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Akiva Eldar: What Did You Study In School Today, Palestinian Child?

English Edition
Tuesday, January 2, 2001

After the sovereignty on the Temple Mount and the Palestinian right of return, the debate is now turning to the textbooks, the poisonous material brainwashing the young minds of school children in the territories. Even the firmest supporters of the left have a problem with the anti-Semitic quotes that Jewish organizations and right-wing research institutes find in the textbooks used by our partners in peace. Their huge advertisements, published in newspapers in Israel and the United States, remind us week after week who we are dealing with. What fool will hand over vital territory and holy sites to a neighbor who teaches his children that the neighbor across the street is a cruel and evil enemy? How can one build a relationship of trust with regimes that educate their sons and daughters to hate Israel and the Jews?

And who, dear children, is taught in the first grade that the Jews are treacherous people and the Israelis are evil enemies? Please circle the correct answer: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's grandson, Jordanian King Abdullah's nephew, or Yasser Arafat's daughter (when she is not in Paris with her mother?) The answer: These anti-Semitic and racist stereotypes are taken from Jordanian and Egyptian textbooks. For the past 33 years, these books have also been used by the Palestinian schools in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Every prime minister, military governor and Jerusalem mayor knows that to this day the Palestinians have not had any impact on the contents of the textbooks their children learn from in class (due to budgetary problems, the students are required to leave the books in school).

The harsh abuse against Israel included in the various Jordanian and Egyptian textbooks has for years starred in the Foreign Ministry's public relations material, as well as in "the white paper" recently published by the Prime Minister's Office. But these book critiques have not been directed against the charming king to the east, nor against the important president to the south. There are no such things in their countries. And if there are, "the fundamentalist opposition" is surely to blame. Not their narrative.

On the other hand, the Palestinians are punished twice. First, they are criticized for books produced by the education ministries of others. Secondly, their children study from books that ignore their own nation's narrative. The Arab states are uncomfortable with Palestinian children born in their countries knowing that they did not make much of an effort to help the refugees. Even today, the Jordanians do not allow national aspirations to be cultivated among the children of the refugees living under the Hashemite rule. Their textbooks simply skip over the insignificant event of the creation of the refugee problem in 1948.

The Palestinians are being rebuked where they should in fact be praised. For this school year the Palestinian Authority has, for the first time ever, printed its own textbooks. A research team from the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, led by Dr. Ruth Firer, has established that the new books are "freer of negative stereotypes of Jews and Israelis, compared to Jordanian and Egyptian books." The defense establishment has investigated and confirmed this finding.

The Truman team compared the new Palestinian books with Israeli textbooks from the 1930s and 1950s that were then used by the state as a tool for political indoctrination. "We were surprised to find how moderate the anger directed toward Israelis in the Palestinian textbooks is, compared to the Palestinian predicament and suffering," Firer says. "This surprise is doubled when you compare the Palestinian books to Israeli ones from the 1950s and 1960s, which mentioned gentiles [only] in the context of pogroms and the Holocaust."

The study, performed in compliance with universal criteria for textbook analysis, took five years to complete and will soon be published. The researchers examined the narrative of the Israeli-Arab conflict from the end of the 19th century until present days, through 20 books on both sides of the conflict. The team reviewed history and civics textbooks, as well as some literature books, for junior high and high school students in the territories. According to Firer, "the Palestinian narrative describes Jews, Israelis and Zionism in a negative way, as part of Western colonialism in the Middle East. The Arabs, and especially the Palestinians, are portrayed as victims. This narrative follows through to the new books published by the Palestinian Authority, but these books are freer of negative stereotypes compared to their Jordanian and Egyptian equivalents."

A comparison between Palestinian textbooks and Israeli ones also astounded the scholars. "Israeli books, especially those published from the 1980s and on, include almost no derogative stereotypes of Arabs or Palestinians," Firer says, "but the basic narrative is still the same, at least until the mid 1990s. The change in the Zionist narrative which portrayed Israelis as a heroic, pioneering people, was prompted by the publications of the New Historians. Wherever this does occur, it is usually on a very small scale, and sometimes as an afterthought to the traditional narrative. New history books stirred such public debate that some were even taken off the curriculum (as happened with " A World of Changes: History for Ninth Grade" (1999), edited by Danny Ya'akobi).

Kids can 't be duped

This Thursday at the Truman Institute, Firer will be the last speaker at the seminar on the image of the other in textbooks on Middle East conflicts. Before that, Itamar Marcus, who runs the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace (CMIP), will be speaking about how Palestinians perceive Jews. In recent years Marcus has been making a living translating and disseminating defamatory communications against Israel, extracted by his staff from Palestinian publications. Marcus, a settler, used to work for David Bar Illan, Benjamin Netanyahu's PR chief, and served on the Joint Israeli Palestinian Anti-Incitement Committee. Marcus's center routinely feeds the media with excerpts from "Palestinian" textbooks that call for Israel's annihilation. He doesn't bother to point out that the texts quoted in fact come from Egypt and Jordan.

In an executive summary he published for Thursday's seminar, Marcus makes a report of the 14 new textbooks published by the PA's "Center for Developing the Palestinian Curricula," replacing the old books. Marcus concedes there were "a few changes," like the fact that "The open calls for Israel's destruction found in the previous books are no longer present" and that "references defining Jews and Israelis as 'treacherous' or 'the evil enemy,' common in the previous books, are likewise not present." But this, to Marcus, is not enough. He complains that the new books "continue to teach non-recognition of Israel," and that the maps portray greater Palestine, with no boundaries separating the territories and Israel (just like the official textbooks and maps used by most Israeli institutions).

"A chapter in 'National Education for Grade Six' is dedicated to 'Tolerance.' Yet the PA schoolbook does not mention Jews or Israelis in the entire chapter. A prominent picture shows a Christian shaking hands with a Muslim," Marcus complains.

Firer's co- researcher, Prof. Sami Adwan, of Bethlehem University, can't make up his mind whether to laugh or cry at Marcus's grievances. "How does he expect my child to interpret a Jew's handshake, the same hand that causes my child daily suffering. Textbooks become a dead letter if the message is too far removed from reality. The teacher has to be able to answer a child's question, 'Why should I love Israelis?' Can your textbooks decree that you must love Germans? I know it isn't the same, but suffering is suffering. What am I supposed to tell my kids after settlers attack us on the way to visit their 85-year- old grandfather? Kids can't be duped."

The educator from Beit Jala says that what children see on the street, on TV and on the Net has a far greater impact than any textbook. "How can a Palestinian write in a textbook that Israelis or Jews should be loved, while what he is experiencing is death, land expropriation, demolition of homes and daily degradation? Give us a chance to teach loving. [That will happen] when they stop seeing Israelis as soldiers or bulldozer operators. Let us breathe. Give us a chance to love you."

Adwan will not be attending the seminar on Mount Scopus. His village is under closure. Only Israelis will be speaking at the seminar on the image of the other, and all the presentations will be in Hebrew.