Mandatory Separation
Religion, Education, and Mass Politics in Palestine
Suzanne Schneider



The Politics of Denial

Several years ago in Jerusalem I had the opportunity to attend a umash mesibah, a celebration during which five-year-old boys in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish school, or eder, received their individual copies of the Torah (umash). The program was conducted in Yiddish with a tall barrier separating excited mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and aunts from the men up front. Plates with the presiding rabbi’s kugel circulated through the audience. For all these traces of yiddishkeit, it would be hard to characterize this as a traditional affair. To begin with, the rabbi was escorted into the event by a security detail wearing Bluetooth headsets. A stage had been erected whose level of set design would outshine many private school productions in the United States. The young boys performed—in costume—a fully choreographed song-and-dance routine before receiving their umashim. Flat-screen televisions broadcast the performance throughout the audience, ensuring that even the women seated in the back could get a close-up view of their budding Torah scholars in matching silver hats.

While Yiddish is not a language I speak, I was nonetheless able to deduce that this “traditional” ceremony within the most “traditional” of Jewish communities was a wholly modern affair, notwithstanding popular depictions of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox communities as the living embodiment of medieval Jewry. Instead of somehow residing outside the experience of modernity, this small anecdote illustrates the ways in which the new can animate—rather than replace—the old. It is an observation to which I have continually returned in my attempt to make sense of my multifaceted object of inquiry: the nature of Jewish and Islamic religious education in Palestine during the years of British rule, which began in the final months of the First World War and lasted until May 1948. It was precisely during this period, perhaps more so than during any other in the history of modern Palestine, that the nature of education underwent a seismic shift from a decentralized practice managed largely by religious communities to a formalized system of schooling centrally administered by state or quasi-state institutions.1 Far from ensuring the continuity of tradition, as proponents sometimes claimed, this shift could not occur without radically transforming the form and function of religious education—and arguably religion itself.

This book aims to better understand the nature of this transformation by posing a series of historical and conceptual questions to archival records, school syllabi, textbooks, newspapers, and personal narratives. How did religious education function within the ideological and administrative frameworks used to govern Palestine? What were the features of “modern” religious education as outlined by Jewish, Arab-Muslim, and colonial educators, and in what ways did this education differ from customary forms? How did each party conceive of the proper relationship between religious traditions and nation-building projects? In short, what were the content, form, and purpose of religious education as it developed into a discrete type of schooling in modern Palestine?

Surveying this dynamic period, this book argues that the British Mandatory government supported religious education as a supposed antidote to nationalist passions at the precise moment when the administrative, pedagogic, and curricular transformation of religious schooling rendered it a vital political tool for Zionist and Palestinian leaders. I show that the Government of Palestine viewed religious schooling within both Jewish and Muslim communities as a means of preserving (or reconstructing) the “traditional” order in which respect for the sacred was regarded as both an integral facet of individual character and a collective counterweight to mass politics. In part, this perception grew out of past experiences in India and Egypt, where the strategic support for religious elites, institutions, and legal codes had, by the late nineteenth century, morphed into a sort of “imperial best practices” for managing the unruly masses. Yet we can also detect traces of a distinctly liberal notion of religion as a code of ethics that could be separated from politics, commerce, and material life. Colonial officials who associated religious education with the status quo did not, by and large, detect the interpretive flexibility that gave this form of education its revolutionary potential. Indeed, it was as if by meddling in the messy business of mass politics, “religion” left its proper ontological field and became something else entirely.

In contrast to these colonial designs, Jewish and Muslim communities in Palestine offered competing educational models within which religious knowledge was explicitly tied to their respective political goals. Far from representing the natural heirs to long traditions of religious learning within Jewish and Islamic contexts, the interconnected rise of mass politics and mass education, I argue, produced opportunities to link religious identity to political action in novel ways. Based on a case study of al-Najā National School and the writings of its former headmaster, Muhammad ‘Izzat Darwaza, I argue that one way to articulate this relationship was to stress the mutually constitutive nature of Islam and Arab identity and, moreover, to do so in a way that did not alienate Palestinian Christians. For their part, I argue that Zionist schools tried to inculcate a new form of Jewishness that challenged the liberal construction of religious affiliation as distinct from political identity. Thus, far from accepting a colonial view of religion, politics, and education as discrete practices that were best kept separate, educators from both Palestinian and Zionist communities sought to use new and dynamic forms of religious education as a means of advancing their nationalist projects.

In formulating this argument, I have drawn theoretical and methodological insights from three primary bodies of scholarship in the fields of religious studies, Middle East history, and science studies, respectively. The first consists of those works that have, over the past two decades, revolutionized the study of religion and secularism as abstract categories. It was not so long ago that scholars spoke of the world as divided into different but functionally comparable religions and posited that a society could arrive at modernity only by adopting a secular orientation that purged the public sphere of religious values. However, in the years since José Casanova’s important intervention, Public Religions in the Modern World,2 scholars from a wide range of disciplines have challenged social scientific models that linked secularization with modernization, questioned the universality of secular reason, and highlighted the particularism inherent in the modern concept of religion itself. Of particular note here are works by Talal Asad, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, Timothy Fitzgerald, Tomoko Masuzawa, Gil Anidjar, Brent Nongbri, and Saba Mahmood, as well as the compilations edited by Craig Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen.3

Despite this growing body of scholarship, historians of the Middle East have not, on the whole, taken the consequences of these interventions into serious consideration. How, for example, does our understanding of Arab political movements in the twentieth century shift if we take a critical stance toward the avowed secularism of many of their leaders? In what way were they secular? Which intellectual positions are assumed within (and concealed by) this claim? One of the overarching claims of this book is that if we are to describe these projects as “secular”—and I remain unconvinced that given its popular connotations, the term reveals more than it obscures—we must also be ready to excavate the rather different configurations of the self and the citizen that they envisioned. That is, if secularism in its normative sense is not a neutral political model but rather the outcome of a particular set of conflicts between the early modern state and different Christian churches, we must also grasp that the division of human life into “religious” (spiritual, private, voluntary, and nonjudicial) and “secular” realms bears traces of the Christian political and social order out of which it evolved. Historians have only just begun to examine the ways in which non-Christian communities, in Palestine and elsewhere, navigated this conceptual terrain. This is in part, as Jonathan Gribetz argues, the result of a general historiographical tendency to assume that nationalism is the most critical category for studying the early Zionist-Arab encounter and that religion (like race) is of only tangential concern. Moreover, “the blinding effects of secularization theory” and the “secularist nature of much nationalist historiography” have obscured the extent to which religion, race, and nation were fluid categories instead of clearly demarcated zones of identification or political mobilization.4

These considerations should be of particular interest to historians of education and nationalism in the Middle East in light of the association of national education with secularism. Certainly for an earlier generation of thinkers like Ernest Gellner, nationalism was a force that seemed to march hand in hand with the secular public school, just as the division of individuals into their private and public selves offered a mode of overcoming religious difference for the sake of common citizenship.5 It is understandable then to find that scholars often assume the secularity of Zionist and Arab national projects, including their cultural and educational aims. Yet as I argue in the final chapters of this book, just because Jewish and Muslim leaders and educators in Palestine viewed their task through a radically different lens than did their religious forebears, the national systems of education they endeavored to construct could hardly be said to play by the normative rules of (Christian) secularism. In lieu of attempts to remove religion from the public space to facilitate a nonconfessional politics, we instead encounter concerted efforts to mobilize religious texts and traditions in furtherance of the national project. Taking stock of this history also gestures toward certain continuities that joined the nationalist tumult of a century ago to the religiously inflected discourses of the present. Rather than view religion as something that faded and then mysteriously returned late in the twentieth century, the educational history of Jewish and Muslim communities during the Mandate period highlights the interpretive flexibility inherent in religious traditions and the ways in which they can be selectively mobilized in different ways by each generation.

I found these theoretical insights particularly useful in trying to analyze the critical role of religion in structuring Palestine’s educational system as a whole.6 As it turns out, governing Palestine on sectarian lines generated a number of particular challenges and contradictions in regard to defining the content and purpose of religious education, difficulties that stemmed largely from contested, and sometimes contradictory, understandings of religion itself. Was religion a set of beliefs or a communal designation? What types of knowledge and facets of life were religious in nature? And who decided? Out of the difficulties inherent in answering such questions, I arrived at an important consideration, the instability of religious education as an analytic category, one whose development as a distinct conceptual object hinged on a redefinition of formalized learning, on the one hand, and the emergence of the secular as a separate sphere of human experience, on the other. It followed that because the boundaries that distinguish the religious from the secular are porous, historically contingent, and contested, a study of religious education in Palestine should not limit its analysis to the educational endeavors of the usual suspects. Thus, rather than look primarily at schools managed by Orthodox Zionists,7 the Supreme Muslim Council,8 or communities in the Old Yishuv,9 I have tried to move away from an institutional analysis toward a genealogical one that interrogates the criteria by which knowledge is labeled as “religious” in nature and the consequences, both material and hermeneutic, of this designation.

Second, I have been inspired by recent works of Middle East history that challenge the long-standing tendency among historians to assume the separateness of Jewish and Arab societies in Mandate Palestine. Scholars of Jewish education in Palestine have generally worked within the “dual society” model pioneered decades ago by Moshe Lissak and Dan Horowitz, which regards the yishuv (prestate community) as an autonomous body that existed in isolation from its surroundings. Though not without merit, this methodological approach nonetheless reifies one of Zionist historiography’s most sacred myths: that of self-sufficiency.10 Studies of Jewish education in the yishuv have therefore devoted little attention to the points of dependence and influence that linked this history to practices pursued by the Government of Palestine, missionary bodies, or Palestinian Arabs.11 At the other end of the historiographical spectrum, scholars of Palestine have endeavored to showcase the history of Palestinian Arab society as a multidimensional entity that existed prior to and independently of its conflict with Zionism.12 There is much to say in favor of this method given that comparisons of Palestinian Arab society to the yishuv are fraught with methodological difficulties due to radical differences between the two populations in terms of literacy, educational level, and occupation.13 However, despite their merits, such studies tend to reinforce the dual society narrative that, particularly when dealing with the Mandate period, obfuscates our understanding of the forces that bound Palestinian and Jewish communities together, however unhappily. Is there a compelling alternative to isolationist and comparative approaches?

I have found the sociological model pioneered by Gershon Shafir, which examines the formative (though often unstated) impact of Jewish-Arab relations on Israeli state and society, more promising. As Shafir points out, “Those aspects of their society which Israelis pride themselves on being the most typically Israeli,” including the former hegemony of the labor movement and kibbutz farming, are in fact consequences of Zionism’s early struggles with the Arab economy in Palestine.14 In a similar vein, Zachary Lockman has argued the merits of a relational approach to the history of Mandate Palestine that posits that “the histories of Arabs and Jews in modern Palestine can only be grasped by studying the ways in which both these communities were to a significant extent constituted and shaped within a complex matrix of economic, political, social and cultural interactions.”15 Though the difficulties embarking on this course of historical study cannot be understated, some of the most compelling studies of modern Palestine have employed a relational framework.16

This project adopts a similar approach in attempting to account for the transformation of Jewish and Arab-Islamic education during the Mandate period. Thus, my research stresses the discursive, administrative, and financial structures that caused these educational systems to develop relationally. While accounting for the distinctiveness of each, I attempt to show that treating these systems in isolation presumes certain social structures that were still in the process of formation. In this respect, my project differs from the work of historians who have assumed that Jewish and Arab systems of education under the Mandate were mere continuations from the Ottoman past, in which Palestine’s population frequented schools in a largely sectarian fashion. In contrast, I argue that the segregation of Jewish and Arab schooling assumed a new and dramatically influential form during the Mandate period due in large part to the political and pedagogic concerns pursued by both the Palestine government and the communities themselves. Moreover, rather than project communal separatism onto the past as the preexisting reality, I have tried to examine the administrative, legal, and financial means through which Arab-Jewish divisions were concretized and the role of religious difference within this scheme. Indeed, this study invites us to view national and religious difference as factors acting in concert with one another rather than assume that either served as the dominant category of differentiation between Palestine’s communities. By examining the tensions inherent in the sectarian management of education in Palestine, I hope to demonstrate the lasting significance of these policies—which established a new matrix of relations between mass education, religious knowledge, and political action—for thinking about political identity in the broader Middle East.

The third body of scholarship on which I have drawn comes from the world of science and technology studies and, in particular, the theoretical interventions of the French philosopher Bruno Latour. In his 1991 text, We Have Never Been Modern, Latour describes the apparent separation of the natural world from the social one as the defining marker of the period we call modernity. Outlining what he terms the “Modern Constitution,” Latour details a series of assertions and denunciations about nature and society, a compendium of claims that alternate between stressing the transcendence and immanence of each. A key component of this conceptual order has been the growing sense of separation between us “moderns”—who have dispelled myths and potions in favor of scientific reason—and primitive peoples among whom nature and culture remain hopelessly intertwined:

You think thunder is a divinity? The modern critique will show that it is generated by mere physical mechanisms that have no influence over the progress of human affairs. You are stuck in a traditional economy? The modern critique will show you that physical mechanisms can upset the progress of human affairs by mobilizing huge productive forces. You think that the spirits of the ancestors hold you forever hostage to their laws? The modern critique will show you that you are hostage to yourselves and that the spiritual world is your own human—too human—construction.17

Latour is not a thinker that scholars of secularism have frequently drawn on, but I have found in the notion of the Modern Constitution a productive model for thinking about divisions between the religious and the secular, and the political and the scientific. The idea that we moderns have managed to purge our social and political systems of irrational forces—religion chief among them—in ways that others have not remains the central animating claim of Western exceptionalism. This is not to say our God is dead; rather, as Latour argues, a key feature of the Modern Constitution is the “crossed-out God,” removed from the dual social and natural construction but “presentable and usable nevertheless.” As he continues, “No one is truly modern who does not agree to keep God from interfering with Natural Law as well as with the laws of the Republic. God becomes the crossed-out God of metaphysics, as different from the premodern God of the Christians as the Nature constructed in the laboratory is from the ancient phusis or the Society invented by sociologists from the old anthropological collective and its crowds of nonhumans.”18

What is of crucial importance is that this neat system of division between nature and society, the rational and the transcendental, us and them, is both illusory and useful. It is precisely this sense of separation (purification, in Latour’s terms) that serves to mask, and indeed facilitate, the proliferation of ideas and practices that transgress the boundaries between these supposedly distinct worlds. These “hybrid” forms must be vociferously defined for the conceptual order to function, and thus Latour argues that modernity is not distinguished by its success in separating the natural world of neutral facts from the socially constructed one composed by human agents but by the claim that it does so. Thus, “the modern world,” Latour argues, “has never happened, in the sense that it has never functioned according to the rules of its official Constitution alone.”19

In addition to offering a different framework for approaching the claims of secularism, the concepts of separation, transgression, and denial are also helpful in thinking about modern forms of education. If education in the premodern world was by and large a communal responsibility that was clearly intertwined with the social environment, the “science” of modern pedagogy and the emergence of a professionally trained class of teachers meant that education at the beginning of the twentieth century was increasingly conceptualized as distinct from both politics and society. In many instances, it was through the right form of education that reformers hoped to correct the backward social practices of the home. With these insights in mind, we should not find it strange that the Mandatory government refused to acknowledge the obvious link between pedagogy and politics. Rather, a Latourian approach enables us to avoid the anachronistic projection of our own sensibility on the past. Instead of finding it contradictory (or idiotic!) that colonial administrators could possibly overlook the political dimension of educational practices—or likewise, the political power of religious traditions—we should try to excavate the epistemic order in which such thoughts were not just possible but obvious. It then becomes clear that we are dealing with a larger matrix of colonial power that held as self-evident distinctions between pedagogic need and social engineering, civic action and mass politics, national pride and national chauvinism, and “true” religion and religious fanaticism. This framework mobilized the languages of scientific fact, educational best practices, and universal values in service of what I will call a “politics of denial,” the expression of power through policies that insist they have nothing to do with politics. In each instance, the “purification” of these categories marched hand in hand with acts that violated the boundary meant to preserve their separation. Following Latour, transgressions of this kind must be diligently denied, a fact that becomes most evident when we consider British views of Christian schools in Palestine as the value-neutral meeting ground for temperamental Semites.

Here we come to see that the apparent differences between the approach to religious education that the Mandatory government pursued, on the one hand, and those of Jewish and Muslim educators, on the other, were more discursive than material. Education served as a political tool within the schools maintained by each group. So too did religious texts, values, and worldviews freely mingle with questions of political power and animate political struggles. “The less moderns think they are blended, the more they blend.”20 I endeavor to show that, while British colonial officials in Palestine refused to acknowledge the “hybrid” nature of their own educational policies, Zionist and Palestinian leaders embraced these transgressions—across the boundaries between the individual and the communal, the pedagogic and the national, and the political and the religious—as foundational to the construction of a new future.

Palestine Under British Rule: The National Home Project and Its Discontent

“The British entered Palestine to defeat the Turks; they stayed there to keep it from the French; then they gave it to the Zionists because they loved ‘the Jews’ even as they loathed them, at once admired and despised them, and above all feared them.” The academic historian can add much to these words by Tom Segev, but few would be able to summarize the contradictory impulses that characterized British rule in Palestine so efficiently. The fruits not of “diplomatic interests but of prejudice, faith, and sleight of hand,” the 1917 Balfour Declaration still ranks among the most influential and controversial documents in the history of the modern Middle East.21 Assuming the form of a letter to Lord Rothschild from the foreign secretary, Arthur James Balfour, it read:

His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

Purposefully vague—using the language of “national home” rather than “state”—the declaration nevertheless offered the Zionist movement an imperial lifeline by committing the world’s foremost empire to the principle of reconstructed Jewish life in the historic Land of Israel.

Modern Zionism emerged as a political and cultural movement among European Jews during the final decades of the nineteenth century. Composed of numerous and often competing strands, Zionism nevertheless committed itself to the idea of a Jewish national renaissance. Emerging out of the romantic nationalism that swept Europe during the nineteenth century, and a growing sense of disillusion regarding the possibilities for full Jewish emancipation within European states, many in the movement looked to Palestine as the site for reconstituting the Jewish people along national lines. Though the first Zionist Congress convened in 1897 after the publication of Theodor Herzl’s Der Judenstaat (The Jews’ state), the movement’s early leaders and thinkers were divided over the nature of their goal. For highly assimilated Jews like Herzl and Max Nordau, Zionism was chiefly a political fix to the problem of anti-Semitism, with the envisioned state assuming the form of Vienna on the Mediterranean. Conversely, the “cultural” arm of the movement asserted that such a state would not really be Jewish at all; rather, Zionism should stress above all the cultural renaissance of the Jewish people and the Hebrew language, the ethics of the biblical prophets, and the organic—even cosmic—links between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. While political leaders in Europe debated, the pioneers of the Second Aliyah (wave of immigration, extending from approximately 1904 to 1914) focused on building a new physical presence in Palestine along with the educational and cultural institutions necessary for a Hebrew revival. The material conditions were crushing, and the onset of the First World War brought plagues of locusts and famine alongside political deportations for many Jews whose countries of citizenship were now at war with the Ottoman Empire. The Balfour Declaration arrived at a critical point to offer new life to the fledgling movement. The occupation of much of Palestine by British troops in December 1917 seemed to offer assurance that His Majesty’s Government possessed the practical means to honor this “contract with Jewry.”22

Much has been written about the declaration, the motivations behind it, and the British relationship to Zionism; for our purposes, it is important to note that this was merely one of Britain’s many wartime promises. With forces trapped in an extended stalemate in the trenches of western Europe—where each new confrontation seemed to bring an unprecedented loss of life but only minor territorial advantage—both sides looked to gain an upper hand in other theaters of war. With the Ottoman Empire fighting on behalf of the Central Powers, its vast territories appealed to the Allies in terms of both a potential military breakthrough and, perhaps more important, postwar spoils. Britain had occupied Egypt and parts of the Sudan since 1882 and also maintained bases in southern Arabia; both served as strategic positions to ensure the passage of ships from India through the Suez Canal. Meanwhile, France maintained its own sphere of influence in the Middle East, stemming largely from its support for Maronite populations around Mount Lebanon and its self-appointed role of “protector of Catholics” in Ottoman lands. Long seeking to enlarge their imperial holdings throughout the Middle East, both powers took it for granted that, in the event of an Allied victory, they would parcel up Ottoman lands as compensation for the crushing costs of the war.

In 1916, Britain and France concluded the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement, which divided the Ottoman territories into two zones of control: Zone A, encompassing modern-day Syria, Lebanon, southeastern Turkey, and parts of northern Iraq, would be awarded to France; Britain would assume control of Zone B, consisting roughly of the territory south of Acre in present-day Israel and extending eastward through Transjordan and Iraq. With British-Zionist talks already in full swing, the agreement carved Palestine out of the two zones with the understanding that some sort of international accord would decide its fate. Even as these negotiations were ongoing, Sir Henry McMahon was busy concluding a separate agreement with Hussein bin Ali, the sherif of Mecca, to raise an Arab revolt against the Ottomans. In exchange, McMahon agreed that Britain would recognize an independent Arab state in the Arabic-speaking provinces of the Ottoman Empire, excepting “the districts of Mersina and Alexandretta, and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo,” which “cannot be said to be purely Arab.”23 Perhaps needless to say, this assemblage of wartime agreements could not all be reconciled, and the reality that emerged from the peace conferences was a largely colonial one despite being cloaked in new terms.24

Those terms included the League of Nations Mandate system, a three-tiered categorization scheme that divided the Central Powers’ former colonial holdings as well as the Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces according to their level of civilizational progress.25 Article 22 of the League Covenant stipulated that “advanced countries” would provide tutelage to “peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world.”26 Ever committed to the “sacred trust of civilization,” France and Britain eagerly assumed Mandates for Syria and Lebanon, in the former’s case, and Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq in the latter’s. The former Ottoman territories were classified as Class A Mandates, meaning that they were supposedly the closest to attaining the capacity for self-government. The administrative systems that were erected in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan reflected this status through the appointment of local leaders and bureaucrats who were receptive to such “tutelage.” Indeed, though British systems of imperial governance displayed more variety than is commonly assumed, by the 1920s officials increasingly embraced the idea of indirect rule wherein British advisers would guide local officials in the creation and implementation of “correct” policies. Here the anomalous case of Palestine was most jarring, as local Arab officials could obviously not be entrusted with implementing the Zionist project. Thus, unlike the situation in other Class A Mandates, the upper-ranking administrative class in Palestine was almost entirely British; with important exceptions, Arab and Jewish officials were usually employed only as lower-level bureaucrats or inspectors.27

Despite the vigorous protests of Palestinian leaders—and material realities on the ground, in which the Arab population represented approximately 88 percent of the total population—the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine included the Balfour Declaration as part of its official text and therefore served to concretize the British commitment to Zionism. Any wavering based on the practical impossibility of implementing the Jewish national home project without prejudice to the rights of the “non-Jewish communities” could henceforth be interpreted as a breach of contract that jeopardized Britain’s claim to Palestine. What ensued was an acute case of muddling through with little strategic sense as to how discrete policy choices were linked to long-term political outcomes. This was particularly evident in the realm of education planning, where the policies pursued were at direct odds with anything other than the country’s partition, even as officials often spoke about schools as sites for inculcating common civic virtues.

The Colonial Office appointed as director of education Humphrey Bowman, a seasoned colonial officer who attended Eton and Oxford before supervising education departments in Sudan, Egypt, and Iraq.28 Bowman was highly sympathetic to the Arab cause in Palestine and wary of political Zionism, though he did not share in the outright anti-Semitism expressed by some of his colleagues. He served from 1920 to 1936, when he retired and Jerome Farrell, his longtime assistant director, assumed his post. Farrell was more caustic than his predecessor and had little sympathy with the national aspirations of either the Jews or Palestinian Arabs. He became famous for his long, frank dispatches to the Colonial Office, which contain both considerable insight into the problems that plagued educational planning and frequent displays of antipathy toward Palestine’s various “Semites.” Indeed, Bowman initially expressed a great deal of reservation about Farrell’s suitability for the post, describing him as a man who “rather despises Arabs, but works well with his colleagues (except G.A.) [George Antonius],” whom he famously forced out of his high-level post at the Department of Education.29 In Bowman’s words,

He [Farrell] likes to rule the roost and does not really take much notice of any opinion offered him by anyone. He is too good for the job, he thinks, and is too well qualified academically that he deserves a better post, but in a country where the lack of sympathy for the ruled does not count for too much. Here, sympathy and understanding is everything and that happens to be one of my few qualifications for the job.30

Though Bowman softened toward Farrell over time and admired his administrative efficiency, there was no doubt he felt that his junior colleague lacked the proper sensitivity and disposition for the job, a verdict with which it is hard to disagree. Following the riots of 1929—which ostensibly erupted because of a dispute over the nature of Jewish access to the Western Wall in Jerusalem—the Arab Executive called for a general strike and encouraged students to stay home from school. It was in this context that Bowman recounted with horror how Farrell dealt with the political tension in Nablus: “Having heard that all boys in secondary classes of Salahiyah [school] were absent on Wednesday, went there on Thursday with a British policeman and ordered 50% of the boys caned by him. Result: boys left school, joined general rabble, made a riot and were arrested. Beaten again by police in barracks. Result: general strike in Nablus by parents against sending children to school on Saturday.”31 Jerome Farrell served as education director until the end of 1946, when Bernard de Bunsen, a former inspector, succeeded him. I mainly discuss the views and policies associated with the first two directors, as de Bunsen filled the post for only eighteen months before the Mandate terminated. Two groups of school inspectors, for the Arab and Hebrew public systems, respectively, rounded out the Department of Education’s staff. The inspectorate included a number of noteworthy figures, such as Sheikh Hussam al-Din Jarallah—who was chosen by the ulema of Palestine to assume the title of grand mufti before the British appointed Haj Amin al-Husseini32—and the budding scholars Abdul Latif Tibawi, Joseph Bentwich, and Shlomo Dov Goitein.

In addition to the Department of Education of the Government of Palestine, there were other administrative bodies about which a word of explanation is required. Article 4 of the Mandate for Palestine stipulated that “an appropriate Jewish agency shall be recognized as a public body for the purpose of advising and co-operating with the Administration of Palestine in such economic, social and other matters as may affect the establishment of the Jewish national home.”33 An actual Jewish Agency was not established until 1929, but the executive arm of the World Zionist Organization’s Jerusalem office (referred to throughout as “the Zionist Executive”) assumed its functions in the interim. In addition, in 1926 the Jewish community of Palestine secured recognition of its representative body, Knesset Israel, through the Religious Communities Organization Ordinance. Unless they opted out, all Palestinian Jews were included in the electorate of Knesset Israel and collectively chose representatives to serve in a parliamentary body called the Va’ad Leumi (National Council). The executive council of the Va’ad Leumi played an active role in Zionist politics and—though officially recognized as the head of a religious community—“was composed of politicians, not religious leaders” who “functioned in strictly secular fields.”34 I have much to say about this strict secularism in later chapters, but here it is worth noting that the Va’ad Leumi remained rather weak in comparison to the Zionist Organization until the 1930s, when the center of Zionist political power began to shift decisively to the yishuv.35 The Jewish Agency served as the chief administrative body for Zionist schools until 1932, when control over the yishuv’s education was transferred to Knesset Israel.

Conversely, the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine recognized no Arab political body that would parallel the Jewish Agency because the Mandate did not recognize the Arabs of Palestine in national terms at all, preferring to regard them as a motley crew of Christians, Muslims, Bedouins, and Druze with no unifying features or political identity outside their religious communities. The Balfour Declaration reflected this reality by pledging to protect only the “civil and religious rights” of the Arab population. Faced with the recent departure of Ottoman religious functionaries—and ever wary of appearing to meddle in the religious affairs of subject populations—the British opted to create a new position, the grand mufti of Palestine, to oversee Muslim courts, charitable endowments, and other communal functions. Rather than offer a counterpart to the Jewish Agency, the muftiship was envisioned as a parallel office to that held by the Greek patriarch.36 The grand mufti was recognized as president of a larger communal governing body, the Supreme Muslim Council, which would eventually emerge as the leading force in the Palestinian struggle against British and Zionist forces. The Supreme Muslim Council did maintain a network of schools, though most of Palestine’s Muslim children who had access to formal schooling attended government schools. We encounter each of these groups as we examine their respective visions for Jewish and Islamic religious education in a time of mass politics.

Chapter Overview

Mandatory Separation showcases the ways in which colonial administrators sparred with Jewish and Muslim leaders regarding the political function of religious education. Because this is not an institutional analysis, I have chosen to organize chapters thematically rather than strictly chronologically. Chapter 1 serves to contextualize the activities of Jewish and Muslim educators in Palestine by taking stock of the “enlightenment” projects in which education reform emerged as a key tenet. By distinguishing between the transmission of sacred knowledge and modern systemic schooling, this chapter highlights the novelty of “religious education” as a site for the production and disciplining of moral and political subjects. I further argue that grappling with this history requires us to bear in mind three overlapping developments and considerations: the modern conceptualization of “religion” as a set of beliefs and practices segregated from other realms of human experience (e.g., politics, commerce, and culture); the political nature of modern education as a tool for character formation and civic training; and the rise of new type of mass politics in Palestine that linked religious education to national identity.

Chapter 2 further contextualizes this inquiry by outlining key aspects of the Mandatory government’s administrative apparatus and its policies related to the provision of education. Although British officials strove to immunize Palestine’s schools against the destructive influence of “politics,” I argue that such rhetoric serves to mask the inherently political nature of modern schooling and elides over the very real consequences of policies that were supposedly guided by pedagogic need. Rather than insulate Palestine’s schools from the surrounding tumult, I detail how the provision of education during the Mandate period contributed to the division of Palestine into competing Arab and Jewish spheres, each with its own national language, public school system, and administrative machinery. Chapter 3 moves this general discussion into the legislative realm by examining both the sectarian management of education in Palestine and the tensions present within this form of governance. Based on an analysis of debates surrounding the Palestine Education Ordinance of 1933, this chapter argues that the Mandatory government created a category of exception for religious schools and those managed by “religious” communities. This administrative structure functioned to the advantage of schools managed by the Zionist Organization and, later, the Va’ad Leumi, which were given a large degree of autonomy based on their dual status as both public and religious entities. Conversely, linking educational autonomy to religious community weakened Palestinian attempts to create a national school system that united children from different confessional backgrounds.

Chapter 4 looks more concretely at how this legislation impacted religious schools by comparing the Department of Education’s attempts to reform “old-fashioned” Islamic and Jewish schools into clean, efficient, and pedagogically sound sites for producing model citizens: moral, productive, and decidedly nonpolitical. Discarding the more typical approach of considering Jewish and Arab schools separately, this chapter highlights certain common assumptions about the purpose of education and the role of religious instruction in combating nationalist passions. I argue here that the government’s education administrators ultimately related to Palestine’s Jewish and Islamic communal schools (ederim and katātīb) in similar ways by promoting a view that linked the preservation of authenticity to the introduction of novel curricula and pedagogic practices. Thus, this chapter demonstrates the creative interplay between the “new” and “old” as ideas that animate, rather than replace, one another.

The final two chapters detail what might be called points of transgression: those uses of religion and education that violated the boundaries—between civic engagement and mass politics, pedagogic need and social engineering, individual ethics and public religion—that framed key components of colonial thought. Chapter 5 consists of an extended study of the Palestinian educator Muhammad ‘Izzat Darwaza and the educational program he pioneered at al-Najā National School in Nablus. In this context, I argue that even leaders associated with certain features of secular modernity did not acquiesce to the severance of religious values from political activism. Chapter 6 rounds out the analysis with a case study of curricula used in Zionist schools, which the Government of Palestine consistently derided for being both excessively political and insufficiently religious. I argue that this designation serves to obscure our understanding of what was truly noteworthy about Zionist education: the attempt to construct a synthetic national identity that imagined a new type of Jewishness freed from the restrictions of Europe’s secular political order. In Palestine, many argued, one need not be a Jew only at home.

The Conclusion returns to the concept of a politics of denial by considering one final case for discussion: the frequent praise of Christian missionary schools among British officials as a safe meeting ground for the unruly natives. This example serves to highlight that claims of this sort, which characteristically denied that such schools meddled in the nasty business of politics, typify a form of colonial power whose strength lies in assertions of its own neutrality. Finally, in closing, I offer some thoughts about the contemporary association between religious education and political radicalism and suggest an alternative framework for approaching the study of religious traditions.


1. At the outset of the war, more than half of the Arab children who attended school were in private communal institutions: approximately 8,705 in Muslim schools (predominantly katātīb) and thousands more in Christian (largely missionary) schools, and 8,248 in the Ottoman public schools. Tibawi, Arab Education in Mandatory Palestine, 20. Within the Jewish community, precise statistics of school enrollment by administrative body are unavailable, but it is unlikely that the number of students in schools managed by the va’ad ha-inuch approached the number in private ederim and talmudei-torah (Orthodox communal schools) given the difference in population between the Old Yishuv (66,000) and the New Yishuv (13,900) at the outbreak of the war. Elboim-Dror, ha-inuch ha-Ivri be-Eretz-Yisrael, 2:21.

2. Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World.

3. Asad, Formations of the Secular; Habermas, “Notes on Post-secular Society”; Habermas, An Awareness of What Is Missing; Taylor, A Secular Age; Fitzgerald, Ideology of Religious Studies; Fitzgerald, Religion and the Secular; Fitzgerald, Religion and Politics in International Relations; Masuzawa, Invention of World Religions; Anidjar, “Secularism;” Nongbri, Before Religion; Calhoun, Juergensmeyer, and VanAntwerpen, Rethinking Secularism; Calhoun, Mendieta, and VanAntwerpen, Habermas and Religion; Mahmood, Religious Difference in a Secular Age.

4. Gribetz, Defining Neighbors, 13.

5. As most influentially argued in Gellner, Nations and Nationalism.

6. In his authoritative study of British educational policies in Palestine, Abdul Latif Tibawi offers a general overview of “religion, nationalism and education policy” but ultimately demurs. “Here it is not possible without disturbing the balance of emphasis in this study, to cover the whole field of the interaction of religion and education. This field is so wide and crowded with events as to merit a special study.” See Tibawi, Arab Education in Mandatory Palestine, chap. 7.

7. Shemesh, Beit ha-midrash le-morim “Mizrai.” The late Motti Bar-Lev authored numerous works about religious (particularly religious Zionist) education in the state of Israel. Readers interested in a general overview should consult Bar-Lev, ha-inuch ha-dati ba-evra ha-Yisraelit. More recently, Jewish religious education is taken up by the contributors in Dror and Gross, Dor le dor.

8. Greenberg, Preparing the Mothers of Tomorrow. For a general overview of the Supreme Muslim Council’s educational endeavors, see Kupferschmidt, The Supreme Muslim Council, 139–44.

9. See Weissman, “inuch banot datiyot bi-Yerushalayim bi-tekufat ha-shilton ha-Briti.” For the late Ottoman period, particularly details about the Old Yishuv’s relations with the educational bodies of the Zionist Organization, see Elboim-Dror, ha-inuch ha-Ivri be-Eretz-Yisrael, vol. 2. A broader treatment of ultra-Orthodox life during the Mandate period appears in Friedman, evra ve-dat.

10. Horowitz and Lissak, Origins of the Israeli Polity.

11. It is noteworthy, for example, that in the leading study of Jewish education during the Mandate Period, only thirteen pages are devoted to describing the relationship between Zionist education and the Government of Palestine. See Dror and Reshef, ha-inuch ha-Ivri bi-yamei ha-bayit ha-leumi.

12. See, for example, Doumani, Rediscovering Palestine.

13. Khalidi, The Iron Cage, chap. 1.

14. Shafir, Land, Labor, and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

15. Lockman, Comrades and Enemies, 8.

16. See, for example, Abigail Jacobson’s study of late Ottoman Jerusalem, From Empire to Empire. Also of note in this regard is Gribetz’s Defining Neighbors. With regard to Arab and Jewish education, Yoni Furas has recently examined the “uncanny resemblance” that linked the nationalist practices of history across school systems, even as such practices contributed to driving these communities further apart. Furas, “In Need of a New Story.”

17. Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, 38.

18. Ibid., 33.

19. Ibid., 39.

20. Ibid., 43.

21. Segev, One Palestine, Complete, 33.

22. As Segev argues, Chaim Weizmann was well aware that British officials viewed him as a sort of “king of the Jews” who represented a unified “world Jewry” and used this conspiratorial anti-Semitism to his advantage. See ibid., chap. 2.

23. Sir Henry McMahon to Sherif Hussein, October 24, 1915. Reprinted in Antonius, The Arab Awakening, appendix A.

24. For a more detailed discussion of the Paris Peace Conference and related summits, such as that at San Remo, which definitively decided the fate of former Ottoman territories, see Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace, pt. 9.

25. Susan Pederson has masterfully chronicled the institutional history of the League of Nations Mandate system through her analysis of the Permanent Mandates Commission, including numerous episodes of interest to the historian of Palestine. See Pederson, The Guardians.

26. League of Nations, “The Covenant of the League of Nations,” Avalon Project, Yale Law School, April 28, 1919,

27. The exceptions, by and large, consisted of British Jews like Herbert Samuel, Palestine’s first high commissioner, and Norman Bentwich, who served as attorney general. Despite their obvious support for Zionism, their appointments were theoretically based on their status as British citizens.

28. As an education officer in the colonial service, Bowman was treading a well-worn path. It is estimated that from the years 1918 to 1938, some 20–30 percent of Oxford and Cambridge graduates served in the colonial education administration. See Symonds, Oxford and Empire, 307.

29. S. Boyle, Betrayal of Palestine.

30. Humphrey Bowman, diary entry, June 1, 1925, MEC, Humphrey Bowman Collection, Box 3B.

31. Ibid., September 26, 1929.

32. See “Hassam al-Din Jarallah,” in Muhammad ‘Amr Hamada, A‘lām Filasīn min al-qurn al-awal hata al-khāmis ‘ashar, 133–34. On the elections for grand mufti, see Al-Hout, al-Qiyādāt wa al-mu’assassāt al-siyāsiya fi Filasīn 1917–1948, 203–5; and Roberts, Rethinking the Status Quo, chap. 4.

33. The Council of the League of Nations, “The Palestine Mandate,” Avalon Project, Yale Law School, July 24, 1922,

34. Horowitz and Lissak, Origins of the Israeli Polity, 24.

35. For more on these intra-Zionist struggles, see ibid., chap. 3.

36. Roberts, “Rethinking the Status Quo,” 196.