For decades Israel and much of the Arab world have molded perceptions of each other through textbooks for schoolchildren. The books taught students histories that disparage one side or the other and helped entrench conflict in the Middle East. Now, as more Arab leaders find common cause with Israel and take steps to normalize relations with it, some of them may also realize they must mold public opinion in a more favorable way.
A hint of this shift comes from a partial survey of Saudi textbooks for the current academic year. It was conducted by Impact-se, a nongovernmental Israeli organization that tracks how Israelis and Jews are portrayed in Arab curricula. It notes some significant changes. Longtime anti-Semitic tropes have been removed, as have passages condemning gay people, glorifying jihad, and denying the rights of women.
That tracks with trends seen elsewhere in the region. A study of textbooks in the United Arab Emirates found a “dedicated focus” on issues the West does not normally associate with education systems rooted in Islam: civic engagement, critical thinking, pluralism, protection from extremism, equality, and compassionate justice. That study was published in July by scholars at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, and American University in Dubai. In September, the UAE normalized ties with Israel.
Such attempts to change thinking about Israelis or Western values are up against entrenched views. The latest Arab Opinion Index, a survey conducted in 13 Arab states and released in November, showed that 66% of Arabs think Israel and the United States pose the greatest threat to peace and stability in the region, while only 12% say Iran does. An aggregate of 79% of respondents say the cause of Palestinians under Israeli control concerns all Arabs, and 88% disapprove of recognition of Israel by their home country.
In two of the countries that have moved toward normalizing ties with Israel in recent months, Morocco and Sudan, just 4% and 13% respectively support that diplomatic shift. These findings are consistent with individual national polls.
In Israel, annual budgets and official statistics on class size and student academic performance reveal persistent systemic discrimination. Arab and Jewish students are generally taught in separate schools.
But some important shifts may be unfolding there, too. A small but growing number of schools are sharing resources across ethnic and religious lines and collaborating on projects. In recent years Israel’s Ministry of Education has worked with local groups to increase the number of Arab teachers in Jewish schools.
“Translating peacemaking into our educational systems,” argues Gershon Baskin, founder of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, in The Jerusalem Post, requires finding “new and positive ways to relate to the ‘Other’ within the region and among us, especially for the young generations of Israelis and Palestinians.”
Societies do not remain static. Perspectives shaped in the service of conflict can be reshaped in the pursuit of peace. If differences and hatred can be taught, so can common humanity and shared interests.
As stereotypes fall in the Middle East, so may tension between Israel and its neighbors. The cost of such progress is not high. It can start with more balanced textbooks and more classroom contacts between Israelis and Palestinians.