Mandatory Separation

Religion, Education and Mass Politics in Palestine

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Suzanne Schneider
  • Palo Alto, CA: 
    Stanford University Press
    , February
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Mandate studies has become a major field over the past twenty years. Groundbreaking scholarship has been published on topics from women’s activism to chambers of commerce; from copyright law to electrification. Suzanne Schneider’s work expands upon recent studies of Mandate education, bringing it into conversation with broader questions about the production of religion and the religious as categories for Mandate governance and identity.

Mandatory Separation: Religion, Education, and Mass Politics in Palestine examines Jewish and Islamic religious education in Mandate Palestine–the biggest era of change, during which education shifted from being informal and managed by local religious authorities to a formalized education system under government or other institutional controls. The Mandate government supported religious education when officials saw it as a counter to nationalist stirrings and uprisings. But Jewish and Muslim educators saw religious education as a means to instill new understandings of religious and national identities as integrally connected. All parties, however, participated in redefining and producing new perceptions of what was considered “religious” and within the sphere of religious knowledge.

Schneider organizes her work thematically. She begins, not with the British arrival to Palestine, but with Ottoman-era Jewish and Muslim educators’ efforts at education reform which joined new ideas of religion as a specific realm of belief, action, and experience; the modern idea of education as developing a student’s character and civic engagement; and the emergence of mass politics in which national identity and religious education were linked. She then examines government education policies, which supported the formation of separate schools. Education ordinances established ‘religious’ schools and schools operated by ‘religious’ communities as spaces of exception from government supervision. This enabled separate Zionist schools, and hobbled efforts to create national, multi-confessional schools. The Department of Education focused on “traditional” Jewish and Islamic schools, trying to modernize their settings and curricula while keeping ‘authentic’ religious instruction, which they considered an antidote to political mobilization. Yet, as she finds with case studies of the Najah National School in Nablus and Zionist school curricula, private schools engaged in religious education to support political activism. 

Given that the Palestine Mandate incorporated the text of the Balfour Declaration, government officials were limited in terms of implementing new policy. In education, the language around primary instruction focused on creating common civic virtues, yet the reality of separate schools for Arabic and Hebrew speakers meant de facto planning for a future partition. There were different school inspectors for the Arab and Hebrew systems, for example, and inspectors had no  jurisdiction over the Zionist schools. In education, as in other areas, Zionists enjoyed almost total autonomy from government supervision–although Zionist and Orthodox schools did receive government funding.

In government schools, which most Muslim children in school attended, the focus was on primary education to teach literacy and practical skills. Mandate officials envisioned an apolitical mass education that would produce loyal, civic-minded citizens. In examining the public-school curricula and operations, Schneider offers compelling illustrations of policy decisions and operating assumptions whose impacts are familiar to social historians of the period. For instance, concerned with ways to improve agricultural efficiency and production while discouraging rural flight, Mandate government officials focused intently on rural schools–this concern also found its way into radio broadcasting, policing, and other policy efforts. Yet, Schnieder also notes that, in practice, rural schools were often held in old kuttabs, and often the same instructors were employed. So while officials railed against the failures of traditional schooling and praised the benefits of modern schools, it is not clear if the break between the two was as clean or distinct. 

All schools included at least some religious instruction, and Schneider notes that it would be inaccurate to consider government or Zionist schools as secular. They shifted the focus and scope of “religious” education: teaching about the lessons of scripture rather than memorizing it and integrating “great men” (such as biblical prophets and caliphs) into history classes. The curricula of government schools reflected officials’ belief in religion as a conservative element, which would counter political “agitation” and support the development of industrious, loyal, and obedient subjects guided by strong personal ethics. Both Jewish and Muslim reformers focused on schools as the key loci for societal regeneration and self-strengthening, seeing existing educational practices as stagnant and narrow. They tied this to a broader sense that religious leaders and practiced religion were backwards and corrupted, and thus unable to meet the challenges posed by western Europe’s political, cultural, and economic hegemony. They did not want to eliminate religion from education but strip it of its historical context and present it in “purified”, “authentic” form. In this effort, their assumptions aligned with those of many British officials, who considered religion a stabilizing and apolitical force.  In defining “religious education” as a sphere of formal school education—whether in a state school or a private school run by a religious community organization—they created a rupture between “religious education” of the classical and early modern periods, and that of the late 19th and 20th century. 

While Schneider’s focus is on the education that was available during the Mandate, she also reveals the Mandate government failed to offer any education to the majority of Palestinian children. Mandate Palestine, like other British colonies, was expected to be financially self-sufficient. Given that security and policing costs took a disproportionate share of the budget, education and other services were deeply underfunded. At the end of the mandate, Schneider notes, nearly 60% of Palestinian Arab children still had no access to public education–a damning and heartbreaking data point. 

Schneider’s book provides a compelling case study of how “religion” was defined and produced in a semi-colonial context in Palestine, and how those efforts connected with earlier labors concerning Judaism in Europe and Islam in the Levant. She also effectively argues that despite the determined portrayal in archival documents of religions as known, stable, and fixed categories, the reality in Palestine was that “religion,” and specifically “Judaism” and “Islam,” continued to escape and confound fixity. Her focus on education helps elucidate how “religious education” was produced as a particular category of knowledge, in which direct, unmediated access to  scripture for the purpose of understanding its edifying moral lessons was privileged over studying the exegetical traditions—language study was removed from the religious sphere and placed within the national and literary, and the interconnectedness of religious and national identities were alternately suppressed or supported, depending on the institution. That these processes impacted both Jewish and Muslim students, and Judaic and Islamic understandings of “religion,” “education,” and “religious education,” is a further reminder that Mandate studies must continue to move past the old practice of studying Yishuv and Palestinian Arab communities separately.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrea Stanton is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver.

Date of Review: 
January 8, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Suzanne Schneider is the Director of Operations and a Core Faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.