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Editorial by Dr. Shimon Samuels and Alex Uberti published in The Jerusalem Post
18 November 2021

The educational deficit is a persistent obstacle to any form of dialogue with their Israeli neighbors and, by association, with Jews – and not only Jews.

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The Italian flag waves over the Quirinal Palace in Rome, Italy May 30, 2018 (photo Reuters/Tony Gentile).

We were shocked to learn that Sabri Saidam, a former Palestinian Authority education and higher education minister from 2015 to 2019 and currently deputy secretary-general of the Central Committee of Fatah, had been decorated with the prestigious “Commander of the Order of the Star of Italy.”

The medal was awarded in October by the consul general of Italy in Jerusalem, but the decree conferring this honor was signed by the Italian president in May 2018, based on the decision of the then-foreign minister.

What caused a delay of over three years between the decree and the formal ceremony? More importantly, on what basis was the “Star of Italy” granted? This insignia is a reward to those who deserve “particular merits in promoting relations of friendship and collaboration between Italy and other countries.”

So, what would be the merits of Sabri Saidam? That Saidam has expressed gratitude and friendship toward one of the main donor countries – directly and through international institutions (EU, UN, UNRWA, etc.) – to the PA budget, would seem self-evident.

Moreover, one can only speculate that the eligibility assessment procedure probably took into account some form of institutional assistance for the opening of an Italian language school in Ramallah, or the launch of the pedagogical program planned for the period 2017-2022, aimed at “improving the quality, accessibility and sustainability of the Palestinian early childhood education system,” – a program materially supported by Italy.

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UNRWA employees take part in a sit-in demonstration, according to them against anticipated austerity measures
within the organization, in Amman, Jordan November 8, 2021 (photo Reuters/Jehad Shelbak).

Yet there has been no concrete news on the actual implementation of this so-called “revolutionary” program since 2018.

Instead, up to now, about 40% of Palestinian children do not attend primary school... a worrying figure, all the more so because children without basic education are limited in their ability to dialogue or in understanding the surrounding reality. They encounter psychological and behavioral problems, they are vulnerable to manipulation and become easy prey to totalitarian, extremist ideologies, both political and religious.

It is useless to repeat – as the Wiesenthal Center has done for decades – at UNESCO, the UN or at European institutions, that the educational deficit is a persistent obstacle to any form of dialogue with their Israeli neighbors and, by association, with Jews – and not only Jews.

The obvious question would be: why has UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees) not solved this immense educational deficit so far? This, the oldest and longest-running United Nations agency, was established in 1950 specifically for a “Palestinian emergency” in the education sector, to which it dedicates half of its budget and the vast majority of its staff. UNRWA reveals a meager balance if, among decades of other perceived shortcomings and “complicity,” one adds also its inefficiency in providing a basic service such as infant education.

Returning to Sabri Saidam: who is he to be worthy of one of the highest civil honors of Italy? According to the authoritative Palestinian Media Watch (PMW), this former PA education minister has spared no praise for the assassination of Israeli civilians.

Reportedly, as soon as he received the honor, Saidam dedicated it “to the martyrs of Palestine... who live above the earth and... who are underground.” The allusion to prisoners or dead terrorists should not have gone unnoticed.

PMW asked the Italian authorities to “rescind the order, which Saidam dishonored the moment he received it, and which continues to be dishonored if it remains in the hands of this terror supporter.”

Indeed, according to PMW’s meticulous research, the former education minister has a past of glorifying killers, for example, naming a square in memory of Dalal al-Mughrabi, the murderess behind the 1978 “Coastal Road Massacre,” that left 38 civilians dead, among them 13 children, for which she was even recognized as a terrorist by the UN.

Saidam became a staunch spokesperson for the PA’s antisemitic narrative on television broadcasts and through school texts.

The Wiesenthal Center asserts that supporting an “armed struggle,” advocating antisemitic theses and glorifying terrorists does not fall within the criteria of “particular merit in promoting relations of friendship and collaboration between Italy and other countries.”

A former consul general in Jerusalem, reportedly, declared over-honestly: “If I didn’t meet people who deal with terrorists, I would not have a job.”

Italy has had a history of humiliating condescension toward Palestinian terrorist hijackings and attacks in the mid-70s.

We can presume that 50 years later things have changed, that there has been a doctrinal and ethical evolution, a generalized consensus on “zero tolerance toward terrorism.” It would therefore be appropriate to use caution when dealing with or decorating those who promote, justify or glorify terrorism, so that one day Italy does not find itself being called accountable by victims of antisemitism and other forms of hate and violence.

Shimon Samuels is director for international relations of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Alex Uberti is a researcher and consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center – Europe.