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Fall-out from textbook study

Reports on the responses to ‘Victims of Our Own Narratives?’ from 1) JTA, 2) Electronic Intifada, 3) Jewish Forward

Palestinian schoolchildren – educated, like Israeli children, with no knowledge of the history of the other, and no questioning of their own version of history. Photo by Getty Images.

For previous articles see Israeli textbooks also obliterate ‘the other’

New study of school textbooks threatens to undercut argument that Palestinian schools preach hate.


February 05, 2013

Washington — An in-depth comparative study of Palestinian and Israeli school textbooks is offering some conclusions that already are making some Israeli government officials very unhappy: Palestinian textbooks do not have as much anti-Israel incitement as often portrayed.

While this finding might appear to be welcome news for supporters of Israel, it also threatens to undercut one of the central elements of the official Israeli narrative. For years, the charge that Palestinians “educate to hate” has been an Israeli trump card in undermining claims that Palestinian statehood is overdue, and it is an article of faith among many lawmakers in Congress.

“This obviously cuts down one of the pegs and a linchpin in the argument that the Israel government makes, that the Palestinian Authority is teaching hatred to their kids,” said an official who works closely with mainstream Jewish organizations in the United States. The official declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Titled “Victims of our own Narratives?” and funded by the U.S. State Department, the study finds both Israel and the Palestinians lacking in making the case for the other side’s presence in the Holy Land. It also scores Israeli books as better than Palestinian ones at preparing schoolchildren for peace.

But in the same pages it praises both Israel and the Palestinian Authority for publishing textbooks virtually free of “dehumanizing and demonizing characterizations of the other.”

“Both the Israeli and Palestinian communities should be commended for this important positive aspect of their books,” the study says. “Extreme negative characterizations of the other of his sort are present in textbooks elsewhere in the world.”

The study was launched in 2009 by the Council of Religious Institutions in the Holy Land, a multifaith body that aims “to prevent religion from being used as a source of conflict, and to promote mutual respect,” according to its website. It is comprised of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, the Palestinian Islamic Waqf, and the heads of Christian churches in Israel and the West Bank.

The Israeli government did not formally cooperate with the study; Palestinian Authority officials did.

Yale University psychiatry professor Bruce Wexler convened the study team, which was headed by Daniel Bar Tal of Tel Aviv University and Sami Adwan of the University of Bethlehem. They assigned Hebrew-Arabic bilingual research assistants to plow through more than 3,000 passages from textbooks — 74 from the Israeli side and 96 from the Palestinian side.

The assistants assessed the passages based on criteria developed in part by an advisory panel that included Palestinian and Israel academics and outside experts, including those who have critiqued Palestinian books.

Most of the advisory panel, including several Israelis, signed onto a statement Sunday endorsing its findings.

“We agreed that the methods of the study were of the highest scientific standards and agreed on the main study findings,” the statement said.

At least one Israeli member, Arnon Groiss, said he has reservations about the methodology and could not attach his name to the final report, which he said he has not seen.

It’s not clear whether the study will alter fundamentally the standard Israeli narrative about Palestinian schools laying the groundwork for future conflict with Israel, and the study does not absolve either side.

The study quantifies textbooks’ negative depictions of the other side and identifies a lack of positive depictions of the other side as an obstacle to peace.

“This presentation bias, along with the general lack of information about the other’s culture, history and religion, creates an image of the other only as aggressive enemy to whom it is not possible to relate or respect, with whom there can be nothing in common,” the study says. “This lack of information even more than the negative information constitutes a lack of recognition of the other’s legitimate presence.”

Wexler said the goal of the study was to test according to rigorous statistical standards allegations that each side has made about the other’s texts.

“The type of testimony that’s been presented to Congress and to our national leaders has been one person reading selected passages from the books,” Wexler told JTA.

The study found that textbooks in Israel’s state schools were likelier to depict Palestinians in a positive light and to include criticism of Israeli actions, while books in Palestinian and haredi Orthodox schools were overwhelmingly negative in their depiction of “the other.”

Critics, including some of the Israelis on the advisory panel, said this equivalence fails to take into account how each culture responds to such depictions.

“The problem is, he makes comparisons between promotion of education for peace on the one side and education that calls for the annihilation of the other side,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, the director of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, referring to Wexler. “It’s like comparing apples and giraffes.”

A statement from the Ministry of Strategic Affairs picks out passages in Palestinian textbooks it says the study ignores; many of them implicitly negate Israel by referring or depicting the entire territory as “Palestine.”

The study, however, addresses that issue at length and finds that maps on both sides tend either to depict the entire area as “Israel” or “Palestine.”

Detractors of the study say its rigorous analytical methodology rips biased and sometimes inflammatory passages from each cultural context. They contend that triumphalism is more incendiary in a Palestinian society that they say is more forgiving of terrorism.

Kuperwasser has been leading the charge against the study.

“It omits important examples of incitement and delegitimization of Israelis and Jews in official PA textbooks, whether in an intentional attempt to blur the differences between the two educational systems or due to poor research,” he said.

Israel’s Education Ministry said in a statement that “the results of the ‘study’ reveal that the decision not to cooperate with these bodies was right.” The ministry called the study “biased, unprofessional and significantly lacking in objectivity.”

Biased new study skirts around racism in Israeli school books

By Nurit Peled-Elhanan, Electronic Intifada
February 12, 2013

A new report on Palestinian and Israeli school books has elicited much debate (“Israel shoots back: ‘Look beyond the textbooks,’” The Times of Israel, 6 February).

The report — by academics in Tel Aviv, Bethlehem and the American university Yale — is short. Yet it raises some poignant questions (“Victims of our own narratives? Portrayal of the other in Israeli and Palestinian school books,” Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, 4 February [PDF]).

Israeli educators who hastened to pronounce it biased were quite right. Such a study cannot be symmetrical, for it examines two education systems, one of which is entirely subjugated to the other. A reminder of this situation is found in the introduction of the report. It notes that the Wye River Memorandum — signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 1998 — included an “explicit statement about incitement.”

The agreement states that “the Palestinian side would issue a decree prohibiting all forms of incitement to violence or terror, and establishing mechanisms for acting systematically against all expressions or threats of violence or terror. This decree would be comparable to the existing Israeli legislation which deals with the same subject.”

No such caution is mentioned with regard to the Israeli regime of occupation, even though Israel is regularly taken to task by the United Nations for its aggressive behavior.

As textbook researcher Samira Alayan from the Georg Eckert Institute for the Study of Textbooks has shown, Palestinian textbooks are severely controlled and censored not only by Israel but also by European and American bodies that finance their production (see an abstract of the book: “Images of identity: Self and other in school text books of the Palestinian Authority,” June 2011 [PDF]).

Nevertheless, the new report prides itself for having engaged “objective” evaluators who come from the US and Europe, although the US denies tourist visas to most Palestinians — including the ambassador of the PA to the European Union, Leila Shahid, who was not allowed to attend the New York session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine in October last year — and many European states and companies profit from the occupation of Palestine. Why not recruit evaluators from Pakistan or South Africa?

The report relies on content analysis but neglects the ways in which the content — both visual and written — is used to persuade readers of its ideological message. For instance, it praises Israeli textbooks for relating the details of massacres but does not discuss how these books try to legitimize the massacres as part of the “big picture” — to Israel’s benefit.

One Israeli textbook, we are told, acknowledges that most of the Palestinians killed by Zionist forces in the village of Deir Yassin, near Jerusalem, in 1948 were women, children or elderly. Yet the book cites claims that the victims died because they refused to leave their homes and that the massacre “still serves as an excuse for Arab propaganda against Israel.”

This excuse bears a chilling similarity to the one used by Israel when it subjected Gaza to a three-week bombing campaign in late 2008 and early 2009. And this excuse is not confined to one work. The 2009 book Israeli Nationalism and Nation: Building a State in the Middle East — by Eyal Naveh, Naomi Vered and David Shahar — stated that the residents of Deir Yassin failed to evacuate their village because the loud-speaker from which they were supposed to receive a warning was not functioning properly.

Taboo of occupation
Two main categories are missing from the analysis: occupation and racist discourse. Perhaps that is why describing the dire facts of the occupation seemed to involve “negative characterization of Israelis” to the researchers.

Israeli school books do not address the occupation because their message is that there is no occupation. They inculcate what sociologist Stanley Cohen — in his 2002 book States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering — termed the “Zionist kitsch” about the eternal historical rights of the Jews on the whole land of Israel and Palestine. This explains why the researchers behind this study were offended by how Palestinians use the term “colonialism” to describe Zionist settlement on their land. In Israeli mainstream books, illegal settlements like Ariel or Alon Shvut are presented as no different to Tel Aviv.

The green line — the 1949 armistice line separating Israel from the territories captured in 1967 — is never shown or discussed. The only Israeli geography book I found that discusses the issue of the green line is Sfat Hamapa (The language of maps) by P. Dina (published in 1996).

In Israeli textbooks, the cruel practices of occupation such as administrative detention, military checkpoints and house demolitions are presented as necessities in our “defensive democracy.”

Since racist “teaching tools” of a visual or verbal nature are not part of the analysis presented in this study, racist Israeli representations of Palestinians are reported to be “neutral.” Since Palestinians are never presented in Israeli textbooks as persons like us — modern professionals — only as negative stereotypes of terrorists, nomads and primitive farmers, one must conclude that these racist representations seemed “neutral” to the researchers and to the “objective” western evaluators.

Better times?
The report concludes that the books on both sides fail to relate the “better times” when there were good relationships between Arabs and Israelis. This must refer either to the good relationships between Jews and Muslims in Morocco, Tunisia and Iraq, prior to the “redemption” of Zionism — a reality Zionist education in Israel has always done its utmost to conceal — or to the years between 1967 and 1987 when oppression of Palestinians was considered by Israelis to involve an “enlightened occupation.” I found one reminder of that “idyllic” time in a geography book published a decade ago but still used — Israel: The Man and The Space by Zvia Fine, Meira Segev and Raheli Lavi: “Some of the foreign workers are Palestinians who come from the areas controlled by the Palestinian authorities. They are employed in unprofessional jobs and their wages are lower than that those of the Israeli citizens who work in the same jobs … This is characteristic of all developed countries.”

The conclusions of the new study reflect the Israeli bon ton that brought the success of Yair Lapid in the recent elections — to wrap up Arabs and Orthodox Jews together and slander them. But, as usual, there can be no comparison.

While Orthodox Jewish textbooks present Arabs — all of them — as evil forces, a sort of biblical Amalek we must eliminate with the help of God, Palestinian textbooks never resort to such discourse. They respect Judaism as one of the three monotheistic religions but relate — as accurately as they can under so much censorship — the true and horrid facts of life under Israeli military rule.

The new study — or at least the part that has been published — seems quite problematic and biased but not in the way Israel is trying to spin it. Let’s hope the full study, when published, will clear up some of this confusion.

Professor Nurit Peled-Elhanan is a lecturer in language education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is the author of Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education ‏(I.B. Tauris, 2012).

Fierce Reaction Greets Study of Alleged Hate in Palestinian Textbooks

Finding That Class Materials Don’t Vilify Jews Sparks Fury
Textbook Case of Controversy: A new study was supposed to settle the question of whether Palestinian textbooks spur hatred toward Jews and Israel. Instead, the study itself has became a focus of controversy.

By Naomi Zeveloff and Nathan Jeffay, Jewish Forward
February 07, 2013

A controversial in-depth study that clears Palestinian Authority school textbooks of the charge that they demonize Jews and Israelis has become an orphan, virtually upon its release.

Since Yale University psychiatry professor Bruce Wexler, Bethlehem University professor Sami Adwan and Daniel Bar-Tal of Tel Aviv University rolled out their study’s results February 4, the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, which commissioned the project, has disavowed the study.

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate — one of the council’s four constituent members — has, too. The U.S. State Department, which fully funded the study, has refused to comment on it. And the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which sent out a press release February 5 announcing that it would host a Washington rollout for the study, has now called that release’s distribution an accident.

According to Wexler, the fury over the report is a recent development. Last May, he said, the study received unanimous support from its 17-member scientific advisory panel, an international group of education experts, who drafted and signed a document approving both the methodology and the findings. But now, three members of the panel have publicly denounced the project.

Those involved in the project attribute much of the response to it to Israeli government officials, who have led the charge against the report, denouncing it as “misleading,” “highly distorted” and ”biased, unprofessional and significantly lacking in objectivity.”

The study, which looked at textbooks used by both Israelis and Palestinians, found that, with some exceptions on both sides, neither side’s books dehumanize the other as. on one side, Jews and Israelis, or on the other, as Palestinians or Arabs, respectively. But the study also found that books used in schools on both sides distort history and use facts selectively to favor their own respective narratives, at a significant cost to building peace.

The Palestinians’ alleged demonization of Jews and Israel in school textbooks has been a long-standing grievance for pro-Israel advocates. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the Palestinians have voiced satisfaction with the study’s findings. But on the Israeli and Jewish side, protests reached a fever pitch.

One adviser to the study warned Wexler, who is Jewish, that he was in danger of becoming “another Goldstone,” a reference to Richard Goldstone, the South African Jewish jurist who became a pariah among many fellow Jews for chairing a United Nations report that criticized Israeli military actions in Gaza.

Wexler stands by his group’s findings. “The goal was to provide the information so discussion can be informed by facts,” he said. “We have done that, and that is why I am shocked by the vehement response to discredit us.”

The study, which has been four years in the making, began in 2009, when the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land — a consortium of the senior leaders of Islam, Judaism and Christianity based in Jerusalem — commissioned Wexler, who is American, and his Israeli and Palestinian colleagues to design and conduct the research project with a $590,000 State Department grant.

Following years of regular but fragmentary attacks by Israel and its supporters — including testimony before Congress — on alleged hate passages that they claim permeate Palestinian textbooks, this study was designed to be nothing if not comprehensive. And unusually, it was designed to examine the textbooks of both sides, not just the Palestinians.

The researchers examined 94 books from Palestinian school systems in Gaza and the West Bank, and 74 books from the Israeli state secular and state religious school systems, analyzing 1,000 categories of information, such as narrative passages, poems and photos.

While the relative absence of “extreme negative characterization” of the other by both sides rose to the top of the researchers’ findings, the study found that both Israeli and Palestinian textbooks portrayed the other as the enemy, and each collection of textbooks presented their own respective group in almost exclusively positive terms.

The study also found a deep lack of information about the other in each side’s books. The negative depictions and omissions of the other are most pronounced in books used in Israel’s Orthodox religious schools and in Palestinian books. Israeli secular books were found to be the most self-critical of the three categories.

Perhaps nothing distills more starkly just how this dynamic of mutual effacement works than the researchers’ findings regarding each side’s textbook maps.

According to the study, 58% of the post-1967 maps in the Palestinian schoolbooks show the polity “Palestine,” with its area incorporating everything between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, including present-day Israel. There is no mention of Israel.

The Israeli books examined came off even worse. Seventy-six percent of the post-1967 maps in them show Israel as the area between the river and the sea, with no mention of the P.A. and no notation of the so-called Green Line that separates Israel from the West Bank and Gaza — the territories Israel conquered in the 1967 Six Day War and continues to occupy, but that it has never annexed.

“This type of education can create a lasting obstacle to peace,” Wexler said. “If you grow up seeing maps that seem to imply that the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is your homeland… and you are asked to give up some of that land to make two states, you would feel you are losing something that you never had to begin with.”

Many of the critics’ substantive arguments against the study have to do with the way that Wexler and his team categorized their findings. The study stressed the fact that Palestinian and Israeli schoolbooks contain very few “extreme negative characterizations” that dehumanize or demonize the other.

One rare instance, in an Israeli book used in the state religious sector, refers in toto to the residents of a decimated Arab village — now the site of an Israeli settlement — as a “nest of murderers.” Another such example, from a Palestinian book, describes an Israeli interrogation room as a “slaughterhouse.”

But critics say that the narrative threaded throughout the P.A.’s books describes the Zionist movement and Israel’s founding as a central source of Palestinian problems — and argue that this itself is a form of dehumanization.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote in a column on The Huffington Post’s website that what he found particularly problematic was the study’s “unwillingness to accept that when Palestinian texts reject or ignore Israel’s existence, that [this] is not dehumanization.”

Asked about the researchers’ finding that Israeli textbooks do the same, ADL’s deputy national director, Ken Jacobson, said that comparing the two was “an asymmetry.”

“The whole question of the Palestinian state is of much more recent vintage,” he said. “Israel does need to improve its teaching about the Palestinians. But the point is that on the Palestinian side [acceptance of Israel] is the core issue of the conflict for Israel. They are muddling two kinds of issues by bundling it all together.”

Wexler, meanwhile, rejected the notion that mutual effacement by either side of the other — as harmful as that might be — constitutes demonization. That, he said, occurs when one side uses a broad brush to negatively depict “the character of a people,” and not just “some bad action” by its government or citizens.

Dehumanization, Wexler said, “is very different from leaving [the enemy] off a map.”

Elihu Richter, executive director of the Genocide Prevention Program of the Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Public Health and Community Medicine, and one of the three dissenting members of the project’s advisory committee, thinks otherwise. “I warned [Wexler] all along, ‘You don’t want to become another Goldstone,’” Richter said.

Two other members of the scientific advisory panel have also come out against the report. Arnon Groiss, an independent researcher with expertise in Arabic, said that he found several passages in the Palestinian textbooks that were “explicit enough to show belligerent positions,” that should have been cited in the study. But the academics leading the report, he said, rebuffed him.

Asked about this, Wexler said that he carefully responded to Groiss’s queries, and that even if every one of his examples were added to the study, the statistical findings would have been the same.

Bar Ilan University Talmud professor Daniel Sperber, the third dissenting advisory panel member, offered a criticism more political than substantive: The release of the study during a time when Israeli-Palestinian relations are strained and when Israel is in-between governments was counterproductive.

“These are tense times in the Middle East, and the idea [of the study] was not to increase tensions,” he said.

The harshest criticism, however, has come from the Israeli government. In a press release issued before the study went public, the Ministry of Education attacked the very concept of examining both sides’ textbooks in tandem. “The attempt to create a parallel between the Israeli education system and the Palestinian education system is completely unfounded and lacks any basis in reality,” the document read.

The statement said that the study’s findings legitimated the government’s decision not to participate in the research.

According to both Wexler and a source connected to the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, it was the Israeli government’s fierce response that forced the Chief Rabbinate, a member of the council, to walk away from the study. The Council source claimed that Yossi Kuperwasser, director general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs, “went ballistic” when he heard the findings of the study and pressured the rabbinate to “pull back.”

The source further claimed that Kuperwasser pushed the rabbinate to “character assassinate” the authors of the study in a statement, but that the rabbinate did not agree to this.

Asked about this, Kupperwasser told the Forward that he did speak to the rabbinate about what its response would be but did not “in any way pressure them.” He called the allegation of such pressure “baseless.”

The Rev. Trond Bakkevig, convener of the council, said the council had withdrawn its support because the researchers “widened the remit [of the study] beyond our competence and what we asked for.” But Wexler contested this adamantly.

“The original assignment given to me by the council was to look at how the other is portrayed, including, but not limited to religion,” he said. “That was in the grant from the State Department from the start.”

Professor Nathan Brown of George Washington University, another member of the advisory panel who has himself extensively studied Palestinian textbooks, said that he backs the project’s findings: “I don’t think that this study would surprise any scholar who has actually read the books,” he said.

Nevertheless, Brown questions whether the study should have ever been launched — albeit for reasons much different than those of Israeli government officials. The “logic of the report,” he said, assumes that textbooks generate political attitudes in its readers.

“It often goes the other way around,” he said. “Political cause creates textbooks.”

Like Sperber, he suggested that the timing of the study’s release — and indeed, the study itself — might have been off, but again, for somewhat different reasons.

In the midst of bitter conflicts, Brown observed, battling factions are unlikely to back away from their depictions of the enemy. Asking Israelis and Palestinians to revise their views on the other, while they remain locked in conflict, would be akin to pushing for schoolbook reform in the United States or China during the Cold War.

“This is not a post-conflict situation,” Brown said. “To come up with post-conflict techniques in a conflict still being fought is, to me, premature.”

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at

Contact Nathan Jeffay at


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