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Education and hope in the Arab world: The successful, underdiscussed case of the Palestinians

The underdiscussed case of how the Palestinians became one of the most educated people in the Middle East

The Arab world is facing a severe and tragic crisis and in the post 2011 Arab Spring, very few signs of optimism emerge across the Middle East. One exception involves the Palestinians. Quietly, the Palestinians have become one of the most educated people in the Middle East and a role model for women’s education. This is good news especially if you are both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian. And if you are, you may wonder if it is possible for the Palestinians to use their educational edge to develop a positive narrative that is analogues to Israel’s successful “start-up nation.” I argue, and provide supportive data, that the Palestinians can positively re-brand themselves and that this is an important step for their well-being and future viability of a two-state solution.

The media typically highlights the Palestinians’ negative self-image and is reluctant to celebrate their strengths and tremendous opportunities. One particular strength — education, especially among women — is noteworthy and should be considered for a re-branded positive Palestinian narrative.

Although the Israeli presence in the West Bank (Israel has had no presence in the Gaza strip since 2005) has negative consequences on the daily life and self-expression of the Palestinians, the very same Israeli presence has paradoxically given the Palestinians a valuable prospect. Specifically, a combination of Palestinian talent with support from Israeli authorities since the 1970s has established a strong Palestinian higher education system.  Israel’s critics may say that the success of the Palestinian educational system is despite Israeli involvement, but the evidence suggests otherwise and points to a potential for a more promising future.

First, the Palestinians can be proud of their 213,000 students attending 49 institutions of higher education according to a 2012 EU report. These are outstanding figures for such a small population (nearly 5 millions). Furthermore, the Palestinians lead the Arab Middle East on key educational indicators such as literacy among adults and youth, and are a role model for number of years in school and literacy rates among women. In fact, the Palestinians’ educational achievements are on par with nations in the developed world and are much better than developing countries in Africa, Asia, and South America. These data are supported by findings from both the World Bank and UNESCO. Below are two illustrative graphs that demonstrate this reality for 2015 (based on UNESCO data) and 2009 (based on the visuals of GAPMINDER.ORG that uses UNESCO and the World Bank as sources).


This graph measures adult literacy rates, with an emphasis on women, and the second graph measures mean years in school of young women as percentage of men in the same age.

The second graph is especially insightful. First, it sheds light on how similar the Palestinians appear to be to aspiration countries such as Singapore, Chile, Cyprus, and Estonia. Second, it reveals the deep differences between Palestine and most other Arab countries (excluding Jordan and Lebanon). Third, it reveals the positive status of women in the Palestinian society. Further, as the GAPMINDER chart is based on 2009 data, it most likely under reports the extent to which the Palestinians are leading their Arab neighbors due to the Arab Spring that did not set back at all the Palestinians.


Additionally, this graph that accounts for life expectancy, a critical dimension of health and well-being, shows that the Palestinians, in spite of their conflict with Israel, are on par with many other developing countries and in a dramatically better position than most of the Arab world. This data should put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into better perspective: although the situation of the Palestinians could be further improved, they are thriving and leading comparable Arab nations in many key indicators. Anti-Israeli propaganda that equates Israel’s security actions with “genocide” is further shown to be far from the truth.

Perhaps most significantly, the educational infrastructure available to the Palestinians gives an opportunity for hope that a viable and successful Palestinian economy is possible. Though significant changes should take place in textbooks and curricula of Palestinian schools that reinforce more hatred than coexistence, the opportunity exists by the presence of education to greatly enhance the Palestinian quality of life.

Further, the closeness between the Israeli “start-up nation” and the Palestinians suggests that spillovers, learning, and collaboration are likely to fuel a Palestinian success story. For example, collaborations between Israeli and Palestinian scholars on joint research projects can help Palestinian universities and students get access to know-how and resources, further improving their international rankings and achievements. Business-based collaborations between Israelis and Palestinians are already under way (e.g., GeoFree Software, Amelia Investments and holdings, JEST — Jerusalem Entrepreneurs Society and Holdings), and can be key catalysts in re-shaping Palestinian entrepreneurship, building local business leadership, and developing international marketing skills and networks.

These initiatives continue and grow without waiting for a political resolution. Rather, by leveraging and encouraging the local Palestinian talent, they create a significantly better economic climate, boost the pride and self-esteem of Palestinians, enhance trust between Israelis and Palestinians, and can fundamentally change the aid-based culture of the Palestinians to a thriving, entrepreneurial, knowledge-based economic culture that Israeli has already shown can exist in the region.

It is my hope that similar to the way the Israelis have been able to leverage their strengths in the face of great adversity, the Palestinians can be responsible for shaping their own future and re-brand their narrative by moving away from religious extremism and anti-Israeli incitement.  Instead, they can start celebrating their talent and opportunities, and establish a collaborative climate that can take advantage of their educational infrastructure. That, plus access to their neighbor Israel, the “start up nation,” can help Palestine become a successful and independent “Silicon Wadi.”

About the Author
Amir Grinstein is an associate professor at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business, Northeastern University and on the faculty of Economics and Business Administration, VU Amsterdam
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