Are Palestinian Textbooks Actually Any Worse Than Israeli Textbooks?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Feb. 4 2013 2:30 AM

A History of Misunderstanding

In the largest study ever conducted, Israeli and Palestinian researchers reveal that both sides need to take a closer look at the books they teach.

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This captures just how politicized the teaching of history and geography has become for Israelis and Palestinians—with both sides at times quite literally wiping each other off the map. Not that Israelis and Palestinians are alone on this score. Think of Cyprus, where for decades Greek and Turk Cypriotes did not consider themselves part of a single people, or Northern Ireland, where even the name used to describe the territory continues to be highly charged. (Is it a province? A state? A region?) The process of ending such misrepresentations, the authors of the study find, is therefore “exceedingly difficult and requires deliberate and courageous effort.” It also takes time.

Israel is a relatively young country compared to many other nations; the Palestinian Authority, of course, is even younger. Over four iterations of textbooks, the study shows Israel’s education system has become increasingly self-reflective. By contrast, Palestinian textbooks are still in their first generation. Until 1967, Jordan controlled the education system in the West Bank and Egypt controlled the education system in Gaza. Following the 1967 war, Israel took charge of Palestinian education issuing the same Jordanian and Egyptian textbooks, while also serving as a censor—banning some of the books, and blackening out passages in others. Palestinians finally assumed control in 1994, on the heels of the Oslo Accord, in which the Palestinians promised to pursue “confidence building measures” that included a revamp of their education system.

These explanations for the shared problems and differences between the textbooks do not seem to satisfy the Israeli Ministry of Education. “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 Netanyahu administration’s ministry declared. Adwan, Bar-Tal, and Wexler responded by defending their methodology.  On Sunday, Bar-Tal issued a letter to the Israeli ministry threatening to sue for defamation if the ministry doesn't apologize for its statement within 48 hours. “The sad thing, to me, is that it seems the Israeli ministry would rather maintain a propaganda point they know to be false than to get real change in the Palestinian books and in their own books,” Wexler said. By contrast, he’s been told that a Palestinian official told the U.S. State Department that “these are the facts he needs to fix their books.”

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The research team also answered, one by one, a series of complaints from one of their advisory panel members, Arnon Groiss, former research director at IMPACT-SE. It’s worth reading in full if you’re interested. Groiss pointed to a number of quotes he said the research team had missed. The most egregious-sounding one allegedly from a Palestinian text—“your enemies killed our children, split open your women’s bellies, took your revered elderly men by the beard and led them to the death pits”—refers to a seventh century war that did not involve Jews. Several other purportedly omitted passages are Hadiths, or teachings ascribed to the Prophet Mohammed, which aren’t included in the Palestinian textbooks and may not be taught in the schools at all, Wexler said. “If this is what he says we left out, I’m very happy to have that confirmation from him,” he told us. Groiss’ response is here, along with a reply from Wexler.

Sociologist Sammy Smooha of Haifa University, who conducts an annual survey of Arab and Jewish relations, says that the goal now should be to write textbooks that do more to expose each side to the other’s narrative. “You have to engage with the other side’s arguments in a serious manner and not just build up a straw man in order to break it.” Eyal Naveh, a professor of history at Tel Aviv University and the author of several textbooks for middle-school and high-school students, agrees. “If you ignore it, it’s as if it doesn’t exist,” he said.

And there is still little control over what goes on in the classroom: Just because something no longer appears in a book doesn’t mean that some teachers won’t teach it. Smooha pointed out the obvious: It’s hard to deal with any of this until the two sides break their political impasse and reach a compromise. “Confidence building measures” are hard to achieve, he said, when “both sides are showing anything but confidence in each other.”  

A few years ago, Naveh and Adwan, along with Israeli historian Dan Bar-On, tried to write a different kind of textbook. The three co-authored a book called Side By Side that included a “dual narrative” of all major events in the region since 1917, through the Second Intifada in 2000. Naveh calls the book “a successful failure:” Though it had been lauded by the international press and continues to sell abroad, the book was banned by both the Israeli and Palestinian education ministries. Naveh now believes that getting such a textbook to become part of the Israeli and Palestinian curricula is “impossible.”

Perhaps this helps explain the study’s modest recommendations. In the end, the authors call only for the creation of committees on both sides to examine current and future textbooks. “It’s a long process to think that someday they will come up with a common narrative, or even a collaborative process,” Wexler said. “We’re just asking each ministry to look at our report, to look at their books, and to see if there are some things they might want to consider changing.”

Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and the Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School. She is the author of Sticks and Stones.

Ruth Margalit is an Israeli writer based in New York. She is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.