Saudis remove anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism from textbooks — monitoring group

IMPACT-se finds that, while there is a clear institutional effort to modernize curricula, hatred of Jews and Israel is still being taught

Young girls in Saudi Arabia play basketball. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)
Young girls in Saudi Arabia play basketball. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

There has been a notably reduction of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist content in Saudi Arabian textbooks for the coming school year, a Jerusalem-based monitoring group found in a report released Tuesday.

The report came amid recent talk of possible normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, as part of a regional shift that has seen Israel agree to open ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. Last week, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner said that normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia is “inevitable.”

“While the latest… report did not find that new tolerant material had been injected into the curriculum, it did find a substantial amount of offensive material had been removed,” IMPACT-se, which reviews educational material, said in a statement.

It found that the books no longer include a religious prediction of a war in which Muslims would kill all the Jews — a prophecy it said had served as a foundation for much of the anti-Semitic attitudes in the Muslim world.

And the classic anti-Semitic trope that Jews, identified as “Zionist forces,” use villainous methods, including money, women, and drugs to control the world has been dropped.

Marcus Sheff (Courtesy)

“Examining the trendline of our 2002, 2008 and even 2019 reports of the Saudi curriculum, it is clear that these new 2020 textbooks represent an institutional effort to modernize the Kingdom’s curriculum,” said IMPACT-se CEO, Marcus Sheff. “The Saudi authorities have begun a process of rooting out anti-Jewish hate.”

Attitudes towards Israel are becoming “more balanced and tolerant,” the group said in the statement. As an example, it noted the removal of an entire chapter that was titled “the Zionist danger” that delegitimized Israel’s right to exist.

More generally, the majority of references to jihad have been removed, whereas a decade ago the focus of the curriculum was to prepare students for martyrdom, the group found.

“This being said, anti-Israel content does still remain in the curriculum,” IMPACT-se noted.

Hatred of Jews is still present, including “a decontextualized and ambiguous” story about Jewish “wrongdoers,” who are described as monkeys.

Israel is still not legitimized and is not shown on maps of the region, while Zionism is depicted as a racist political movement. The name “Israel” is replaced with “Zionist enemy.”

“There is clearly still work to be done. However, the changes made thus far show promise for a moderate and tolerant curriculum,” the statement said. “Further improvements need to be made. But the overriding impression is of a willingness to engage, to participate in dialogue regarding curriculum content and finally move towards textbook reformation.”

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, right, looks on during a meeting between US President Donald Trump, left, and leaders at the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Riyadh, May 21, 2017. (AP/Evan Vucci)

Responding to the findings, a US State Department official told Time Magazine that Washington is “encouraged by the report that finds positive changes in influential textbooks used throughout Saudi Arabia.”

Time also quoted Fahad Nazer, spokesperson for the Saudi embassy in Washington who said the kingdom is making “a very concerted effort to remove all [offensive material] from the entire curriculum.”

The improvements also touched on other areas such as the removal of a section of a book that condemned homosexuality as punishable by death, IMPACT-se said.

Rabbi David Rosen, Director of International Interreligious Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, presented the IMPACT-se report to senior kingdom officials when he visited Riyadh at the invitation of ruler King Salman, the statement said.

A potential Saudi agreement on normalization is seen as the big prize for Israel, given Riyadh’s elevated status in the region. While the countries have taken steps toward stronger ties in the past several months alone (Riyadh approved overflights between Israel and Gulf states using its territory and is believed to have given its blessing to the accords with the UAE and Bahrain), many analysts speculate that the kingdom is not yet ready for such a dramatic move, particularly while current King Salman is still alive.

Saudi Arabia has insisted that any normalization between it and Israel can only happen alongside a lasting peace deal involving a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The kingdom publicly continues to state its unwavering support for the Arab Peace Initiative, a 2002 Saudi-sponsored deal that offers Israel full ties with all Arab states in return for Palestinian statehood on territory Israel captured in 1967.

But mutual concern over Iran has gradually brought Israel and Gulf nations closer, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held secret talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia last month, fueling speculation a normalization accord could be in the making.

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