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No mention of history of Jews in region, nor of Holocaust

UAE textbooks promote tolerance, but leave Israel off maps – study

Report on Emirati school lessons gives high marks for urging respect toward Jews and showing trend away from negative portrayals of Israel, but some remain

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

An image from a 6th grade UAE textbook promoting tolerance (screenshot)
An image from a 6th grade UAE textbook promoting tolerance (screenshot)

Textbooks in the United Arab Emirates promote peace and religious tolerance toward Jews, but Israel is still missing from maps, according to a study released Thursday.

The report by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se), titled “When Peace Goes to School: The Emirati Curriculum  2016-21,” examined 220 Arabic-language textbooks in government schools in grades 1-12, covering civics, history, Arabic literature, and Islam.

The curriculum “praises love, affection, and family ties with non-Muslims,” read the report. “Interfaith relations, particularly with Christianity, are evident along with expressions of tolerance toward Judaism. The report did not find examples of antisemitism or incitement.”

But while tolerance toward Jews is encouraged — Islamic education lessons feature anecdotes about Muhammad and Caliph Omar acting kindly toward Jews in the Quran and the Hadith — the textbooks show both encouraging and problematic signs about Israel.

The 2020 Abraham Accords that normalized ties with Israel are taught from Grade 6, with a focus on endorsements of the agreement by Emirati Islamic organizations. The accords are presented variously as a path to prosperity, a commitment to peace and cooperation, and even a way to support the Palestinian cause.

“The Emirates Fatwa Council praised the Emirati peace initiative with Israel, which is added to the state’s long record of supporting Arab and Islamic causes, chief among them being the Palestinian cause, and its continuous efforts to support reconciliation and spread peace in various parts of the world,” reads an 8th-grade Islamic education lesson.

A map from a 5th grade Emirati textbook that does not show Israel’s name on the map, but does indicate its borders (screenshot)

In addition, many sentences that portrayed Israel in a negative light were removed from prior textbooks on a range of topics.

Yet, more than a year after Abraham Accords, Israel is still not on any textbook maps, with one exception. Some maps do hint at Israel’s existence in the negative space around the borders of a Palestinian entity, or show Israel’s border without its name.

Other problematic content around Israel can occasionally be found. In history lessons on Arab-Israeli wars, Israel is presented in quotation marks, signaling that it is not a real country.

Zionism is also portrayed negatively: “Likewise, Palestine, which was burdened by the yoke of creating a new ‘national home’ for the Jews on its lands,” reads a Grade 11 history book, “has also witnessed strong Arab resistance to Zionist greedy ambitions since the moment of its establishment.”

There is no teaching of the history of Jews in the region, nor is there any mention of the Holocaust. There are, however, extensive lessons on Palestinian history and literature.

Even with these lessons, the trend is overwhelmingly positive, said IMPACT-se CEO Marcus Sheff.

“Our report found that anti-Israel material has been significantly moderated and now extremely rarely exists,” Sheff emphasized. “Passages that previously demonized Israel; antisemitic conspiracies that the Zionist movement has imperial aspirations to extend from the Nile River to the Euphrates with the support of ‘Global Colonialism,’ and that blamed the Zionist enemy for seeking to exterminate the Palestinian people, have all been removed. In effect there has been a wholesale removal of problematic examples and a considerable, strategic shift to moderate and tolerant material. Especially noteworthy in relation to Jews and Israel is the removal by the authors of a passage that presented the Palestinian issue as ‘the basis of conflicts in the Middle East.'”

The textbooks teach a national dedication to the Palestinian cause.  “No Arab is careless about the unity of Iraq’s land and people,” according to an 11th-grade social studies lesson. “The same is true for the Palestinian people. If the Arabs abandon these two issues, they will abandon themselves; even in one inch or a grain of sand, and whatever the sacrifices in money and souls.”

An Emirati embraces Rabbi Elie Abadie, senior rabbi of the Jewish Council of the Emirates, November 29, 2021 (Sharaka)

Though the curriculum encourages a peaceful resolution to tensions with Iran, it presents the Islamic Republic as a regional aggressor that destroyed Iraq and Lebanon, and seeks to do the same to Yemen. It also depicts Iran as the occupier of three disputed Gulf islands.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, and Gulf neighbors are presented as important UAE allies.

Turkey, the UAE’s primary regional rival along with Qatar, is not directly criticized. However, the Ottoman Empire is described as a harsh colonial occupier of Arab lands. “The Ottomans were invaders and colonizers who occupied Arab countries, no less so than French and British colonialists,” reads a Grade 9 textbook. “They exploited the wealth of the Arabs and left them with weakness and backwardness.”

Textbooks, including those used in Islamic education courses, promote tolerance, diversity, and peace as elements of national pride and identity.

“The Emirates and tolerance are two sides of the same coin; a basic value for our nation and a warranty for the future of our country’s growth,” according to an 8th-grade social studies textbook, quoting the country’s prime minister.

US President Donald Trump, center, with, from left, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, September 15, 2020, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)

The curriculum promoting tolerance and openness to the world reflects the emirates’ unique history and place in the region. The Gulf has long been a hub of trade and travel, and the emirates that prospered in the region relied on their productive relationships with a range of foreign powers. The 150 years of British rule that ended in 1971 were largely beneficial for local rulers and tribes, providing stability and promoting a culture of cooperation.

With citizens constituting only 12 percent of its population, the modern UAE relies on foreign workers. It is aggressively seeking to transition from an oil-based economy into a leading international business hub, and is working to attract corporations and skilled professionals from around the world.

The curriculum also reflects the Emiratis’ concerns over political Islam, both in its Muslim Brotherhood form and Iran’s revolutionary Shiism.

“Coexistence with Jews, Christians, and other religions is a central feature while the authors have ensured that antisemitism has now been eradicated from the curriculum,” said Sheff. “This determination to foster a peaceful and tolerant education extends to Israel: the Abraham Accords feature in three separate textbooks and children are taught that the treaty carries Islamic scholarly approval. This can only bolster people-to-people normalization.”

The report’s author Eldad J. Pardo gave the curriculum “high marks for its pursuit of peace and tolerance,” and said its message “constitutes the best tool for combating radicalism and violence while building a viable future for the Emirates.”

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