Saudi Arabia largely removes negative portrayal of Israel from its school curriculum

In marked shift from the past, Saudi textbooks no longer define Zionism as ‘racist,’ indicating progress towards a ‘warm peace’ such as that with the UAE, expert says

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Football fans stand beneath a large banner depicting Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz (C) and his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) as they attend the World Cup 2022 Asian qualifying match between Palestine and Saudi Arabia in the town of al-Ram in the West Bank on October 15, 2019.  (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP / File)
Football fans stand beneath a large banner depicting Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz (C) and his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) as they attend the World Cup 2022 Asian qualifying match between Palestine and Saudi Arabia in the town of al-Ram in the West Bank on October 15, 2019. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP / File)

A study of Saudi school textbooks has found increased progress on the kingdom’s portrayal of Israel and Zionism, in continuation of a positive trend that has emerged in recent years.

Textbooks for the 2023-2024 school year no longer teach that Zionism is a “racist” European movement, and no longer deny the historical Jewish presence in the region, according to the study, published last week by the nonprofit IMPACT-se, which monitors educational curricula in Middle Eastern and North African countries.

“It’s a small step that shows a change of narrative towards Israel, and showcases more tolerance and openness,” said Nimrod Goren, who heads Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, to The Times of Israel.

Designations of Israel as an “enemy state” have been expunged, but references to the “Israeli occupation” can still be found, and the curriculum still underscores Saudi Arabia’s commitment to the Palestinian cause.

The name “Israel” still does not appear on maps, but the name “Palestine,” which previously covered the entirety of Israeli territory, has now been removed, the report highlights.

“It indicates that if the Saudis are heading towards normalization, they are doing it all in line with the model of the UAE and Bahrain,” Goren added, referencing diplomatic ties established with the two Gulf monarchies in the framework of the Abraham Accords in 2020. Goren is also a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute think tank in Washington.

Comparison of Saudi Social Studies textbooks showing the removal of the name “Palestine” from maps on the territory of Israel (IMPACT-se report, courtesy)

Aiming for ‘warm peace’ with Saudis

Relations with the UAE and Bahrain have translated into cultural cooperation and people-to-people contacts, a so-called “warm peace,” in contrast to the “cold peace” reigning with Jordan and Egypt, two countries where public opinion is overwhelmingly antagonistic to Israel.

Saudi Arabia’s gradual opening began about a decade ago, Goren added. “The process resembles what the UAE and Bahrain were doing in the decade before the Abraham Accords, a very slow, gradual move that reflects tolerance and normalization of engagement, making it a more routine in terms of public perception,” he said.

“The UAE, for example, very much played the card of religious tolerance, with the construction of the Abrahamic Family House,” Goren added, referencing a building encompassing a mosque, a church and a synagogue in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi inaugurated in 2023. “That was an easy entry point to showcase a better perception of Israelis and Jews.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tours the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue at the Abrahamic Family House, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Saturday Oct. 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

Fostering religious tolerance appears to be the path followed by Saudi rulers to prepare public opinion for a possible new chapter in relations with Israel.

The study on Saudi textbooks found that antisemitism has been practically eradicated from the kingdom’s curriculum. In past years, Saudi students had been exposed to egregious examples of hate and incitement in textbooks, the report noted. “Examples which have since been removed included the characterization of Jews as treacherous individuals, and Qur’anic verses teaching that Jews turned into monkeys.”

Problematic content promoting violent jihad and martyrdom has also been removed in recent years, the report noted. Instead, a nonviolent interpretation of jihad is promoted as an individual struggle for personal betterment as opposed to armed struggle against non-Muslims.

Israel committing ‘continuous genocidal massacres’

Some of the most dramatic changes in Saudi attitudes towards Israel have occurred in the religious sphere and in relations with the Jewish world, with a delegation of US Jews visiting the kingdom in 2022 and Israeli communications minister Shlomo Karhi holding a prayer service in Riyadh days before October 7.

Furthermore, in 2022, Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, the Saudi secretary general of the Muslim World League and a former minister of justice in the monarchy, led a Muslim delegation to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

A delegation of Muslim religious leaders at the gate leading to the former Nazi German death camp of Auschwitz, together with a Jewish group in what organizers called “the most senior Islamic leadership delegation” to visit the former Nazi death camp, in Oswiecim, Poland, January 23, 2020. (American Jewish Committee via AP)

However, steps towards normalization with Israel should not be perceived as a relinquishment of the Palestinian cause, an issue that still stirs strong emotions in large swaths of the Saudi public. The kingdom has issued repeated critical statements during Israel’s ongoing war against Hamas, underscoring its support for Palestinian civilians.

Last week, in perhaps its most strongly worded statement against Israel since the war broke out, the Saudi Foreign Ministry accused Israel of committing “continuous genocidal massacres” following an Israeli strike in Rafah in which dozens of civilians were killed.

Over the years, Saudi Arabia has shown itself willing to soften what it demanded from Israel in return for the establishment of diplomatic ties. While the Arab Peace Initiative it submitted in 2002 spoke of the establishment of a Palestinian state as a precondition for normalization, talks conducted last year before October 7 referred to a “pathway” to the creation of a Palestinian state, or “irreversible steps.”

“It’s a totally different demand for the sake of normalization,” said Goren. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far refused demands to commit to a credible path toward a future Palestinian state as part of the normalization talks.

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