Earlier this week, forty or so Palestinians, Israelis and internationals gathered to listen to a panel of four speakers discuss the content of Israeli and Palestinian school textbooks and their portrayal of the ‘other’.
Gershon Baskin, Director of the Israeli Palestinian Centre for Research and Information (IPCRI), the group that organised the seminar (Textbooks, Incitement and Narratives in Israeli and Palestinian Schools), introduced the afternoon by commenting on the importance of education as a reflection of a society’s values. Education provides, he said, an opportunity to influence what the next generation of a society will hold as their own values. It is an issue of omission, he commented, rather than of factual accuracy, that is the current source of most contention in both Palestinian and Israeli textbooks.
Commenting on the findings of a study she completed on Israeli textbooks between 1994 and 2010, Nurit Peled-Elhanan, of the Hebrew University and David Yellin Teachers College, stated that behind every Israeli textbook lay two undisputed assumptions: firstly, that Arabs are anti-Semitic and filled with hatred towards Jews and, secondly, that Palestinians present a significant demographic problem, or even threat, to the Israeli state. The misrepresentation of Palestinians in textbooks, she argued, presented them as a lowly, underdeveloped, dehumanised group, as “slaves who love their master”. Pictures illustrating Bedouins and cartoons depicting traditionally dressed, caricatured Arabs with camels, prevent the more realistic portrayal of actual Palestinians, living in towns and cities. Similarly text that generalises the Palestinian situation as ‘the problem’, or that refers frequently to ‘Palestinian terrorists’ corrupts the Israeli image of Palestinians. These distortions of the Palestinian individual in Israeli textbooks, says Elhanen, help to provide a means of justifying and explaining Israeli actions towards Palestinians.
Conversely, Yael Teff Seker, Chief Researcher for the Israeli Schoolbooks Project at the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-SE), reported a “positive trend” in Israel’s depiction of Palestinians in its textbooks, although she conceded that some references to Palestinians still require improvement. Amongst her praise for Israeli’s approach to Palestinians, she identified references to the ‘Palestinian’ or the ‘Palestinian Arab’ and she noted a positive approach to Arabs in general and to Islamic history, by referencing Arabic writers or Arabic historical figures. Contrary to the evidence provided by Elhanan, Seker also stated that the use of stereotypes had declined or almost been eradicated in Israeli textbooks.
What was particularly interesting about the polarity in the presentations of Elhanan and Seker was that five of the books that they had each used to form their opinions were the same. In this case, it seems it is an issue of interpretation, as well as that of omission, which drives contention. This fact did not escape the audience’s notice; in the discussion that ensued, attention was drawn to the fact that Seker was often terming as ‘positive’ aspects of Israeli textbooks exactly those aspects that Elhanan had criticized. This was particularly true of the references to Arabs and Muslims that Seker considered to be praiseworthy in Israeli textbooks, whilst Elhanan had used them as examples of the generalization of the Palestinian ‘other’ and the practice of dealing with Palestinians as part of a larger Arab group, rather than as individuals.
The second representative of IMPACT-SE, Director of Research, Arnon Groiss, was as critical of Palestinian textbooks as his colleague, Seker, had been praising of Israeli textbooks. Although he noted that Grade 11 books, printed under the authority of Mahmud Abbas, had shown a more positive approach towards Israel and Israelis, generally, he said, Palestinian textbooks were damaging on three levels. Firstly, the books denied the legitimacy of Israel, by referring to it on maps as ‘the interior’, for example. Secondly, the books presented a “demonized description” of Israelis, depicting them through the stereotype of the settler or the soldier. Thirdly, and perhaps most critically, Groiss charged Palestinian textbooks with promoting, or supporting, an ‘absence of peace’, whereby the geographical boundaries of the struggle were not confined to the West Bank and Gaza. In his response, Saleh Yassin, the former Director of Curriculum Development for the Ministry of Education at the Palestinian Authority, questioned how Palestine could be expected to define its own boundaries, when Israel still has yet to do the same.
Groiss concluded by stating that the three criticisms that he had made of Palestinian textbooks, provided for a “curriculum of delayed war” in Palestine. Yassin insisted that other studies, such as that completed by Nathan Brown, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University, have stated that Palestinian textbooks do not contain incitement to violence. In his report, Brown specifically criticised the research conducted by IMPACT-SE (or the Centre for Monitoring Peace as it was formerly known) in this area.
It became clear, therefore, that criticisms of both Palestinian and Israeli textbooks revolve around similar issues: distorted stereotypes; a generalisation of the ‘other’; and an absence of acknowledgement of the geographical existence of that ‘other’. However, what is currently sorely lacking, as Saleh Yassin commented in his speech, is an independent assessment of both Israeli and Palestinian textbooks, to be completed by one organisation, using a specific set of criteria, possibly under the auspices of UNESCO. Such an assessment would identify the extent of partiality and omission within both Israeli and Palestinian textbooks and determine what steps need to be taken to counter that trend. Such an assessment would hopefully reduce the level of interpretation and omission that unfortunately clearly pervaded the analysis of the various presenters yesterday