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Nearly one in four of Israel's 1.6 million schoolchildren are educated in a public school system wholly separate from the majority. The children in this parallel school system are Israeli citizens of Palestinian Arab origin. Their schools are a world apart in quality from the public schools serving Israel's majority Jewish population. Often overcrowded and understaffed, poorly built, badly maintained, or simply unavailable, schools for Palestinian Arab children offer fewer facilities and educational opportunities than are offered other Israeli children. This report is about Israel's discrimination against its Palestinian Arab children in guaranteeing the right to education. 

The Israeli government operates two separate school systems, one for Jewish children and one for Palestinian Arab children. Discrimination against Palestinian Arab children colors every aspect of the two systems. Education Ministry authorities have acknowledged that the ministry spends less per student in the Arab system than in the Jewish school system. The majority's schools also receive additional state and state-sponsored private funding for school construction and special programs through other government agencies. The gap is enormous--on every criterion measured by Israeli authorities.

The disparities between the two systems examined in this report are identified in part through a review of official statistics. These findings are tested and complemented by the findings of Human Rights Watch's on-site visits to twenty-six schools in the two systems and our interviews with students, parents, teachers, administrators, and national education authorities.

Palestinian Arab children attend schools with larger classes and fewer teachers than do those in the Jewish school system, with some children having to travel long distances to reach the nearest school. Arab schools also contrast dramatically with the larger system in their frequent lack of basic learning facilities like libraries, computers, science laboratories, and even recreation space. In no Arab school did we see specialized facilities, such as film editing studios or theater rooms that we saw as a sign of excellence in some of the Jewish schools we visited. Palestinian Arab children with disabilities are particularly marginalized, with special education teachers and facilities often unavailable in the system, despite the highly developed special education programs of the Jewish school system.

The unavailability of schools for three and four-year-old children in many communities, despite legislation making such schools--and attendance--obligatory, is matched by inadequate kindergarten construction for Palestinian Arab children throughout much of the country, particularly in the Negev. A Bedouin man in a recognized Bedouin town told us, "I have a daughter five years old. I thought last year with [former Education Minister] Yosi Sarid's promise she would go to [a government] preschool, but there were none there."1

A bar on school construction in some Palestinian Arab communities, in line with government policies pressing Palestinian Arab populations to move out of some areas, imposes enormous hardship on families with children and denies many children their right to an education. Poor school facilities and schools requiring travel over long distances result in children dropping out of the education system altogether at a very high rate.

The educational system has given a low priority to teacher training for the Arab school system and provides less "in-service" training to Palestinian Arab teachers already within the system than is routine within the majority system. Palestinian Arab teachers on average have lower qualifications and receive lower salaries than non-Palestinian Arab teachers. Financial incentives for teachers assigned in particularly deprived areas like parts of the Negev are lower than those made available to teachers in Jewish schools identified as hardship postings. Training in special education for teachers in the Arab school system has been largely insufficient.

Despite higher rates of disability among Palestinian Arabs, in the area of special education the Ministry of Education spends less proportionately on integration ("mainstreaming"), special education services, and special schools for Palestinian Arab children than it does for Jewish children. "We have been asking for special support for many years," the father of a disabled boy explained. "Usually we go to the Ministry of Education, and they tell us to go to the local municipality, and we go and are denied."2 Arab special education schools suffer from a scarcity of trained professionals, such as psychologists and speech therapists. Palestinian Arab children who cannot attend a regular school have only a tiny handful of schools to choose from, and there is often only one Arab school in the country for children with a particular disability. Many of these children must travel long distances daily or attend a Jewish school if one happens to be available. But Jewish special education schools are not designed for Palestinian Arab pupils. For example, speech therapists in some schools with both Jewish and Palestinian Arab hearing impaired students do not speak Arabic. For some families, the only option is keep their disabled children at home.

Palestinian Arab students study from a government-prescribed Arabic curriculum that is adapted second hand from the Hebrew curriculum: common subjects are developed with little or no Palestinian Arab participation and translated years after the Hebrew language material is published. The government devotes inadequate resources to developing the subjects unique to Arab education. No curricula in Arabic for special education existed until 2000, and it was not available in any of the Arab special education schools that Human Rights Watch visited. "We adapt curriculum from regular schools and try to make it easier," a school speech therapist explained.3 Palestinian Arab teachers have considerably less choice in textbooks and teaching material than do Jewish teachers.

The curricula's content often alienates students and teachers alike. For example, in Hebrew language class, Palestinian Arab students are required to study Jewish religious texts including Tanach (Jewish bible) and Jewish Talmudic scholars. This material is included in the mandatory subjects in the matriculation exams (bagrut) taken at the end of high school. A Hebrew language teacher in an Arab high school described her pupils' reaction: "Some children see it as imposed on them. It makes it hard for the teacher to motivate students to study. It doesn't relate to Arab children as a whole. . . but because of the bagrut we have to cover the material."4 Palestinian Arab students and teachers also expressed a desire to study more works of Palestinian writers and more about Palestinian history. The Ministry of Education has recently made some positive reforms in Arabic curricula, including in history, geography, and civics. However, many of these changes have not been fully implemented because textbooks and other teaching materials are lacking.

Discrimination at every level of the education system winnows out a progressively larger proportion of Palestinian Arab children as they progress through the school system--or channels those who persevere away from the opportunities of higher education. The hurdles Palestinian Arab students face from kindergarten to university function like a series of sieves with sequentially finer holes. At each stage, the education system filters out a higher proportion of Palestinian Arab students than Jewish students. Children denied access to kindergarten do less well in primary school. Children in dilapidated, distant, under-resourced schools have a far higher drop-out rate. Children who opt for vocational programs are often limited to preparation for work as "carpenters, machinists, or mechanics in a garage," as one school director told Human Rights Watch.5

Many Palestinian Arab students who might otherwise have academic or professional aspirations are barred from higher education by an examination system established firstly for the Jewish majority's school system--the point at which the two unequal systems converge. Palestinian Arab students who stay in school perform less well on national examinations, especially the matriculation examinations (bagrut)--the prerequisite for a high school diploma and university application. Others are weeded out by a required "psychometric" examination--generally described as an aptitude test-which Palestinian Arab educators describe as culturally weighted, a translation of the test given students of the Jewish school system. A consequence is that Palestinian Arabs seeking admission to university are rejected at a far higher rate than are Jewish applicants. All but 5.7 percent of the students receiving their first university degree in the 1998-1999 school year were Jewish.

The Israeli government has offered various other explanations for the gaps between Jewish and Palestinian Arab students' performance. These include poverty and cultural attitudes, especially regarding girls. Human Rights Watch found that in light of clear examples of state discrimination, neither poverty nor cultural attitudes adequately explained the existing gap. Indeed, in many instances, the data run directly contrary to the claim that these factors, and not discrimination, are at the root of the problem. Moreover, discrimination in education is cyclical and cumulative. When one generation has fewer educational opportunities of poorer quality, their children grow up in families with lower incomes and learn from less well-educated teachers.

Although low income Jewish students--especially new immigrant, Sephardic, or Mizrahi students6--face some of the same challenges related to poverty that Palestinian Arab students do, the government provides disadvantaged Jewish students with a battery of resources designed to improve academic performance and to keep them from dropping out. The remedial and enrichment resources made available for Jewish schools include extra school hours and remedial and enrichment programs, offered both during school hours and after school, as well as truant officers, counseling, and the opportunity for vocational education. 

For Palestinian Arab students, the Ministry of Education uses a different instrument to measure disadvantage than it does for Jewish students and measures their need only against other Palestinian Arab students, not against Jewish students. Some Palestinian Arab students receive some enrichment and remedial programs, but Jewish students receive a proportionately much greater share despite Palestinian Arab students' greater need: a 2000 study by professors at Hebrew University found that Jewish students receive five times the amount of remedial instruction that Palestinian Arab students receive.7 Thus, while the Israeli government states that it has a kind of an affirmative action policy for needy students, this policy excludes and discriminates against Palestinian Arab students.

The Israeli government has, to a certain extent, acknowledged that its Arab education system is inferior to its Jewish education system. For example, it reported to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2001:

There is a great deal of variance in the resources allocated the education in the Arab versus the Jewish sector. These discrepancies are reflected in various aspects of education in the Arab sector, such as physical infrastructure, the average number of students per class, the number of enrichment hours, the extent of support services, and the level of education of professional staff.8
It also reported that in 1991, government investment per Palestinian Arab pupil was about 60 percent of its investment per Jewish pupil. In the last decade the government has appointed various committees to look at problematic aspects of education, such as education for Bedouin in the Negev and special education. These committees have found striking gaps in the way the government treats Jewish and Palestinian Arab students and made recommendations for fixing the problem. The Ministry of Education's Committee for Closing the Gap also pointed out the stark differences to the ministry's leadership in December 2000, although its principle mandate concerned the gaps among Jewish students. 

Despite this compelling evidence, the government has failed to change the discriminatory way in which its education system operates. Instead, in the last decade, the government has promised lump sums of money, insufficient to equalize the two systems, and then largely failed to keep these promises. Funding for Arab education in most areas still does not even reflect Palestinian Arabs' representation in the population, much less begin to correct for years of past discrimination. 

This neglect reflects the very low priority given Palestinian Arab students by the Israeli government--even by those responsible for the Arab education system. The system itself appears almost as an afterthought in the public statements of top education officials. The new education minister Limor Livnat, for example, appears to have completely overlooked her Palestinian Arab charges when she stated that she would like to see that "there is not a single child in Israel who doesn't learn the basics of Jewish and Zionist knowledge and values." She later explained that she was not referring to Palestinian Arab children.9

Worse, other Israeli education officials have been criticized in the news media for frankly racist statements. The head of the Educational Authority for Bedouins, Moshe Shohat, said in an interview with Jewish Week that Bedouin who complain about poor living conditions are "blood-thirsty Bedouins who commit polygamy, have 30 children and continue to expand their illegal settlements, taking over state land." When questioned about providing indoor plumbing in Bedouin schools, he responded: "In their culture they take care of their needs outdoors. They don't even know how to flush a toilet."10

Some Israeli government officials pointed out to Human Rights Watch the improvements in Arab education in the fifty-three year period since Israel's statehood.11 Yair Levin, the deputy director-general, head of international relations of the Ministry of Education, told Human Rights Watch: "For me there is no doubt that both gaps--Ashkenazi and Sephardic, and Jewish and Arab--will be closed in thirty to forty years. Thirty to forty years for history is nothing."12

The children who will pass through Israel's school system in the next forty years require more than this, as does international human rights law. At the present rate, Israel will not close the gap between Jewish and Arab education, even if it were to allocate equally annual allowances to schools. "If everyone gets more or less the same share in society and the gap is ignored, we will never close it when it comes to physical conditions of schools, the number of kids in class, and teachers' skills and training," Dr. Daphna Golan, the chair of the Committee for Closing the Gap in the Education Ministry's Pedagogical Secretariat, told Human Rights Watch.13 When Human Rights Watch asked Dalia Sprinzak, of the Education Ministry's Economics and Budgeting Administration, if she thought the gap between Jewish and Arab education would ever be closed, she answered, "It is very difficult. No, I don't think so. . . . But it is the right direction. Our expectations are too high that we can advance very quickly in this direction."14

Addressing the cumulative effect of generations of educational disadvantage upon Israel's Palestinian Arab citizens requires major new initiatives by the government of Israel. One-time influxes of funds are only a band-aid measure, not a cure. Parity in funding levels alone, even should this be provided, would not itself be enough to overcome the legacy of past failure to provide facilities conducive to learning. Closing the gap requires funding--and also political will. Israel should commit to equalizing every aspect of education, make the structural changes necessary to implement this commitment, and monitor the educational system to ensure that it is done. In short, it should institutionalize equality.

As long as the gap exists, Palestinian Arabs are not likely to feel like full citizens of Israel. An eleventh-grade high school student told Human Rights Watch, "There is no balance between what is given to [Jewish students] and what is given to us. I wrote one sentence in a letter to my friend in Gaza: `In order to dream and to work, we have to pay. It's difficult to fulfill our dreams in this country. It's not considered our country. We're like guests. And we're not welcomed guests.'"15

Palestinian Arabs are a significant minority of Israel's citizens. They make up 18.7 percent of the country's population and almost one-quarter of school-aged children.16 Of these, about 80 percent are Muslim, including the Bedouin and a small number of Circassians,17 about one-tenth are Christian, and slightly fewer are Druze, adherents of a monotheistic religion that originated in the late tenth and early eleventh century.18

Israel's Obligations under International and National Law

The right to education is universally recognized under international law. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Israel is a party, guarantee a right to education. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also enshrines such a right. According to these international legal standards, the right to education must be enjoyed without discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, language, religion, national or social origin, property, or birth. The Convention against Discrimination in Education, to which ninety countries are parties and which Israel ratified in 1961, requires that if Israel maintains separate systems for Jews and Palestinian Arabs, the two systems must provide the same standard of education in equivalent conditions.

Although Israel's constitutional law does not explicitly recognize the right to education, its ordinary statutes effectively provide such a right.19 However, these laws, which prohibit discrimination by individual schools, do not specifically prohibit discrimination by the national government. And Israel's courts have yet to use either these laws or more general principles of equality to protect Palestinian Arab children from discrimination in education.

In this report, the word "child" refers to anyone under the age of eighteen. Article 1 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child defines as a child "every human being under the age of eighteen years unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier." Consistent with international law, Israeli law defines the period of minority as ending at age eighteen.20

Methodology and Scope

This report is based on research conducted in Israel in November and December 2000.21 During this period, Human Rights Watch visited twenty-six schools: Jewish and Arab; kindergarten, primary, and secondary; mainstream academic, vocational, and special education. The schools were almost all government schools, but we also visited several quasi-private schools in areas where such schools played an important role in educating Palestinian Arabs.22 We went to schools in urban and rural areas; schools in cities with mixed Palestinian Arab and Jewish populations; schools in cities that were primarily Jewish or Palestinian Arab; schools for Bedouin, which are part of the Arab education system, in northern and southern Israel, and in recognized and unrecognized communities; and Jewish schools in development towns with large immigrant populations. 

At these schools we interviewed students, teachers (including teachers of Arabic, Hebrew, English, special education, geography, history, and vocational subjects), principals, coaches, speech therapists, reading specialists, psychologists, and social workers. We interviewed both girls and boys, among whom were student council presidents, musicians, and disabled students. We looked at classrooms, staff rooms, offices, bathrooms, and--where they existed--libraries, playgrounds, gymnasiums, science and computer laboratories, art and drama rooms, and production studios. We also interviewed parents, teachers, and students outside of the school setting, and we interviewed Bedouin university students about their pre-university education.

The names of all students have been changed to protect their privacy. Most teachers and administrators also requested confidentiality, and the principals of the Arab schools that we visited asked that we not name their schools.

Within the Education Ministry, we interviewed persons responsible for Arab education, including the head of the Arab education department, the director of Arab curriculum, and the inspectors for the subjects unique to Arab education, including Arab history and Arabic language and literature. We also spoke with persons in the ministry's Economics and Budget Administration, and the Pedagogical Secretariat, with the heads of the Haifa and Nazareth district offices, and, in Be'er Sheva, with the municipal official responsible for education. In addition, we met with education researchers at Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics23 and with both Palestinian Arab and Jewish staff of various nongovernmental organizations.

In the 1999-2000 school year, there were 3,407 primary and secondary schools in Israel.24 The twenty-six schools we visited were not a scientific sample, although we strove to visit schools in diverse areas and at different levels. Accordingly, wherever possible we have supplemented information from our firsthand observation and direct interviews with statistical data, primarily from the Ministry of Education and the Central Bureau of Statistics, for information on a national scale. Where there was conflict between data from various sources, this is indicated in the notes. Human Rights Watch has used the most recent data available at the time of writing. In some instances the statistical data includes schools in East Jerusalem supervised by the Ministry of Education and run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA); where data clearly excludes East Jerusalem, this is also indicated in a footnote.25

Out of all those in Arab schools, Bedouin who live in the Negev region, especially those in unrecognized villages, fare far worse by every measurement detailed in the report.26 Because of their small numbers--fewer than 2,100 per grade27--their situation is hidden in data about the Palestinian Arab population as a whole. Accordingly, wherever data about the Negev Bedouin was available, it is highlighted in this report.

This report does not address discrimination against Sephardic, Mizrahi, or Ethiopian Jews. Nor does it address discrimination at the university level or aspects of discrimination that are particular to East Jerusalem.28


Terminology regarding Israel's Arab citizens is highly politicized. Increasingly, individuals are rejecting the term "Israeli Arab," which is used by the Israeli government, in favor of "Palestinian Arab."29 Many, but not all, Druze and Bedouin in Israel also identify themselves as Palestinian Arab or a variation of the term.30 When referring to people, this report uses "Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel" or "Palestinian Arabs" because that is how most people we interviewed defined themselves. However, it should be noted that not everyone of Arab origin we interviewed identified herself or himself as Palestinian, and a few rejected the term altogether. 

Schools in this report are referred to as "Jewish" and "Arab." These terms correspond with what all government English publications and many other sources call "Hebrew schools" and "Arab schools." Human Rights Watch has used "Jewish" both because it is one translation of the Hebrew word that is used for these schools and because it is parallel with "Arab." We use "Arab schools" and "Arab education" because this is the term that everyone, both Palestinian Arab and Jewish, used when we interviewed them.

1 Human Rights Watch interview, Laqiya (recognized Bedouin locality), December 14, 2000.

2 Human Rights Watch interview, village in the Triangle region, December 6, 2000.

3 Human Rights Watch interview, Israel, December 11, 2000.

4 Human Rights Watch interview, Nazareth, December 8, 2000.

5 Human Rights Watch interview, Israel, December 9, 2000.

6 Ashkenazi Jews are of Eastern European origin; Sephardic Jews are descendants of Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries who resettled in the Mediterranean region, the Balkans, and elsewhere; Mizrahi Jews are, literally, Eastern Jews, or Jews from the Middle East.

7 Sorrell Kahen and Yakov Yeleneck, Hebrew University, "Discrimination Against the Non-Jewish Sector in the Allocation of Resources for Educational Development (Hebrew)," 2000.

8 State of Israel Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Initial Periodic Report of the State of Israel Concerning the Implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), February 20, 2001, p. 307.

9 Allyn Fisher-Ilan, "Livnat's Lessons," Jerusalem Post, June 19, 2001.

10 Robby Berman, "Israeli Official Slurs Bedouins" Jewish Week, July 20, 2001. Shohat later apologized and stated that he used "blood-thirsty" to refer to only a small group of Bedouin. Relly Sa'ar, "Bedouin Schools Chief Apologizes for Racial Slur," Ha'aretz Daily Newspaper (English Edition) (Israel), August 17, 2001.

11 See, for example, U.N. Human Rights Committee, Initial Report of States Parties Due in 1993: Israel, paras. 788-791, 843, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/81/Add.13 (April 9, 1998). As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Israel was obligated to submit this report to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, which is responsible for receiving and commenting on state party reports and for interpreting the covenant.

12 Human Rights Watch interview with Yair Levin, Deputy Director-General, Head of International Relations of the Ministry of Education, Jerusalem, December 19, 2000.

13 Human Rights Watch interview with Daphna Golan, Chair, Committee for Closing the Gap, Pedagogical Secretariat, Ministry of Education, Jerusalem, December 20, 2000. The Ministry of Education created the Committee for Closing the Gap in late 1999 to look primarily at gaps within the Jewish population. Dr. Golan left the ministry in the spring of 2001, and the committee was not functioning at the time of writing.

14 However, Sprinzak noted that, "[i]t is important for the state to say that it [closing the gaps] is important to us." Human Rights Watch interview with Dalia Sprinzak, Economics and Budgeting Administration, Ministry of Education, Jerusalem, December 19, 2000. 

15 Human Rights Watch interview, Nazareth, December 6, 2000.

16 At the beginning of 2001, 18.7 percent of Israel's population, including East Jerusalem, was Palestinian ("Arab"). State of Israel Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), "Table B/1.-Population, By Population Group," Monthly Bulletin of Statistics, vol. 52, April 2001. At the end of 1998, the most recent year for which data on population by age is available, 24.1 percent of children ages three to seventeen were Palestinian. State of Israel Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), Statistical Abstract of Israel 2000, no. 51, tables 2.1, 2.18. In the 2000-2001 school year, 1,606,000 kindergarten through twelfth grade students were enrolled in the Israeli education system; 356,000 were enrolled in the Arab education system and 1,250,000 were enrolled in the Jewish education system. Ministry of Education, "Students Enrolled in Jewish Education and Arab Education 2000/01."

17 There are only about 3,000 Circassians in Israel, and their children attend both Jewish and Arab schools.

18 CBS, Statistical Abstract of Israel 2000, table 2.1.

19 Although Israel has no formal constitution, a series of Basic Laws, together with the decisions of the Israeli High Court, form a kind of unwritten constitution and are considered constitutional law. Israel's education laws include the State Education Law (1953), the Compulsory Education Law (1949), the Pupils' Rights Law (2000), and the Special Education Law (1988).

20 Guardianship and Legal Capacity Law, sec. 3 (1962).

21 Shortly before Human Rights Watch began its investigations, demonstrations took place within Israel in which Israeli police killed thirteen Palestinian Arab citizens. See Human Rights Watch, "Investigation into Unlawful Use of Force in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Northern Israel: October 4 through October 11," A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 12, no. 3(E), October 2000. Schools within Israel closed briefly. When Human Rights Watch conducted its research in November and December, schools were back in session.

22 Various Christian churches run schools that receive most of their funding from the Ministry of Education. The ministry categorizes these missionary schools, as well as some ultra-orthodox Jewish schools, as "recognized but unofficial."

23 The Central Bureau of Statistics is a central government body charged with collecting, processing, and publicizing statistical information on the Israeli population, economy, and society.

24 CBS, Statistical Abstract of Israel 2000, table 22.7. This figure includes East Jerusalem schools that are run by the Israeli government and by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

25 According to the Ministry of Education, there were 4,100 seventeen-year-olds in East Jerusalem in the 1999-2000 school year. However, the ministry also reported that "0.00" percent were enrolled in twelfth grade. Ministry of Education, "Statistics of the Matriculation Examination (Bagrut) 2000 Report," (accessed on May 10, 2001), p. 5.

26 Although some Bedouin also live in northern Israel, most statistical data relating to education is available for Negev Bedouin only.

27 Ministry of Education, "Statistics of the Matriculation Examination (Bagrut) 2000 Report," p. 5.

28 The Ministry of Education's Arab schools in East Jerusalem are overcrowded and do not have space for all Palestinian Arab children who need them. Jerusalem city counselor Joseph Alalu, from the Meretz party, has stated that there are four to five thousand children ages five through eighteen who neither can be accommodated in government schools nor can afford private school tuition and who do not attend school at all. Allyn Fisher-Illan, "East Jerusalem Arab Children Seek Admission into City Schools," Jerusalem Post, July 2, 2001.

29 For example, a 1999 survey of the adult Palestinian Arab population by the Institute for Peace Research at Givat Haviva found that 32.8 percent of respondents said that the description "Israeli" was "appropriate to their self-identity." Givat Haviva, "2001 Survey--Attitudes of the Arabs to the State of Israel," (accessed on May 30, 2001).

30 In a 1998 survey, 33 percent of Negev Bedouin tenth and eleventh graders described themselves as "Palestinian Arab," 26 percent as "Israeli Arab," 15 percent as "Arab," 14 percent as "Palestinian Israeli," 7 percent as "Palestinian," and 6 percent as "Israeli." Center for Bedouin Studies and Development, Newsletter, vol. 2, Winter 1999, p. 1.

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