Need for textbook examples of peace in Israeli-Palestinian conflict

A major, US-funded analysis of textbooks used in Israeli and Palestinian schools finds few examples of each side demonizing the other. Rather, inaccurate maps and lack of information show a need to educate the next generation toward reconciliation.

Mohamad Torokman/Reuters
Palestinian students share a textbook while studying in the school library in the West Bank city of Ramallah Feb. 4. Israelis and Palestinians largely deny their adversary's history and existence, according to a US government-funded study published Monday.

When two peoples are in conflict, one path to peace is to write textbooks that don’t further hate of the other. For today’s school-age Palestinians and Israeli Jews, there’s now some hope of that becoming true.

On Monday, a group of scholars released a three-year analysis of 94 Palestinian and 74 Israeli textbooks that found few characterizations that demonize or dehumanize the other side. And most of the schoolbooks were factually accurate. This is encouraging.

The study, funded by the US State Department, was conducted to help Israel and the Palestinian Authority create an atmosphere of reconciliation for the coming generation rather than use textbooks as a preparation for violence or continued estrangement.

“In this conflict, perhaps more than many others, this lack of recognition of the other’s legitimate presence is a central obstacle to the respect and tolerance necessary for peace,” the report states as a reason to reform the textbooks. “It’s hard to imagine Israelis and Palestinians living in peace without their children learning more about the religion of the other.”

The project, which looked at books used in Grades 1 through 12, was initiated by the Jerusalem-based Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, a group trying to bridge differences between Jews, Muslims, and Christians. And indeed, the study found that the main problem in the textbooks was “a lack of information about the religions, culture, economic and daily activities of the other.”

Especially obvious were maps that seem not to recognize current boundaries or historical facts, as if “to deny the legitimate presence of the other.” In the textbooks analyzed, that was the case for 94 percent of the Palestinian maps and 87 percent of the Israeli ones.

And in a tendency found in many countries, “historical events ... are selectively presented to reinforce each community’s historical narrative.” Israeli textbooks were more self-critical of the country’s past actions than were Palestinian textbooks about their history.

The study’s methodology has its detractors, including a few Israelis who were involved. But the analysis was done by a range of academics led by Daniel Bar-Tal, an Israeli professor of child development at Tel Aviv University, and Sami Adwan, a Palestinian associate professor of education at Bethlehem University.

The study can also serve as a model for other countries, such as Japan and South Korea, in coming to some agreement on the writing of history in textbooks and in depictions of each other. Often antagonisms are perpetuated because one side ignores past wrongs or schoolchildren are taught stereotypes that are not rooted in current reality.

In the Middle East, many young Arabs and Iranians are still taught myths about Jews, the Holocaust, and Israel’s history. And one Israeli state textbook refers to Arabs as “masses of the wild nation.”

Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority should use this study to reform their education curricula toward teaching accurate and comprehensive information about their respective societies. Censoring textbooks or inflaming passions toward others is not laying a path for peace.

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