How British educational policy exacerbated social fragmentation in Palestine.
In April 1946 the Director of Education for the Government of Palestine, Jerome Farrell, penned a lengthy memorandum about the state of Jewish and Arab education. Directed to the Colonial Office in London and written during the waning days of the British Empire, Farrell’s memo came in the wake of two commissions (the McNair Commission and Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry) that examined the role of education in producing Palestine’s impending political crisis. One of the recurring themes in both commissions’ reports was the improper politicization of Palestine’s school for nationalist ends, a matter about which Farrell found himself in total agreement. What he could not agree with was the recommendation—found in both reports—that the government should grant both Jewish and Arab communities increased educational autonomy going forward. As he wrote,
if unselfishness, peace and goodwill are principal aims of education it will be difficult to reconcile the two relevant recommendations which each Report in effect makes and which, bluntly stated, are (a) that a ‘fiery nationalism’ shall be eradicated from the schools, (b) that control of education shall be vested in fiery nationalist politicians.
The attempt to keep politics out of the classroom did in fact represent a very real form of colonial power, one which labored for the preservation of British rule.
Farrell seized upon this contradiction, but it was hardly the only one he could have identified. Indeed, British educational policy in Palestine was plagued by contradictions and irreconcilable goals: they desired secular education without secularism, national education without nationalism, and religious education without sectarianism. Underlying them all, however, was an idealized view of education as a practice of character formation that was distinct from the messy business of politics. Not surprisingly given this fact, the government frequently chastised nationalist leaders, both Zionist and Palestinian, for using schools for ideological ends. For instance, in responding to the McNair Report’s mention of “national idealism” within Zionist schools, Farrell wrote:
I should prefer “racial” or even “tribal” to “national” and “chauvinism” or “indoctrination” to “idealism”, a word which to English minds inevitably suggests high and unpractical moral standards. There are no doubt many individual Jews who are idealists but the Zionist Organization’s official policy and power direct the tribalism of the Jews to strictly selfish, practical and material ends. The aim is of course attained, as in Nazi Germany, by the unscrupulous manipulation of childish and adolescent emotion.
This was only one of several instances in which Farrell compared Zionist education to that of totalitarian states, particularly Nazi Germany. The latter openly embraced the sort of social engineering that British officials claimed was antithetical not only to genuine education, but to their own practices, either at home or in the colonies. Yet as I argue in Mandatory Separation, the attempt to keep politics out of the classroom did in fact represent a very real form of colonial power, one which labored for the preservation of British rule. This should not be taken as an absurd conflation between Nazi and British practices, which were qualitatively different. It is to say, however, that appeals to educational neutrality function to obscure the fact that schooling cannot be set apart from something called “politics” in the ways that Farrell imagined. As a practice managed by the state (or, in the case of the yishuv, a quasi-state apparatus), financed through public taxation, subject to centralized administrative control, and designed to meet certain economic goals, how can we even begin to approach education as an apolitical practice?
And yet, we find a pretty consistent thread—not merely in Mandate Palestine but today—that conjures up education as a pristine and uncorrupted practice, where character is shaped and values are formed in supposedly neutral ways. However, as becomes more evident with the benefit of historical distance, there is nothing neutral about that character and those values. Whether we look to the nineteenth-century gospel of industriousness that tried to channel the working classes away from political agitation, or the contemporary cult of individualism and its role in obfuscating all sorts of racial and economic inequities, the character we choose to impart bears the stamp of overarching political and social conditions.
Appeals to educational neutrality function to obscure the fact that schooling cannot be set apart from something called “politics.”
I believe that, in Palestine, imagining education as a field of activity set apart from politics was actually quite detrimental. Such thinking led British educational administrators to pursue policies based on purported pedagogic grounds—such as encouraging monolingual education in Arabic and Hebrew, respectively—that came with very real consequences related to Palestine’s political and social fragmentation. Yet only in 1945 did we find officials stopping to pause and wonder whether segregated schooling for Jews and Arabs was something more than an educational necessity (as officials argued in the 1920s), and rather part of a political problem. Moreover, unlike their Ottoman predecessors who viewed modern education as a possible means of bridging communal divides, the Mandatory government never tried to make schools part of a productive politics. Rather, the attempt was always to insulate education from the corrupting influence of mass politics, which was of course impossible given the country’s prolonged descent into civil war. Then as now, the question cannot be how can we shield schools from politics, but rather how can education become part of the kind of politics we want to have.