As fights over textbooks simmer, Jewish groups enter the fray
In 2001, when the Virginia Department of Education was revising its history and social science curriculum standards, including coverage of the Armenian genocide, the Board of Education heard from Armenian-American groups, as well as their Turkish counterparts. That was also a year when groups concerned with representations of the Civil War called in. In 2008, as the state’s cycle of curriculum revision and textbook adoption—which takes place every seven years—began anew, members of the Indian-American community called up with concerns about the representations of Indian history and Hinduism.
This year, as Virginia prepares to recommend new textbooks, the Jews are finally weighing in.
Reviewing textbooks and state-imposed curriculum standards for content offensive to one’s community has been standard practice among minority advocacy groups at least since the 1980s. Given the elaborate network of Jewish communal organizations that attempt to fend off group defamation, it’s surprising that the first Jewish organization dedicated to reviewing textbooks and state curriculum standards was founded only four years ago.
“The Jewish community was kind of asleep at the switch on this issue,” said Aliza Craimer Elias, the director of program development and national outreach for the Institute for Curriculum Services, a Jewish group that formed in 2005. The group claims to have successfully lobbied for nearly 2,000 changes in textbooks and to have worked its way up from weighing in only at the tail end of the process, when textbooks are approved by boards of education, to working directly with publishers. But despite these successes, Jewish and Muslim education groups alike indicate that on one of the most contested issues for both communities—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—the Muslim groups have succeeded in shaping the terms of the debate.
Like many textbook review organizations, ICS is based in California, the most important state in the country for textbook publishers. Not only does the state have 6 million public school students—more than any other state—it’s also one of 21 states with a “textbook adoption” policy, according to which the state’s board of education produces a list of recommended textbooks every few years. (Texas, with over 4 million public school students, and Florida, with 2.5 million, are important textbook battlegrounds for the same reason.) Indeed, textbook publishers, and the groups that monitor them, now organize much of their output around California’s adoption cycle.
But because of the financial crisis faced by California’s public school system, its next textbook adoption is currently on hold. In the meantime, ICS is focusing on Virginia, where it’s currently reviewing textbooks in partnership with local Jewish Community Relations Councils and the Virginia Holocaust Museum, and preparing to open an office in Texas, which will determine new social studies curriculum standards this fall.
History primers certainly aren’t the only kind of textbooks that spark controversy; in fact, some of the most heated debates in the field have been waged by Christian groups opposed to the presentation of evolution in science classrooms. But ICS, like most special interest groups, focuses on social studies curricula, with world history and geography being “the meatiest,” Elias said. They got meatier after federal legislation in 1989 that allowed public schools more leeway in teaching about world religions.
“Over the next number of years, we began to see shocking problems,” said Doug Kahn, the executive director of San Francisco’s branch of the Jewish Community Relations Council and a founder of ICS. He and the organization’s cofounders, Council staffers with a background in education, noticed that textbooks were discussing Judaism using anachronistic Christian frameworks: employing the language of “replacement theology,” in which Judaism fades from history after the rise of Christianity, or blaming Jews for the death of Jesus.
They also noticed, Kahn said, that textbook review groups representing Muslim interests “had a lot of success in addressing representations of Islam, sometimes in areas that sort of overlap [with ours], such as the Arab-Israeli conflict.” These groups—among them, the Council on Islamic Education, Arab World and Islamic Resources, and the Middle East Outreach Council—were all founded in the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, Shabbir Mansuri (whose group is now called the Institute on Religion and Civic Values) and Audrey Shabbas, the head of AWAIR, both say their groups developed relationships with publishers years ago and no longer have to review every new textbook that comes out, only to join what Shabbas calls “the zoo” of interest groups every time a state board of education has a public hearing.
Kahn and Elias avoid explaining ICS’s mission as an attempt to counteract the success of Muslim textbook review groups. But Sandra Alfonsi, the chair of a Hadassah committee called Curriculum Watch, established in 1992, is less reticent. Though the group isn’t an independently funded organization with fulltime staffers like ICS, it takes a more aggressive approach. “We do not shy away from the question and problems of teaching about Islam,” Alfonsi said. “We do the exact same thing [as ICS], but we are finding that with the Islamicization of the textbooks, both Judaism and Christianity are being delegitimized.” Alfonsi believes that Muslim textbook review groups have succeeded in pushing textbooks toward anti-Zionism and even anti-Semitism. “The American history textbooks are judenrein,” thanks to these organizations, she said. “They’re free of any mention of contributions of American Jews.” Though publishers are still relatively amenable to her suggestions about pre-1948 Jewish history, she said, on the topic of Israel “we hit a wall about 10 years ago.”
ICS has had at least some success making both less controversial changes about the distant past and more controversial ones about the Israeli-Arab conflict. In the former category, for instance, one textbook (the group won’t divulge which one) offered this description of Passover: “The last plague God sent killed all first-born children, except for those of Israelites who marked their doorway with lamb’s blood. This plague convinced the pharaoh to let the Israelites leave. Jews today celebrate a holiday called Passover to remember this event.” So that no one will get the idea that Jews are celebrating the slaying of Egyptian babies, the text now reads, “The Israelite escape from Egypt is known as the Exodus. Jews today celebrate a holiday called Passover to remember the event.”
The group has also successfully lobbied for questions about the Arab-Israeli conflict it considers biased to be deleted entirely: “How did violence lead to violence from both sides?” and “What reaction might Israel’s Muslim and Christian population have to Israel’s flag?” were once textbook discussion questions but aren’t any longer. In another instance, a textbook argued that “resolving the problem of the occupied lands remains an important foreign policy issue”; ICS successfully got it replaced with the claim that “Israel removed settlements completely from Gaza in 2005, but peace has not followed.” The difference between Elias’s and Shabbas’s perspectives on this change is typical of the semantic battles that characterize textbook disputes, just as they characterize larger foreign policy battles.
“‘Occupied lands’—that’s an internationally recognized legal term,” AWAIR’s Shabbas said, when asked about the change ICS had made. “‘Settlements’—do we all know what that means? The original statement—if you specify that you’re talking about U.S. foreign policy—that’s a correct statement. That’s what I would want my students to be looking at.” Elias countered that ICS’s edit needs to be seen in the larger context of a tendency in some textbooks to put the brunt of the blame for the Israeli-Arab conflict on Israel. “One thing we see is that the textbooks will come back over and over to one issue,” she said. “So the settlements may be one factor, but the problem is when textbooks make that the whole and the only issue.”
A complementary problem occurs, Elias said, when Israel comes in for criticism (or implied criticism) but other countries are not treated in a parallel way. The flag question, for instance, had no parallel in discussions of Muslim countries that have a religious symbol on their flag. “They don’t ask these questions anywhere else across the board,” she said. Shabbas agreed that Israel is treated differently from other countries—but in the sense that it’s often granted a whole chapter with a name like, “The Birth of Israel,” whereas other occupying powers are relegated to the chapter on colonialism.
Just as Hadassah’s Alfonsi thinks textbooks have gotten worse over the years, Shabbas thinks they’ve improved. “I think textbook publishers understand now what authentic voices mean,” she said. “If they’re writing a chapter on Native Americans, they won’t quote the Daughters of the American Revolution.” The free market has been good for textbook publishers, she suggested: “There’s a competition between them, and they have to put out a pretty sterling product if they want to succeed.”
Despite these groups’ differences, some education advocates believe that the entire complex of textbook review groups have had a more pernicious effect on education than any lobby has alone, by intimidating publishers into diluting the history out of history books. Taken together, for example, the critiques of the Jewish and Muslim advocacy groups have left textbooks with “even-handed and skimpy” coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that “tiptoe around the issues so as to avoid controversy,” education historian Diane Ravitch wrote in an email.
“I’ve been through endless debates with the Christians and the Jews; fewer debates with the Muslims and Hindus because they won’t talk to me,” said Gil Sewall, a former education editor for Newsweek who now runs the American Textbook Council, which reviews both textbooks and other textbook review groups. “All religious textbook activists, including Jews, have a point of view. They want to put certain things in textbooks and keep other things out. For a historian, that’s a problem.”