriculum in the 2010–11 school year because of “the role of these two authors in the Palestinian resistance, and Kanafani’s membership in the Palestinian Liberation Organization.” Likewise, the history curriculum largely reflects the Zionist narrative, even in Arab and Islamic history. It also omits anything related to the history of the Palestinian Arabs or their identity.

The civics curriculum works to reconcile two fundamentally contradictory statements within the consciousness of the Arab student: that Israel is both a Jewish and a democratic state. That is, that Israel is the state of the Jewish people, wherever they might reside, embodying the right of the Jewish people to self-determination, and at the same time, that it is a pluralistic state that accommodates its Arab citizens and grants them equality when it comes to individual civil rights. Yet defining Israel as a Jewish state creates a hierarchy of citizenship and denies the collective national rights of Palestinians in Israel.

The Arab education sector is allotted resources at a level that is on average 40 percent lower than Hebrew education (on a per student basis). Moreover, while the state follows a policy of preferential treatment toward lower socioeconomic groups within the Jewish population, it is clear that in education —as in other fields— the state does not follow such a policy toward Arab groups. When it comes to education funding among lower socioeconomic segments of the population, Arab primary schools receive 30 percent less funding than Jewish primary schools, intermediate schools receive 50 percent less than Jewish intermediate level schools, and secondary level schools receive 75 percent less than Jewish secondary level schools.

Because insufficient resources are allocated for Arab education, Arab schools have unsuitable infrastructure, not enough buildings, overcrowded classrooms, and fewer teachers. Arab teacher training institutes, for example, receive half as much funding as their Jewish equivalents. Funding disparities are also clear in the case of private schools, which approximately 33,000 Arab students attend. These schools receive only 75 percent of the government support they are owed. In September 2015, this led to a general strike that lasted four weeks —until the Ministry of Education agreed to allocate a grant of about 13 million dollars for the 2015–16 school year.

The unequal allocation of resources manifests itself in the high attrition rates among Arab students, lower passing rates on test administered by the Ministry of Education, including the Bagrut high school matriculation exams, and in applications for admission at institutions of higher education compared to Jewish students. In 2016, the attrition rate was 14 percent among Arab students, compared with 5.5 percent of Jewish students. In addition, 5,000 Arab students in the Naqab (Negev), who live in “unrecognized” residential areas, do not attend school at all. The Ministry of Education claims that it is unable to build schools or classrooms in villages that are not officially recognized.

When it comes to the Bagrut certificate, despite progress in Arab students’ performance over the years (especially among female students), there is still a wide gap between Arab and Jewish students. The disparity is particularly pronounced among those who sit for the “full” Bagrut, which includes 4–5 units each of mathematics and English language. While 47 percent of students in Hebrew education achieved this level in the 2015–16 academic year, only 23 percent of students attending Arab schools did. Table 3 compares the overall results of the Bagrut exams in 2015 and 1996.

Israel also takes part in a number of international exams to measure student performance. One of these is the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study exam in eighth grade (ages 13–14), which is administered by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. In 2015, Israeli pupils placed 16th worldwide (out of 39 countries) in mathematics, with an average score of 511 points (out of 600). While the average Jewish student scored 533, the average Arab student score was 460. In the sciences, Israeli students placed 19th, with an overall average of 507 points. Jewish students averaged 528; Arab students, 458. And although there was no difference in the scores by gender among Jewish students, Arab girls scored higher than Arab boys, especially in the sciences (469 vs. 446).

These results are generally confirmed by the Programme for International Student Assessment exams in reading (and reading comprehension), sciences, and mathematics, taken at age 15 (9th and 10th grade) and administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Scores are shown in tables 4 through 9. Each table represents a different exam and indicates the level of students whose performance was excellent as well as those whose performance was weak; the system grades student performance out of six levels. All these tables indicate that less than 1 percent of 15-year-old Palestinian students are “top achievers.” Though it is legitimate to question the adequacy of the tests conducted by the Israeli authorities, one has to read these tables as a broad indication of the challenges facing Palestinian education in Israel.

The Ministry of Education writes policies and makes decisions about Arab education in isolation, despite the efforts of Arab political forces to intervene in the field and work toward the creation of a self-managed educational system. In 1984, the regional committee of heads of local authorities set up a monitoring committee for issues of Arab education. In 2007, it reached an understanding with the Ministry of Education about the establishment of joint committees for the purpose of presenting recommendations on various aspects of Arab education.

In reality, however, this did not lead to actual cooperation in setting policies. In 2010, the monitoring committee on Arab education initiated the formation of an Arab Education Council as an authoritative body responsible for reviewing laws, policies, and curricula, conducting studies, presenting working papers, and working to influence the work of the state education sector. Much work remains before Palestinians in Israel will be able to translate their collective existence as an Arab nation, with cultural and historical qualities that distinguish it from the Jewish majority, into their own educational policies, frameworks, and programs.

Selected Bibliography: 

Abu-Saad, Ismael. "Palestinian Education in Israel: The Legacy of the Military Government." Holy Land Studies 5, no. 1 (2006): 21-56.

Central Bureau of Statistics. Statistical Abstract of Israel 2017; at cbs.gov.il.

Coursen-Neff, Zama. “Discrimination Against Palestinian Arab Children in the Israeli Educational System.” Journal of International Law and Politics 36, no.4 (Summer 2004): 101–162.

Mossawa Center. “Analysis of the Ministry of Education’s Budget for 2016”; at mossawa.org.

National Authority for Measurement and Evaluation in Education. PISA – Programme for International Student Assessment: Literacy among 15-Year-Old Students in Science, Reading and Mathematics, an Israeli Perspective (in Hebrew). Jerusalem: Ministry of Education, December 2016.

Zaher, Sawsan. “The Prohibition on Teaching the Nakba in the Arab Education System in Israel.” Nazareth: Adalah, 2010; at adalah.org.

Zaher, Sawsan, Muna Haddad and Katie Hesketh. “Adalah’s Response to OECD Reports on Education in Israel, 2015 & 2016”;  at adalah.org.


Table 1

Arab and Jewish Children in Preschool Programs and Kindergartens, 2013–14

 Age Arab Children Jewish Children
Private Municipal/ Government Total % of enrollment in each age group Private Municipal/ Govenmental Total % of enrollment in each age group
2 517 7,003 7,520 23.5 28,821 40,188 69,009 56.3
3 671 29,389 30,060 84.3 27,109 103,229 130,338 100.0
4 .. 34,019 34,568 92.9 8,125 113,527 121,652 100.0
5 .. 35,330 35,726 97.4 2,113 11,461 113,574 98.9
6 .. 2,782 2,782 8.2 1,105 19,880 20,985 19.0
Total 2,133 108,523 110,656 61.4 67,273 388,285 455,558 77.3

Source: Central Bureau of Statistics. Statistical Abstract of Israel 2017, Table 8.3.


Table 2

Schools and Students (All Levels), 2016–17

School Level Arab Education Jewish Education
Schools Classrooms Students Schools Classrooms Students
Primary 627 9,980 245,795 2,376 31,590 761,534
Intermediate 208 3,190 86,707 614 7,591 204,219
Secondary 372 4,140 106,059 1,488 13,308 319,986

Source: Central Bureau of Statistics. Statistical Abstract of Israel 2017, Tables 8.5 and 8.13


Table 3

Arab and Jewish Students in Grade 12:

Bagrut Graduates and Number Entitled to Enter University


Grade 12 Total


Passed Bagrut
% of Success
Entitled to university
% of Entitlement
Grade 12 Total
Passed Bagrut
% of Success
Entitled to university
% of Entitlement

Source: Central Bureau of Statistics. Statistical Abstract of Israel 2017, Table 8.19.


Table 4

Performance of 15-year-old Students in Science

According to Year of Testing (PISA)

Student group
OECD average
Average score
Top achievers (Levels 5 and 6)
Low performers (below Level 2)
Average score
Top achievers (Levels 5 and 6)