Monday, October 9, 2023

School Physical Education in Palestine 1900 – 1948

Issam Khalidi


   School sport played a pivotal role in the Palestinian sports movement throughout its history. It was at the core of this movement from the very beginning. As schools in Palestine existed before clubs, sports activities were generally practiced in schools before clubs were established. Schools formed their own football teams and competed against one another. They met with teams from social-athletic clubs and the British military. At the same time school graduates formed their own teams and clubs that competed with Palestinian clubs in sporting activities. Annual field day has been held by all public and private schools in Palestine since the early 1920s. School physical activities and competitions strengthened the bonds between Palestinians in different villages and cities.

   However, pupils’ physical development was not significantly affected by schools' sports programs. Public education presented many obstacles to school sports in Palestine. As part of British policy in Palestine, school sports weren't designed to help younger generations develop their physical abilities and skills. Furthermore, they sought to erase their national spirit as Palestinians. Despite the colonial administration’s repeated attempts to stifle nationalism in schools by a variety of means, students and teachers played significant roles as both participants and leaders of the Arab Revolt. For, by the 1930s, many Palestinians had come to feel that what the Mandate government sought was to create a minimally educated generation that would acquiesce to British rule and its support of Zionism. [1]


   Palestinian educators had to function in an environment in which they lacked any autonomy over their own education, while at the same time they perceived the advancements being made by the Zionist movement toward the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine as a real threat to Palestinian Arab national aspirations, identity, and unity. According to Tibawi (1956), Dr. Khalil Totah, a Palestinian educator during the British Mandatory period, stated:

 “The major grievances of the Arabs as regards education is that they have no control over it.” He explained that because of this lack of control education was not national enough in policy, personnel, curricula and general tone. “It would seem that Arab [Palestinian] education,” he said, “is either designed to reconcile the Arabs to this policy (of establishing a Jewish national home) or to make that education so colourless as to make it harmless and not endanger the carrying out of that policy." [2]

  The education ethic among Palestinian Arabs is very strong, and as a result on a per capita basis Palestinian Arabs have a tradition of literacy and scholastic attainment at all levels. In 1914 there were 379 private Muslim schools, 95 elementary schools and three secondary schools in Palestine. [3] In 1947-48 there were 868 schools for Arab students in Palestine: 555 Arab schools, 131 Muslim Arab private non-governmental schools and 182 Christian private non-governmental schools. There was a total of 146,883 Arab students and 4,600 Arab teachers. [4]


  The private schools in Palestine reflected the flavor of international interest in the Holy Land. A Christian Orthodox Girls' School in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, was founded in 1858 by a Russian benefactress. Jerusalem's De La Salle College (Frères) was founded in 1875, followed by Bishop St. George British Anglican School for Boys in 1899, the Friends School in Ramallah in 1890, and the Salesians in Bethlehem in 1891. Physical activity was promoted in these missionary schools. [5]  As a matter of fact, most missionary schools paid special attention to physical education and made it an integral part of their curriculum. As a result, new types of sports were introduced in Palestine and the region that were not known before. It was part of the modernity that invaded Palestine during this period.


  The first football team in Palestine was formed at Bishop St. George's in Jerusalem in 1908. It defeated American University of Beirut, which was considered to be one of the strongest teams in the region, in their home stadium in 1909. It included Izzat Tannous, who later became a member of the Arab Higher Committee. In the same period, Rawdat Al Maaref College of Knowledge (established in 1906) formed a football team. [6]


  As early as 1909, Khalil Al-Sakakini established the Constitutional School Al-Madrasa Adusturiyah in Jerusalem. His education method eliminated grades, prohibited punishments, and emphasized music and sports. It is primarily because he believed sports and physical exercise are important for the mind and body. He practiced them daily and incorporated them into his lifestyle. As Sakakini pointed out, Al-Madrasa Al-Dustouriya emphasized sports and military movements. In order to accomplish this, he assigned an officer to the task. [7]


   Sports in Arab schools lagged behind those in Jewish schools. It is well known that Jews came to Palestine from advanced industrial societies. They brought with them physical culture, sports, and sports planning and administrative culture. The disparity in education in particular, and in human capital in general, was not simply a function of the fact that as time went on, immigration during the Mandate had the effect of swelling the Yishuv with a growing literate population. Beyond this, a high proportion of these newcomers were young and active, with a generally high level of education, and a relatively high and widespread level of technical aptitude. [8] All the gauges of the economic, social, and political advancement of the Yishuv – the massive import of capital, the inflow of highly skilled human capital, the community’s predominantly urban nature, its high degree of ideological homogeneity, its unique social makeup and governing structures – when taken together, indicate its capacity for generating considerable state power. [9]


  There was a total dependence on the mandatory government as the authority and the provider of services in the country. Thus, whereas the Jews had already established independent education and health systems, the Palestinians continued to depend on the government’s respective departments. These departments were staffed by colonial officials whose career in the past had taken them to India, Egypt and Africa, and who treated the ‘native population’ with typical British paternalism. The policy of the Education Department is particularly illuminating as it shows a clear British intent not to go beyond providing an elementary school system in Palestine. [10]


  It was a manifestation of Palestinian dissatisfaction and injustices that have accumulated in recent years. Indeed, the Arab Revolt (known in Arabic as al-thawra al-kubra, or the Great Revolt) was the manifestation of escalating nationalist grievances, foremost among them the unprecedented rates of Jewish immigration --doubling the Jewish population from 185,000 in 1932 to 375,000 in 1935 - and ever-increasing land purchases, which the British continued to facilitate and encourage throughout the 1930s. [11]


Physical Education in the Curricula

  It is stated in the Palestinian Encyclopedia that physical education classes were included in the general curriculum of Palestinian schools. Although there were fourteen Arabic classes in first grade and eleven classes in second grade, physical education classes were not included in the general curriculum. There were three physical education hours in third grade, which was approximately 8.57 percent of the total number of classes in this grade level. From the fourth through the eleventh grade, there was only one physical education class offered. Physical education classes were not offered in the 12th and 13th grades of the school. [12]


  Clearly, this program was not based on educational principles. It was very evident in the outdated educational system that there was a misunderstanding of the importance of this subject. There is no clear indication in this program that physical education was a priority. First and second grade students did not have physical  education classes in primary school, while third graders had three classes. Apparently, the students in the first and second grades did not need physical education, while students in the third grade did. Physical education from fourth to tenth grade was not sufficient to meet the demands of the students' physical growth. An antiquated traditional system influenced this program.

  In addition to teaching physical education and overseeing sports activities, sports teachers also taught other subjects. The reason for this is that each school doesn't have enough sports classes to cover teachers’ work hours. Each grade had one physical education class per week. Teachers of physical education included Ibrahim Murad, Jamil Al-Qaddoumi, and Rashad Arafa from Jaffa, Ibrahim Salim Nusseibeh from Jerusalem, and Mahmoud Al-Khawaja from Nablus. Physical education and sports in Palestine's schools were supervised by Robert Kaflaktni, who also taught at the Arab College of Jerusalem. It was this college (now known as Dar Al-Muallimeen Teachers College) that graduated Palestine's teachers. Fakhri al-Khatib was in charge of sports at this college. [13]


 There were some schools that excelled in sports, such as Rawdat al-Ma’aref the Garden of Knowledge in Jerusalem and Kulliyyat Athaqafa the College of Culture in Jaffa, where a strong football team won several matches and did well, as well as a strong table tennis team. Besides sports and Swedish exercises, the college held annual sports festivals, where everyone saw the splendor and order. Hussein Husni, a well-known sports coach, supervised the college's sports affairs.[14]


  Hussein Husni is a graduate of one of Egypt's institutes of physical education. In Jerusalem, he worked as a teacher at Rawdat Al-Maaref College. He was appointed to observe physical education in the schools of Alawqaf al Islamiyyah Islamic Endowments. Additionally, he was appointed as a supervisor for the Egyptian Scout Association teams in Palestine. In the sports media, he was highly regarded for his articles that stimulated public interest in sports. Furthermore, he supported the (Arab) Palestine Sports Federation and the Palestinian sports movement in general. His whereabouts were unknown after 1948.


  Husni also criticized the status of sports in schools:

 “Our schools, both public and private, don't pay enough attention to this crucial component of physical education. The impact on young people is profound. However, they're more interested in geography, languages, and math.”[15]


   Few physical education courses were offered by the Department of Education. Al-Jamia’a al-Islamiyya Islamic League reported in a news article titled (Physical Sports and Government School Teachers):

 "Today is the first day of primary training for the schools of the government of Palestine. The training was attended by 28 teachers from Palestine and East Jordan. His Excellency the Director of the Department of Education, Mr. Bowman, inaugurated this course.”[16]


   Husni wrote in Filastin that there were 85,000 students in the Department of Education in Palestine, and there was only one specialized professor (Mr. Hussein Husni). Scholarships for this subject weren't considered. The Education Department didn't have a section that supervised students' sports and helped schools organize sports. As well as monitoring physical education progress and using modern methods to raise their level, despite budget constraints. Most subjects didn't have any budgets, so sports weren't budgeted or allocated. It was even necessary to collect money from dignitaries and municipalities to hold sports field days. [17]


  In this highly politicized context, nationalists also became increasingly frustrated with the colonial education system, which gave Palestinians very limited access to education, enforced a Eurocentric history curriculum, and reserved upper-echelon positions from British citizens appointed by the high commissioner so as to ensure their control of the Education Department. [18] The British appointed Humphrey Bowman Director of Palestine's Education Department. Additionally, he was in charge of the Mandate administration's sports program. Furthermore, he was the board chairman for the Jerusalem YMCA.


   “Nationalists from the Department of Education submitted opinions and suggestions about advancing sports. They didn't get a response, though, because supervisors played into colonial politics. This deprived us of growth and advancement in this vital field, and misled the minds, deceiving the simple people into thinking science stuffs information into people's brains and stuffs scientific theories into their minds. If this policy was right in the past, it's no longer acceptable even in the minds of young people ....... We hope the Department of Education and Sports Affairs will have a national sports curriculum and that the students will direct the righteous direction without turning around. So will you do what you promised in this area," wrote Husni. [19]


   There was a tendency to promote school sports after many education employees noticed this shortcoming on the part of administrators in the Education Department. Many of these criticisms were reported in Filastin. Some of them were by Hussein Husni who stated that he and his colleague (teachers of physical education) realized how important sport is to preparing young people to defend their country. “It's important to remember that history tells us to mobilize an army of educated, healthy people, so we can fight off the usurpers and defend our country.” [20]


Field Day

   School sports days (Field Day) started in 1922 and were held by each school individually or by a group of schools within the region or most of the schools in Palestine from different provinces. On July 2, 1947, in Jerusalem, the sports parade of the Amiriyya (public) school teams in the Palestinian provinces ended with distinction at Al-Rashidiya School in Jerusalem and Al-Ameriya Secondary School in Jaffa. These sports days were attended by the city's notables. They were hosted by the High Commissioner, the district governor, the education director, the mayor, or the consuls. There used to be army or Scout music there, like at the Dar al-Aitam al-Islamiyya Islamic Orphanage. During the sports days, there were processions, physical exercises, sports games, cups, decorations, prizes, and donations from celebrities. Games and exercises included 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m races, long jump, discus throw, tug-of-war, and potato-carrying, bun-biting, leg-binding, bag-walking, etc. [21]


  In each district, Field Day was held once a year. It was held in the biggest city in the province. This day was preceded by qualifiers between the cities of the district, so the champions of each game in each city got to play with his fellow champions in the distict's sports hall. You can also find qualifiers in the villages around the city, and the winners of each game get to play in the district's finals. A Swedish exercise show was part of the sports day. There was also high jump, broad jump, 100-meter run, 200-meter run, 400-meter run, one-mile run, and relay races. Jerusalem hosted Palestine field day every year. Attendees included senior officials from the Jerusalem Department of Education, district education inspectors, and general secretaries. Each game has a champion from each district. [22]


  Private missionary schools, according to Abu al-Jabeen, had a clear interest in physical education, as some hired qualified teachers from outside and inside the country to oversee sports activities. Hussein Husni, who specializes in physical education, was brought to Kulliyyat Athaqafa College of Culture in Jaffa from Egypt. In Nablus, the College of An-Najah brought two sports teachers from Lebanon, Munir Naga and Abdel-Wadoud Ramadan, who was one of the country's sports champions. For instance, Mounir Naja introduced the sport of pole vaulting to Al-Najah College by training its students and refining their athletic abilities. At the Kulliyyat Athaqafa, Hussein Husni introduced the game of frisbee. The presence of these trainers and the desire to show the activity of its students prompted each college to organize a sports day. Students’ parents, Palestinian dignitaries, and Arab consuls in Palestine were included. In that day's competitions, several sports were played. There were a number of Swedish sports exercises presented by the college team, as well as games such as pyramids and others. In addition, since the emergence of the Arab and Rashidia colleges, there has been an annual football tournament in which teams from secondary schools in Jerusalem participate, including missionary and civil schools. Moreover, since the end of the Mandate, sports field days have been organized at most missionary schools.[23]


Several bodies, such as municipalities, social organizations, and dignitaries, helped make these field days a success. According to Filastin, Ali Al-Mustaqim, acting head of the Jaffa Municipal Committee, donated 35 pounds on behalf of the Jaffa Municipality to go towards the major sports event for the princely schools in Lod. On June 5, Al-Bassa Stadium in Jaffa will host this event. Additionally, he donated five pounds for party prizes.[24]


  Government schools usually have friendly school meetings as part of tournaments organized by the Education Department or Awqaf Department that include Al-Nahda School, Dar Al-U'loom in Jaffa, the Islamic Orphanage in Jerusalem, the Abbasiyyah School in Ramla, and Al Falah School in Gaza. School teams competed with clubs’ teams, Scout teams, and British governmental and military teams.


   Since the early 1920s, school sports performances have been held in government and private schools without modification. Sports in private schools lacked national spirit. “... our schools can't hold their own parties, even though they're manifestations of activities their students compete in. We'll be a field of strength and courage for them, and for their families, proof of their kids’ progress in heroism.” Wrote Husni. [25]


  Filastin criticized some educational bodies and institutes for entrusting school field day to British officials since 1922. “We present our article today in pain for what has been done to our national dignity when some educational bodies and institutes intentionally entrusted the sponsorship of their field day to a non-Arab who led them, which is what happened. It's been there for a long time in this country. As long as we live in an Arab land, in an Arab environment, and among Arabs, isn't it a disgrace to have a non-Arab preside over our field days?"[26]


  In conclusion, despite this negligence on the part of the British's attempt to give school sport a colonial character, and the relative growth of school sport, it is difficult to ignore the importance of school sports as an important component of the sports movement in Palestine. The development of physical education and sports  in Palestine was part of the expansion of education in the country. Throughout the diaspora, Palestinians have brought their sports culture and experience with them. In the years leading up to 1948, school sports laid the groundwork for the modern Palestinian school sports that we know today.



Notes and references

[1] Khalil Totah, “Education in Palestine,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 164(Nov. 1932), p. 155. Also, see Susan Boyle, Betrayal of Palestine: The Story of George Antonius (Boulder: Westview Press, 2001) for Antonius’s experience of the glass ceiling that British officials constructed.

[3] Khalidi, Walid. Before Their Diaspora (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1984), pp. 28-29.

[4] Issa Nakhleh. Encyclopedia of Palestine Problem, (New York: International Books,1991), p

[5] Khalidi, Walid. Before their Diaspora, p 74.

[6] Khalidi, Walid. Before their Diaspora, p 74

 It's worth pointing out one of the news items in Filastin on April 13, 1912, about the football match between the visiting team from Lebanon and the schools in Palestine: "On Monday of this week, betting started on the game of football ball, which the young men of the college school in Beirut attended with some of their teachers. At 4 o'clock, young men from the college, the Israeli young men, gathered in a large hall on the field. Young men from the Jerusalem Youth School took the field, and the college boys won. As for Wednesday, the game was with the Bishop's School students, and the game ended without either party winning."

[7] Khalil Sakakini, Such Am I, O World, (Beirut, 1982) p.189 – 190.

[8] Rashid Khalidi, The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007), p 15.

[9] Rashid Khalidi, The Iron, p 21

[10] Ilan Pappe, The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947-1951, (I.B. Taurus 2014) p. 60.

[11] Howar Sachar, A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, 3rd ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), p. 189. Quoted from Elizabeth Brownson, Colonialism, Nationalism, and the Politics of Teaching History in Mandate Palestine, Journal of Palestine Studies

[12]Al-Mawsoo’a al-Falastiniyyah, Encyclopedia of Palestine, Education in Palestine, Part II, Volume III, (Beirut 1990) p 512 – 538.  

[13] Khairudin Abu Aljibeen, Qissat Hayati fi Filastin wal Kuwait, My Life in Palestine and Kuwait, (Amman: Dal-Al Shorook, 2002), p 458.

[15] Filastin, 25 July 1947.

[16] Al-Jami’a al-Islamiyyah, 23 August 1932.

[17] Filastin, 2 July 1945

[18] Elizabeth Brownson,  Colonialism, Nationalism, and the Politics of Teaching History in Mandate Palestine,  Journal of Palestine Studies

[19] Filastin, 21 February 1947.

[20] Filastin, 25 October 1945

[21] Khairudin Abu Aljibeen, Qissat Hayati fi Filastin wal-Kuwait, p 60 – 61.

[22] Khairudin Abu Aljibeen, Qissat Hayati fi Filastin wal-Kuwait, p 61.

[23] Khairudin Abu Aljibeen, Qissat Hayati fi Filastin wal-Kuwait, p 462.

[24] Filastin, 22 May 1941

[25] Filastin, 7 February 1945.

[26] Filastin, 27 June 1946

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