‘Mandatory Palestine’ question in matric paper causes outrage
Students writing their matric National Senior Certificate (NSC) mathematical literacy exam last week were shocked to see a question reading, “Timothy will fly from the United States of America to Mandatory Palestine to play in a tournament. Before he leaves, he wants to exchange $2 580 for New Israeli Shekel (NIS). The currency used in Mandatory Palestine is the New Israeli Shekel (NIS).”
Aside from the unnecessary political stance, the use of the term “Mandatory Palestine” is factually incorrect, as it refers to the period of the British Mandate over the area now comprising Israel and the West Bank, which commenced in 1920 and ended with Israel’s Declaration of Independence on 14 May 1948.
The issue has been handed to the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) to address.
“The haters of Israel have become so emboldened within government administration and the system by the levels of anti-Israel rhetoric and the de-legitimisation of Israel that they feel comfortable falsifying history and reality in order to convey their view that the state of the Jewish people shouldn’t exist,” said David Saks, the associate director of the SAJBD. “And this was done completely deliberately. This is no honest mistake. And it was done not in the history paper, but sort of snuck into a mathematical literacy paper to somehow indoctrinate young people into believing that there’s no such thing as Israel.”
He said the Board intended to bring this up with the Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga. “There needs to be an investigation, at the very least, and there needs to be appropriate action taken against the person or persons responsible,” said Saks.
“This is somebody in education who can’t be trusted to convey the truth to pupils, instead using his or her position to promote their own ideological agenda that has nothing to do with truth and reality. This isn’t an appropriate person to hold such a position.
“It’s extremely upsetting for Jewish students to have the existence of the state which they support and are linked to in various ways – culturally, religiously, and through family – just denied. And the fact that they’re writing an exam, they’re probably pretty tense. To have this insult thrust in their faces at a time when they are supposed to be focused is frankly an infringement of their rights as students.”
One of the few Jewish schools which writes the NSC examinations set by the department of basic education is Mesivta Sha’arei Torah. The principal of Mesivta Sha’arei Torah and Beis Yaakov, Jodi Davis, said she believed her pupils weren’t affected at all by that question in the mathematical literacy paper.
“If the person who sent the paper intended to politicise it, it didn’t affect our pupils and it certainly won’t affect their results,” she said. Be that as it may, Davis said, “I don’t believe that political statements have any place in a mathematical literacy exam, but I also don’t believe that whoever set the paper and set that question represents the entire Gauteng education department or the department of basic education.”
Herzlia, the biggest Jewish school still offering the NSC matric certificate, declined to comment on the issue. Many Jewish students and parents across different schools were upset by the question but were afraid to come forward due to concerns about their safety as well as possible repercussions for their matric results.
A student at one of the Jewish schools who wrote the paper described her reaction to the question as “deep shock”. The student’s mother said, “I don’t understand when the questions were set, but certainly before the current war. Nonetheless, there are 196 countries in the world, so many others to choose from rather than ‘Mandatory Palestine’ which ceased to exist in 1948. Lots of questions [that need] to be answered by the department of education.”
One mother said, “I’m absolutely disgusted that that question came up in the paper. It was unnecessary. They could have picked any other country. That paper was obviously set well before the massacre, but is indicative of the level of increase in antisemitism. The kids were horrified and disconcerted” and some felt “targeted and offended”.
“It was unnecessary to bring any sort of politics to a matric final exam, and it affected my ability to answer the question fully,” said another student.
One Jewish student at a non-Jewish school said that, at first, “I didn’t want to answer this question because of how I felt, but my second thought was that it’s matric, and I need all the marks I can get despite my feelings, so I answered it. I wouldn’t say it distracted me, but it definitely did disturb me.”
The student spoke to a Muslim friend, who was also “extremely shocked” by the question and felt that “there should have been more consideration” from the education department.
It wasn’t just Jewish people who were offended by the exam question. Education spokesperson of the African National Congress (ANC) Western Cape caucus, Muhammad Khalid, issued a statement saying that the ANC caucus “strongly condemns the use of the term ‘Mandatory Palestine’ to refer to the state of Palestine in the Grade 12 mathematical literacy paper 1, question 5.2, administered on Friday, 3 November 2023,” and that the question “demonstrates a blatant disregard for the deeply rooted political sensitivities surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict”.
On 7 November, the education department published a response saying, “The department regards the use of this term in national examination question paper as highly unfortunate and regrettable”, and that it would “put mechanisms in place to ensure that this unfortunate incident doesn’t recur”.