Israeli and Palestinian textbooks erase the other side, report finds

Flawed maps and references to the enemy rife, State Department-funded study finds, though Israeli state schoolbooks are a little more balanced

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Ultra-Orthodox Children in a Jerusalem classroom, August 2009 (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox Children in a Jerusalem classroom, August 2009 (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90)

School textbooks in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority largely eliminate one another’s existence in maps, although the Israeli curriculum is more balanced and self-critical than the Palestinian, new research published on Monday found.

Nintey-six percent of the maps examined in Palestinian textbooks either did not indicate the Green Line (the armistice line created following Israel’s 1948 War of Independence) or indicated it but still referred to the entire area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea as “Palestine.”

Among the Israeli textbooks, 76% did not indicate any line between Israel and the Palestinian Territories, 11% depicted a line but did not acknowledge the Palestinian Territories by name, and only 13% acknowledged areas belonging to the Palestinian Authority under the Oslo agreements.

Ramallah welcomed the report, saying it proved the Palestinians were not using textbooks to incite youth, but officials in Jerusalem called the findings “slanted and nonobjective.”

The obligation to prevent incitement in school textbooks was included in the Oslo B peace agreements of 1995 and in the Wye River agreement of 1998. US President George W. Bush reiterated the need for bias-free curriculum in his Road Map of 2003, but a joint Israeli-Palestinian task force created to eliminate incitement in both societies produced no tangible result.

A book fair in Ramallah, October 2012 (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
A book fair in Ramallah, October 2012 (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

The joint study, initiated by the Council of Religious Institutions in the Holy Land and funded by the US State Department, took three years to complete and was conducted by education experts Daniel Bar-Tal of Tel Aviv University, Sami Adwan of Bethlehem University, and Bruce Wexler of Yale University.

Searching for each community’s cultural and religious presentation of the other side and of itself, researchers carried out an in-depth analysis of dozens of currently used school textbooks, encompassing the subjects of history, languages, geography, social studies, civics and religion.

The study found that ultra-Orthodox Jewish textbooks were similar to Palestinian books in their imbalance and lack of self-criticism, while textbooks used by Israeli state schools — while still largely conveying a one-sided national narrative — included more substantive information on Palestinian society, presenting a slightly more balanced outlook.

Contrary to common belief, neither side portrayed the other using terms taken from the world of biology, zoology or medicine and no side truly demonized the other side, the study found. However, characterization of the other side as the enemy was rife on both sides, with 75 percent of Israeli textbooks and 81 percent of Palestinian describing the opposing community as the enemy.

The self-perception of each society was also highlighted by the study. Fifty-four percent of references in Israeli state textbooks viewed Israeli society as either positive or very positive, while 85% of Palestinian self-references were either positive or very positive.

Self-criticism was completely lacking in ultra-Orthodox textbooks, where no critical or even neutral self-depictions were detected. Forty-six percent of references to the in-group were “very positive,” a categorization denoting supremacist attitudes.

The report was received differently in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority.

PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad welcomed the report, expressing satisfaction with what he said was the fact that the Palestinian textbooks were not found to contain “any form of ‘blatant’ incitement based on contempt toward the ‘other’.”

Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Fayyad said he had instructed the PA’s Ministry of Education to study the report and implement its findings, updating school curricula to express Palestinian values of “coexistence, tolerance, justice, and human dignity.” Fayyad called on Israel to deal with the report “in the same spirit.”

But Israel’s Education Ministry refused to cooperate with the study, claiming in a press statement that its conclusions were unfair and foregone.

“Following an examination by experts both within and without the Education Ministry … it was clearly revealed that the study was slanted, unprofessional and extremely nonobjective,” a spokesman for the ministry told The Times of Israel.

The ministry added that even embarking upon a comparison of the Israeli and Palestinian education systems was “baseless and detached from reality,” and it therefore refused to cooperate with elements interested in “slandering the Israeli education system and the state of Israel.”

The study’s findings, the statement concluded, proved that the ministry’s decision not to cooperate with its authors was “justified and correct.”

The Anti-Defamation League also criticized the study, calling it “distorted and counterproductive.” ADL director Abraham Foxman said that by creating an equivalency between Israeli and Palestinian school curricula, the study blurred the issue “beyond recognition.”

While acknowledging the difficulty of both sides in freeing themselves of their own national narratives, Bruce Wexler of Yale, who presented the study on Monday, said the Israeli allegations of the research’s one-sidedness were “false and slanderous.”

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