Palestinian textbooks fall short where they are most needed - introducing 'the other'

A new study indicates that Palestinian textbooks, and their Israeli counterparts, do little to address how segregated the two societies are.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Hala Mohammed, a 4th grader from Al-Amari refugee camp near Ramallah, loves learning about the Muslim warrior Saladin. She has never met an Israeli and says she doesn't want to, in part because of what she has been taught in school.

Malak Mahmoud has never met an Israeli in her life and she hopes she never will – not even an Israeli child her age.

“I don’t wish to meet them because they occupied our land,” says Malak, a 6th-grader from Al-Amari refugee camp near Ramallah. “To me, every Israeli person is a soldier because he will grow up to be a soldier.”

Malak's generation is the first to be educated according to an entirely Palestinian curriculum, developed gradually from 2000 to 2007 – the year she started school. They tend to look up to Muslim warriors like Saladin, who “liberated” Jerusalem from the Crusaders; know little if anything about the Holocaust – some haven’t even heard of Hitler; and venerate those who die fighting Israelis.

“They are not innocent people, because the whole nation is a nation of soldiers,” says 4th-grader Hala Mohammed.

Palestinians take pride in their textbooks, which they see as a way to build national identity and instill a sense of dignity among their young people, counteracting to some degree the humiliation of checkpoints, barriers, permits, and prisons imposed by Israel.

The Israeli government, however, has long contended that elements of the Palestinian curriculum, including maps that fail to demarcate or label the state of Israel, amount to incitement against their country – contradicting both the spirit and the letter of the Oslo Accords.

A landmark study of Israeli and Palestinian textbooks released this week exonerated Palestinians somewhat, saying neither their textbooks nor Israeli ones promote dehumanizing views of the other except in rare cases, although the Israeli government and at least two of the researchers disputed this conclusion. Other findings of the study, together with the Israeli and Palestinian reactions to it, underscore the deep divide that still prevails between both sides – and is being perpetuated among the rising generations not only through textbooks but also media, society, and government leaders.

Unlike their parents, who came of age before Israel’s separation barrier and tightened security measures, today’s young Israeli Jews and Palestinians often have never met their peers – and, like Malak, may have no desire to.

“We have to bring down this wall of hatred and enmity of delegitimization, of stereotyped images, in order for us to regard each other as human beings,” says Mohammed Dajani, a former Fatah fighter turned peace activist, who served on the advisory board of the textbook study. “The level of incitement is high on both sides…. We don’t have leaders who are saying, ‘Enough is enough.’” 

'Little lambs in a sea of wolves'

The study, “Victims of Our Own Narratives?” was funded by a $500,000 grant from the US State Department and overseen by Prof. Bruce E. Wexler of Yale University. His team evaluated 74 Israeli textbooks and 94 Palestinian books in six areas: the other, one’s own group, religion, peace, conflict, and values.

The results were tallied according to three groups of textbooks: Those used in Israel’s state secular and religious schools; those used in Israel's ultra-Orthodox schools, which are not subject to approval by the Ministry of Education; and those used in Palestinian schools in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

One of the areas that left the most to be desired was each group’s characterization of the other in positive terms. Israeli state textbooks gave a favorable impression of the other 11 percent of the time, ultra-Orthodox 7 percent of the time, and Palestinians only 1 percent of the time.

Ultra-Orthodox books include passages describing “a convoy of bloodthirsty Arabs” and comparing Israel and the neighboring Arab states to a “little lamb in a sea of 70 wolves,” while an Arabic language textbook used by the Palestinian Authority talks about “terror pour[ing] down from Mount Carmel on the Arabs living on the slopes.”

An area of particular controversy was maps. Some 95 percent of ultra-Orthodox textbooks and 65 percent of Israeli state textbooks did not include borders separating Israel from the Palestinian territories, implying that all the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River belongs to Israel. Some 58 percent of Palestinian textbooks included no borders, no reference to Israel, and referred to the entire area as Palestine.

State of denial

But while the study found such evidence of delegitimization of the other’s presence, it concluded that this generally was “not the result of historically false statements, but results from selection of the aspects and events of history that are reported, and the omission of information that humanizes and legitimizes the other’s presence.”

Jehad Zakarneh, head of the PA’s Curriculum Development Center who helped develop the current Palestinian textbooks, says that one important area that was not addressed by the study is Israel’s manipulation of Palestinian textbooks used in East Jerusalem schools. Pulling out a recent report, he shows the kinds of things that Israel omitted from the textbooks, such as “the Israeli occupation has a negative impact on agriculture” and “one day the occupation will end.”

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad welcomed the study, saying it “proves what we have repeatedly affirmed in response to allegations” about Palestinian incitement against Israel and said he had encouraged the Ministry of Education to adopt its recommendations for improving the Palestinian curriculum. 

The Israeli Ministry of Education strongly rejected the study, however, calling it biased and unprofessional. Yossi Kuperwasser of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, which tracks incitement in West Bank schools, media, and society, called it “ridiculous” to put Israeli and Palestinian textbooks on equal footing.

Professor Dajani says Israel was in a state of denial about the study, having viewed its textbooks as “beyond reproach.” But the purpose of the study, he emphasizes, was not to place blame but to create more fertile ground for seeds of peace.

“[Israelis] think it is an attack on them, which it’s not,” he says. “We don’t say that your textbooks should be a copy of my textbooks. No, let your textbooks reflect your history, your culture, all your vision and let my textbooks reflect that. But, not to delegitimize you and not to demonize you.” 

Context of occupation

That can be a tall order in a society where children learn not only from textbooks, but also the daily realities of checkpoints and other security measures that were tightened after the second intifada killed more than 1,000 Israelis – the vast majority of them civilians.

Sami Adwan of Bethlehem University, the chief Palestinian researcher on the project, says he was impressed with the textbooks’ efforts to advance a Palestinian generation to peaceful coexistence. But he asks, “How can you teach children to act positive toward the Israelis when they’re creating a much more difficult life? How can you tell them, ‘Be nice to your neighbor’ while you only see your neighbor in bulldozers and at checkpoints?”

“Our students are continually experiencing Israeli aggression against families, schools, and cities,” says Azzam Abu Bakr at the Ministry of Education, thumbing through an annual ministry report on incidents at Palestinian schools. He rattles off some statistics from the 2012 report, which was just released: Four students killed in 2012; 638 teachers detained; 2,460 hours of instruction lost; 9,981 students not allowed to reach their schools.

“Even if I want to give the rosiest picture of the occupation, can I erase what happens to the student in his own home environment?” he asks. “When a peace deal is signed, after the occupation is ended, after the settlements have been removed, and the soldiers have left, then we will write a new curriculum.”

But the way Mr. Kuperwasser sees it, such a curriculum – part of a broader societal trend of incitement – shows Palestinians aren’t serious about peace.

A member of his team, Asher Fredmen, ticked off additional indications at a press conference earlier this week, including: school Facebook pages such as one featuring Hitler and a quote about his destruction of Jews; PA television programs, including several featuring kids reciting poetry about wanting to be a martyr; and more general tendency to glorify suicide bombers by naming streets after them and thanking their parents for their sacrifice.

“Together they form the culture of hate and incitement that exists within the Palestinian Authority,” said Mr. Fredmen.

Cairo Arafat, a Palestinian-American mother of four who works with Save The Children in Ramallah, says that the PA actually was the first to draw some red lines about how much violence could be shown in the burgeoning national TV industry, but suggests more can be done.

“It does attract people when they hear this national thing – ‘This is our country and we will defend it to the last … It’s our honor, it’s our duty,’ ” says Ms. Arafat, who says children have become political pawns in the conflict. “And lots of people, which I think is incorrect, think it’s cute to see little kids coming in and saying ‘my country’ and singing songs that they’re clueless [about].”

Hala, from the Al-Amari refugee camp, says that each Palestinian uprising has been justified because each was undertaken to prevent Israel from expanding its territory. “Whatever solution Palestinians want is not going to happen because the Israelis have one objective: to take all the land without the people,” she says, before scampering down an alley.

But even as children seem to adopt the narratives of their parents and teachers, Dajani says it’s up to the older generation to solve them.

“We should not let our children inherit our problems,” he says. “We have to solve our problems so that our children will not inherit them.

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