Israel or palestine: who teaches what history? A textbook case Le Monde Diplomatique July 2001

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A textbook case
Le Monde Diplomatique
July 2001

The Israelis have withdrawn from the school curriculum a textbook giving a balanced view of the nation's history, only a few months after international media accused the Palestinian Authority of using anti-semitic schoolbooks. These did have omissions, but their real error was to refute Israel's version of Palestinian history. 

by Sophie Claudet, writing under the pseudonym of ELISA MORENA *

"There is no alternative to destroying Israel." This quote forms the banner headline of the website of the American lobby Jews for Truth Now (1). Last November and December this group published an insert in several American and Israeli papers featuring the slogan and giving as its source an encyclopaedia Our Country Palestine, mentioned in new Palestinian school textbooks for 11 year-olds (2). The lobby linked the intifada directly to "anti-semitic indoctrination" of Palestinian children from the earliest age. It also asked the United Nations to set up an international commission of enquiry into "racist teaching in Palestinian books, which also call for genocide". 

The starting point for the controversy, which started last autumn at the time of the intifada, was a report by an American non-governmental organisation, The Centre for Monitoring the Impact of Peace (CMIP), entitled The New Palestinian Authority School Textbooks for Grades One and Six (3). The study claimed that the textbooks did not once try to teach peace and coexistence with Israel, rather the reverse. The conclusion, translated into numerous languages, was clear: the Palestinian Authority was instilling a culture of hate in its children that explained the fanaticism of the Palestinians. 

Since the June 1967 war and the start of Israeli occupation schoolchildren in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have used Jordanian and Egyptian textbooks respectively, with modifications imposed by Israel which sought to eliminate anti-semitic and anti-Zionist references. In 1991, at the time of the Madrid conference, the Palestinians began the groundwork for the new ministries that came into being three years later with the setting up of the Palestinian Authority. Eighty Palestinians, from both the territories and the diaspora, started work on a first, unified Palestinian school curriculum for the West Bank and Gaza. 

In 1994 this was one of the main concerns of the new deputy minister for education, Na'im Abul Hommos. "The educational system that we inherited was in a sorry state," he explained: "overcrowded classes, lack of teachers and antiquated textbooks dating from pre-1967, teaching Gaza children, for instance, about the greatness of the Egyptian kingdom and its 20m inhabitants [Egypt became a republic in 1953 and now has a population of 65m]." 

Dozens of teachers and professionals from both public and private sectors were consulted and a new centre set up. Some Arab countries, such as Morocco, were invited to take part, as was Unesco. The result was a 700-page document which was put before the Palestinian legislative assembly and passed unanimously. In 1998 work began on the first textbooks for grades one and six, funded by a donation from Italy administered by the World Bank. The new books reached the schools last September; and all primary and secondary schools are due to receive them at a rate of two grades a year. In the meantime the old Jordanian and Egyptian books are still being used. 

Legitimising Israel
Yohanan Manor, vice president of the CMIP, denies any links to the California-based Jews for Truth Now. He even says that the centre intends to sue the group for using the CMIP report ill-advisedly (the Jews for Truth Now website had a hyperlink to the report). Nonetheless the report uses the same quote as the lobby from Our Country Palestine: "There is no alternative to destroying Israel." 

Palestinian ministry of education officials point out that the book cited in the CMIP report was written in 1947, before the state of Israel came into being. The CMIP replies that the book was revised in 1965 and that this later edition still carried the offending quote (which does not, however, appear in the school textbooks). Further enquiry shows that it is the 1947 edition that is mentioned in the Palestinian textbooks, and that it cannot therefore have been referring to the state of Israel, which did not come into being until 1948. 

More broadly, the CMIP contends that the textbooks attempt to delegitimise Israel. But the quote in question has to do with the history of the conflict, the gradual Zionist takeover of Palestine between 1917 and 1948, the expulsion of the Palestinians, etc. The question is whether peace would mean that the Palestinians would have to give up their own approach to history and adopt one that presents the Zionist undertaking as legitimate. Should anyone who talks about the expulsion of the Palestinians - as many Israeli historians do - be suspected of "calling for genocide"? Can we really reproach the textbooks for glorifying Izz al-Din al-Qassam, one of the heroes of the Palestinian struggle in the 1930s, on the grounds that his name has been used by the military wing of Hamas? 

Various omissions in the textbooks are more problematic. The CMIP report states that geography and national education textbooks for the sixth grade have maps of Palestine in which Israel is not shown, but only the towns of the West Bank and Gaza and those inside Israel which were once Palestinian (Jaffa, Haifa) or still are (Nazareth). Another map clearly shows the West Bank and Gaza Strip but leaves the position of Israel to the imagination. Furthermore the 1993 Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) are scarcely mentioned (especially on the subject of the PLO's return to Palestine). 

Abul Hommos replies that Israel has even now failed to define its borders, which is why the ministry decided not to show them. But it is hard to understand why, with or without borders, the existence of the state of Israel is not indicated at all - even its name is absent. On the subject of the Oslo accords, Abul Hommos says: "They have meant nothing but deceit and frustration for Palestinians. Most of the Israeli redeployments did not take place and the building of settlements has never been so prolific. Do you want us to praise them?". But why, without praising the accords, did the Palestinians pass them over in almost total silence? 

Support dries up

The CMIP's own position on the issue of the Palestinian textbooks finally had its effect. Last December Italy - subject to strong parliamentary pressure in the midst of an election campaign - decided to stop funding the development of the Palestinian curriculum. The World Bank officially told the Palestinian ministry of education that the money destined for books for 7, 8, 12 and 14 year-olds, as well as for teacher training for these same years, would be allocated to other activities. 

A chapter on tolerance in the textbook National Education destined for 11 year-olds also caused an outcry in Israel and beyond. One of its illustrations showed a Palestinian Christian and Muslim shaking hands. The CMIP deplored the absence of a Jew or Israeli in the illustration, arguing that Islam had historically offered protection to both Jews and Christians. The minister responded that the CMIP report failed to take into account that the book was intended, as its title showed, to register the national reality of a country in which Palestinians, Christian and Muslim, live. 

Professor Ruth Firer, responsible for another study financed by the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace (4), refutes the accusations of her colleagues at the CMIP: "There is nothing unusual about this chapter; most of the world's school textbooks take a similar approach. It shows that the CMIP has no teaching experience and that its report was motivated by purely political considerations, designed to show that there can be no peace with the Palestinians." 

She admits that the results of her research are not very different from that of the CMIP - in particular on the subject of the often glorified martyrs - but she distances herself from the CMIP's interpretation and the use made of it. "My research is on the portrayal of the Arab-Israeli conflict in schoolbooks used by both peoples since the end of the 19th century," she explains. "My aim is to show the representation of the "other" and to understand how and why it evolved. People are beginning to recognise Israeli responsibility for the Palestinian exodus but we've had to wait 50 years for it. This is the first time the Palestinians have been able to design their own books. It's not fair or intellectually honest to try and compare them to Israel's books." 

Firer adds: "It's always easier for the occupier to show signs of generosity to the occupied than the reverse. The Israelis do not know the daily reality in the occupied territories and don't understand that the 1993 accords did not bring the Palestinians the promised prosperity." She remarks that "the new Palestinian schoolbooks have far fewer negatives stereotypes towards Jews and Israelis than the Jordanian and Egyptian textbooks previously used." Furthermore, she says, "until the 1960s Israeli textbooks were nothing but instruments of Zionist propaganda, full of racist clichés towards goyim [non-Jews] and even towards Oriental Jews; in addition they totally failed to take into account the existence of a Palestinian people." The present debate needs to be seen in this context of deep differences of perception and experience. 

Though the CMIP's Yohanan Manor considers that Israeli textbooks are incomparably more conducive to coexistence than those of the Palestinians, he concedes that they are not perfect: "It's true that the textbooks generally used in ultra-orthodox schools sometimes contain shocking and racist passages about the Arabs" (5). He says that he has told the Israeli education minister about it. The remarks have, however, escaped general notice. 

Dr Firer, trying to break the enduring stereotypes, is working with Palestinian colleagues on producing a schoolbook for 12 year-olds that has already been tested on both Israeli and Palestinian pupils; there is a separate version for each, but they are based on the same values. Naturally, she says, "these books won't appear until the political situation has been normalised." In the meantime she will continue to encourage cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli teachers: "For even if there was a peace accord between the politicians, it would take years to re-educate people and teach them to accept and tolerate each other." 

This approach is very different from Manor's. "By signing the Oslo accords," he says, "the Palestinians and Israelis agreed to recognise each other's right to exist. It's unfortunate that Palestinian schoolbooks do not reflect this historic decision or recognise the legitimacy of Israel. This recognition is perhaps synonymous with suffering for them, but our own exile also represents suffering." 

Abul Hommos replies: "We have developed and will go on producing books written by Palestinians for Palestinians, which aim to teach different subjects. They will be revised in the light of the reality we live in, whether it's scientific, cultural or political. Our books aren't the Koran, they are open to revision." He accuses the CMIP of being one-sided - a view shared by Ruth Firer. Itamar Marcus, research director of the CMIP report, is a well-known settler who lives in Efrat, an Israeli settlement built in 1982. 

As for the 10 classes for whom textbooks have yet to be written, Abul Hommos hopes to find other foreign backing "provided we are not subjected to censure or interference, in which case we'll have to rely on our own finances". He says that each pupil has given five shekels (around $1) to the school curriculum development centre attached to his ministry, a symbolic gesture which will, however, enable it to go on running for a few more months. The centre, like all public-sector Palestinian institutions, is being suffocated by Israel's policy of closure and economic strangulation of the autonomous territories. Rather than any book, it is this strategy of repression that is widening the gap between Palestinians and Israelis. 

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