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Israeli-Arab War Over Textbooks

A new study funded by the U.S. undercuts the notion that Palestinian schools incite violence against Israel

Eetta Prince-Gibson
February 07, 2013
Classrooms in Gaza City, left, and Kiryat Arba.(Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images (left) and Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
Classrooms in Gaza City, left, and Kiryat Arba.(Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images (left) and Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Even before the outbreak of violence in the Second Intifada, Israeli governments and American Jewish organizations have pointed to Palestinian textbooks as Exhibit A of the Palestinians’ lack of seriousness about pursuing peace. How can we trust them, the argument goes, if they are inciting violence even among elementary-schoolers with books that fail to include Israel on a map and that glorify suicide bombers?

But a new study, financed by a $500,000 grant from the U.S. State Department and commissioned by the multifaith Council of Religious Institutions in the Holy Land, claims that both sides are to blame for presenting the other as the enemy. While Israeli schools did get slightly better marks for even-handedness and the Israeli school system was praised for its increasing ability to be self-reflective and self-critical, the study undercuts Israel’s often-repeated accusation that “Palestinians teach their children to hate.”

Not surprisingly, Palestinian officials have embraced the results. In a formal statement, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam 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.”

But to the Israeli government, the study—and its overall finding that the Palestinians do not, in fact, incite violence with their textbooks—is tantamount to casus belli. The Education Ministry, run by Likud’s Gideon Saar, has aggressively criticized and dismissed the study. In a written statement, ministry spokeswoman Michal Tzadoky claimed that the conclusions of the “study” (her scare-quotes) were “known in advance, before any professional work was done” and that the research, therefore, “certainly does not accurately reflect reality.” The statement continued: “The Education Ministry chose not to cooperate with those elements who are interested in maliciously slandering the Israeli educational system and the State of Israel.” Appearing on Israeli TV, Strategic Affairs Ministry Director General Yossi Kuperwasser, who monitors Palestinian incitement against Israel for the Israeli government, took it further. The goal of the research, he claimed, “is to weaken the State of Israel.”

Israeli Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal of Tel Aviv University, the study’s primary Israeli researcher, has issued a letter to the Israeli Education Ministry threatening to sue for defamation if the ministry doesn’t apologize. “It is the government that is weakening the State of Israel,” Bar-Tal told me over the phone this week. “They [the ministry] are presenting Israel as a country that is anti-democratic, where political officials try to create an atmosphere of fear in order to censor scientific findings. These are the first steps towards totalitarianism. This is very sad.” The ministry’s reaction, Bar-Tal added, has also had a boomerang effect. “The study is scientifically important, but if the ministry had not responded the way they did, the whole world would not be paying attention to it.”


Titled “Victims of Our Own Narratives?” the study was conducted by Bar-Tal, of Tel Aviv University, and Palestinian Associate Prof. Sami Adwan of Bethlehem University. According to Bruce E. Wexler, professor emeritus at Yale School of Medicine, who designed the format and managed the research, the study is among the most comprehensive, fact-based investigations ever done of school textbooks. The findings are based on an examination of 74 Israeli textbooks from secular, national religious, and ultra-Orthodox schools and 94 of the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Education’s textbooks used in the West Bank and Gaza. Some 3,100 text passages, poems, maps, and illustrations were analyzed in detail.

Characterization of “the other” as “negative” or “very negative” occurred 49 percent of the time in Israeli textbooks and 84 percent of the time in their Palestinian equivalents, the report said. Characterization of “the other” as “the enemy” occurred 75 percent in Israeli books and 81 percent in those of Palestinians. And maps quite literally erase the presence of the other side: Some 96 percent of the maps in Palestinian textbooks do not mention Israel, and some 87 percent of the maps in Israel do not mention Palestine. Although the report did not use the word incitement, it asserts that “dehumanization and demonizing characterization of the other… are rare in both Israeli and Palestinian books.”

The researchers worked with Hebrew-Arabic bilingual research assistants who subjected books from both sides to identical evaluation questions. Data were entered remotely into a database at Yale University, creating the equivalent of a blind study. The research, said Wexler, meets rigorous scientific standards, including high inter-reliability ratings, large samples, and robust findings.

Some Israeli media reported that the State Department had, under pressure from Israel and “American Jewish sources,” rescinded its support for the research. However, in a written statement, Peter Velasco, a State Department spokesman, said that studies such as this “are not U.S. Government policy documents, and are not endorsed by the U.S. Government. …We hope that the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land will use the report in a constructive manner, to pursue their stated mission of advocating for peace and religious tolerance.” The State Department, Velasco said, did not at any point withdraw or threaten to withdraw its funding for the project.

The research was supervised by a 19-member international Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP) the majority of whom endorsed its findings. Several Israeli members of the SAP dissented. According to a memo provided by the Education Ministry spokeswoman, Professor Elihu Richter of the Hebrew University said that “questions remain concerning definitions of the variables, how they are classified and measured and counted and what materials are included and excluded.” Richter warned that some of the comparisons may be “sliding down the slippery slope to moral equivalence.” SAP member Dr. Arnon Groiss, author of a separate study on Middle Eastern textbooks, wrote that he has severe reservations about the methodology and that some 40 significant items, which attest to incitement on the part of Palestinians, were not included.

I spoke this week with Wexler, who was in Jerusalem to present the study. “I am appalled at these ad hominem attacks. I am an American Jew, born in 1947, just after the Holocaust. I certainly do not want to attack the State of Israel,” Wexler told me, his voice nearly breaking with emotion. “Frankly, I think that the minister of education is a great example of the power of unilateral narratives. He just can’t see beyond the blinders in his mind because he is the product of a single national narrative, and he can’t understand or accept the types of things we are talking about here,” he added. “This proves that national leaders who have these kinds of blind spots make for poor and dangerous national leaders.”


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Eetta Prince-Gibson, former editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Report, is based in Jerusalem

Eetta Prince-Gibson, former editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Report, is based in Jerusalem

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