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 new 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 their 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 new curriculum have been taunted via cellphone.

“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.”

History and identity

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 youths.

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 U.S. Secretary of State John F. 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.”

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said he doesn’t understand why Palestinian officials would rather “impose a low-quality education on their kids” than adopt the Israeli curriculum. “I think it’s weird,” he said.

Barkat, running for reelection next month, praised the Israeli curriculum. “It teaches you to think and invent,” he said, instead of engaging in “repetitive learning.” The Israeli system, he said, has been proved by test scores and matriculation exams to better prepare students for university studies and the job market.

David Koren, an adviser to the mayor on East Jerusalem, said parents and students asked city officials to introduce the curriculum after being forced to fork out thousands of dollars for additional after-school programs that offer Palestinian students the extra classes needed for the exams for Israeli colleges. That, and the lower success rates among Palestinian students, inspired the municipality to try the pilot program last year.

“I speak to a lot of youngsters, and they tell me, ‘I will finish high school at 19 and what are my options? I will go to Wadi Joz and work in a car garage, or will I have a better future?’ ”

Wadi Joz is a colorful but relatively poor Arab neighborhood, filled with merchants and markets, near the Damascus Gate and the Old City.

Educational disparities

Jerusalem is a city very much divided — including its schools.

Spending per pupil in Jewish West Jerusalem is much higher then in Arab East Jerusalem, according to a report last week from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel that said East Jerusalem needed another 1,100 public school classrooms to catch up.

Drop-out rates are higher in East Jerusalem, too; about a third of students don’t complete high school.

The Abdullah Bin Al Hussein Middle and High School for Girls, where the Israeli curriculum is being introduced in two classes in the seventh and eighth grades, sits on the seam of the Green Line, which from 1948 until Israel’s victory in the 1967 war was a no-go land between Jordan and Israel.

“If I want my students to do better in math, English, Arabic and science, I think this will be the better. If I want to open opportunities for better jobs and higher education, this is better,” said Liana Jaber, principal of the middle school for girls. “But on the other side, I personally feel it will come at the expense of their Palestinian identity.”

Most of the public and private Arab schools in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem employ Jordan’s “Tawjihi” system, which critics say relies heavily on memorization and rote learning. The Israeli schools employ the “Bagrut” system, which Israelis praise as encouraging independent problem-solving.

In the Jordanian system, administered by the Palestinian Authority, students in East Jerusalem study Hebrew two or three times a week, for an hour or so.

A father of a 14-year-old who began studying the Israeli curriculum last year, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals against his son, said he wasn’t bothered by the controversy. He said that he wants his children to go to college and that the best options for them are Israeli universities.

“[My son] is learning Hebrew, and he is learning everything. It is good for him,” he said. “We live in the state of Israel and we do not live in the Arab world. We live in Jerusalem.”

Others feel more conflicted.

Mazen Jabari, father of four and director of the Youth Development Department at the Orient House, which describes itself as “the Palestinian national gathering place for Palestinians in Occupied East Jerusalem,” opposes the introduction of the Israeli curriculum but says part of the blame lies with Palestinian education, which he called “really problematic.”

“Frankly, we feel that we are in the middle, and we don’t know what to do,” Jabari said. “We have two authorities squeezing us — the Israelis and the Palestinians.”