Textbooks in the Palestinian School system
In the midst of an uprising in which thousands of Palestinians and Israelis have been killed, and in which the fragile Palestinian economy has been wrecked, with skyrocketing poverty, unemployment and a population living under siege conditions, what Palestinian students are taught in the classroom and what textbooks they read has somehow become a major issue in the current debate on how to end the cycle of violence.

The Palestinian Authority was charged by Israel that textbooks, edited by its Ministry of Education contain racist material. In the European Parliament  certain budgets were blocked in 2002, as a result of this claim.
Here we bring two articles, concerning with this issue:

Palestinian textbooks
Nathan Brown, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs
George Washington University, Washington D.C.
1 December 2001

In 1999 and 2000, I conducted research on the establishment of the new Palestinian curriculum by collecting documents, textbooks, and interviewing Palestinian educators.  Since that time, I have continued the research by continuing to survey textbooks and discussions of educational issues by Palestinian educators.  This research was supported by a Fulbright grant through the United States-Israel Educational Foundation (USIEF) and another grant from the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).  The conclusions of the research are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views either of USIEF or USIP.

I am aware of the international controversy surrounding Palestinian textbooks.  Most accusations against the books are based on reports from the "Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace" (CMIP).  Although that organization presents reports that are tendentious and misleading, few independent reviews have been conducted.  Therefore CMIP reports--which seek to obscure rather than highlight the changes that have been made--are not frequently challenged.  I hope that my own review of Palestinian textbooks can help correct the inaccurate impressions prevalent in international discussions of the issue.

The Palestinian Authority has published two sets of books.  The first, the National Education series, was designed to supplement the interim use of Jordanian and Egyptian books.  That series was written in 1994.  It contained no racism or incitement.  It also mentioned no region as Palestinian other than those occupied by Israel in 1967.  It was largely silent on most sensitive political issues.   The second series of books, a comprehensive curriculum, has been completed for grades one, two, six, and seven.  Remaining grades will be added, two at a time, over the next few years.  The newer books have broken some of the silence of the earlier books but still generally treat sensitive issues with circumspection.  Based on a review of those books, I can state the following:

· Racism
The new books are devoid of racism and anti-Semitism.  Thus, the PA should be credited with removing such material from the curriculum rather than maintaining it.  The CMIP relies for its claims on the Palestinian decision to continue use of older Egyptian and Jordanian material.  The Egyptian and Jordanian books do contain problematic material, though they were adopted only as an interim measure.  Palestinian educators are highly critical of the books in question and anxious to replace them (as they have now done for four grades).  Oddly, Israel actually participated in continuing the books.  Palestinian schools under Israeli control in East Jerusalem used the Jordanian books with the offensive material but they were not allowed to use the 1994 National Education books devoid of any offensive material (because they were written by the Palestinian Authority).  Only in 2000 did some East Jerusalem schools begin to switch to the new Palestinian curriculum.

· History
The Palestinian books strive to create a strong sense of Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim identity in students.  This dominates their treatment of history.  Thus, they concentrate on trying to demonstrate a continuing Arab presence in Palestine.  Though they do not deny a Jewish presence, they do not dwell on it.  In Islamic education, the books have to confront Muslim-Jewish relations (in the early days of Islam) and Muslim-Christian relations (during the Crusades).  The books clearly take the point of view of the Muslims in both instances.  But they also clearly support peaceful relations (for instance, by lauding Saladin for insisting that people of all faiths should have access to Jerusalem).  The books do not treat Jewish history in any comprehensive manner, positively or negatively.

· Present
Perhaps the most difficult issue is how to present Palestine in the present, since all matters (statehood, borders, Israeli settlements) remain unresolved.  The books deliver no consistent message.  Sometimes they seek to avoid the subject (for instance, a group of schoolchildren takes a trip from Gaza to Jerusalem; the books make no mention of the fact that checkpoints and closure make such a school trip impossible).  Sometimes they convey the Palestinian national consensus (that Jerusalem must be their capital, that Israeli settlements harm Palestinians) while bypassing other issues.  Sometimes they try to distinguish between "geographic" or "historic" Palestine with "political" Palestine.  Thus they sometimes discuss (generally briefly) some areas within Israel's 1967 borders.  But each book also contains a foreword describing the West Bank and Gaza as "the two parts of the homeland."  In short, political realities are confusing and difficult for educators to describe to children.  It would be unfair to describe such confused treatment as "delegitimation of Israel."

· Violence
Similarly, the books do not encourage violence.  They do urge students to be willing to make self-sacrifice for the religion or nation (as most schoolbooks do), but they do not urge violence in that regard.  One book does contain a poem praising the children who threw stones in the first intifada, but at the same time praises Gandhi at some length for non-violence.

In closing, allow me to make three observations:

1. The efforts to discredit Palestinian textbooks have already caused some damage.  Many leading Palestinian educators have argued that the new curriculum should be designed not only to promote nationalist identity but also the skills of democratic citizenship.  Stung by international criticism, education officials tend to be less open to such contributions than they were in the past.  The cause of educational reform has been obstructed by the harsh and unfair international criticism.

2. Schoolbooks are products of the broader political situation.  The original plan for the Palestinian curriculum (produced in 1996) involved the introduction of Hebrew-language instruction as an elective in secondary school.  I believe that plan is still in effect.  But the deterioration of the broader political context has taken a toll.  In 2000, a first-grade book had a picture of a coin from the era of the British mandate with Palestine written in both Hebrew and Arabic.  In 2001, after a year of the second intifada, a picture of a Mandate-era postage stamp erased the Hebrew.  The Palestinian curriculum is not a "war" curriculum.  Neither is it a "peace" curriculum.  A real peace curriculum will follow, not precede, a comprehensive peace.

3. I hesitate to compare the Israeli and Palestinian educational systems.  Their situations are different, and I conducted no study on Israeli textbooks.  But my children have attended Israeli schools and I have tried to keep abreast of research by Israeli academics.  My impression is that both Israeli and Palestinian schools handle an awkward political situation similarly: they are actually more similar than either side would like to admit!

Battle of the Books in Palestine


In the midst of an uprising in which hundreds of Palestinians and Israelis have been killed, and in which the fragile Palestinian economy has been wrecked, with skyrocketing poverty, unemployment and a population living under siege conditions, what Palestinian students are taught in the classroom and what textbooks they read has somehow become a major issue in the current debate on how to end the cycle of violence. President Clinton drew attention to it in remarks at the Israel Policy Forum in New York this past January, when he called on the Palestinians to change the "culture of violence and incitement that, since Oslo, has continued unchecked." The President went on to say, "Young [Palestinian] children still are being educated to believe in confrontation with Israel." Five months later, his wife, Senator Hillary Clinton, held a joint press conference with fellow New York Senator Charles Schumer to denounce the "hateful, anti-Israel rhetoric in official Palestinian...schoolbooks."

The principal source of the allegation is a Jewish-American NGO called the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace, whose website contains the full text of a study titled "The New Palestinian Authority School Textbooks for Grades One and Six." The study's research director, Itamar Marcus, is an extreme right- winger who lives in the West Bank settlement of Efrat. It concludes: "Ever since the PA (Palestinian Authority) became responsible for education in 1994, Palestinian children have been learning from their schoolbooks to identify Israel as the evil colonialist enemy who stole their land.... The new PA schoolbooks fail to teach their children to see Israel as a neighbor with whom peaceful relations are expected. They do not teach acceptance of Israel's existence on the national level, nor do they impart tolerance of individual Jews on the personal level."

The CMIP report is full of distortions, exaggerations and outright lies. For example, it claims that an old anti-Semitic history book written by Mustafa Dabbagh is now required reading for Palestinian students, that this book is dedicated to "those who are battling for the expulsion of the enemy from our land!" and that it contains a banner on the title page of volume one that supposedly proclaims, "There is no alternative to destroying Israel."

The book in question, Our Country Palestine, is a ten-volume history written in 1947 that scholars consider a classic Arab reference on Mandatory Palestine. It is not required reading for Palestinian students. I found a copy of the 1988 edition at the Ramallah public library. It contains no banner on the title page of volume one or any other volume with the alleged proclamation. And a more accurate translation of the dedication is "to those who have struggled to keep Palestine Arab." The only segment that Palestinian students are required to read is a moving personal account in the introduction to volume one in which the author describes the circumstances of his forced departure from his hometown, Jaffa, in 1948.

The Palestinians have been tried and convicted in total disregard of the facts.

Deborah Sontag of the New York Times visited a Palestinian classroom in Ramallah on September 7, 2000. My own 6-year-old son happens to attend this school, and he was in the same classroom. It is obvious from the text of her subsequent article in the Times that Sontag was primarily looking for evidence to substantiate the charge. She found none. Instead, she drew a thorough picture of the pedagogical dilemmas facing Palestinians in dealing with complex historical issues.

Israelis who have carefully examined the new Palestinian textbooks have arrived at different conclusions from those of the right-wing researchers. Writing in the leading daily Ha'aretz in January, Akiva Eldar said: "The Palestinians are being rebuked where they should in fact be praised. For this school year the Palestinian Authority has, for the first time ever, printed its own textbooks. A research team from the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, led by Dr. Ruth Firer, has established that the new books are 'freer of negative stereotypes of Jews and Israelis, compared to Jordanian and Egyptian books.' The defense establishment has investigated and confirmed this finding." Quoted in Le Monde diplomatique, Dr. Firer attributes a political motivation to the right-wing researchers at CMIP, who, she says, have no educational or methodological background and only want to prove that it's impossible to achieve peace with the Palestinians.

The effects of this campaign have already been nothing short of disastrous. In December 2000, faced with strong parliamentary pressure during an election campaign, the Italian government, referring directly to the CMIP study, informed the Palestinians that it can no longer finance the development of the new Palestinian school curriculum. At the same time, the World Bank notified the Palestinian Ministry of Education that money allocated for the development of school texts and teacher training will have to be diverted to other projects. This rush to judgment has led to similar reactions by a number of other donor countries.

The focus on Palestinian textbooks has meant the avoidance of other, more important issues. More than a quarter of all Palestinians so far killed by the Israeli army are under 18. The Palestinian educational system has suffered serious setbacks because Israeli closures--first imposed in 1993 and tightened considerably during the new intifada--prevent students and teachers from reaching their schools for long periods of time. And there is no debate or even the slightest bit of international concern about the psychological effects of violence on Palestinian children.

Normally, international agencies are quick to send mental-health professionals to war-torn areas to help children cope with situations of extreme stress. The Palestinians have had to cope on their own, with limited resources, without international assistance. In October 2000 I tried to convene a small group of people to discuss what can be done to help schoolchildren cope. We discovered, to our amazement, that international agencies like UNICEF and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency had evacuated their personnel.

Palestinian mental-health professionals and school counselors report numerous cases of post-traumatic stress disorder among school-age children, especially those whose homes and schools are near points of confrontation. Symptoms include depression; disturbed sleep and nightmares; difficulty concentrating and remembering things, especially schoolwork; diminished interest in enjoyable activities; emotional detachment from parents and friends; and bedwetting. The Palestinian educational system simply cannot cope with the problem. Severe cases of shock go untreated because of the lack of skilled professionals.

Dr. Firer's Palestinian co-researcher, Dr. Sami Adwan of the education department at Bethlehem University, responds to Marcus's allegations: "How can a Palestinian write in a textbook that Israelis or Jews should be loved, while what he is experiencing is death, land expropriation, demolition of homes and daily degradation? Give us a chance to teach loving." Dr. Adwan correctly points out that what children see on the street, on TV and on the Internet has a far greater impact than any book.

It is indeed frightening that a small, extreme-right-wing organization, producing shoddy work, can help shape the agenda in a rather complex conflict and eventually have such a far-reaching impact on governments throughout the world.

Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands breeds more hatred and mistrust than any schoolbooks can. Indeed, if Itamar Marcus wants Palestinians to stop identifying Israel as the "evil colonialist enemy who stole their land," he would do far better to join the campaign to end Israel's occupation, land expropriation and settlement construction, which continue to this day.

Fouad Moughrabi, who is on leave as a professor of political science at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, is director of the Qattan Center for Educational Research and Development in Ramallah, Palestine.

Printed from http://www.thenation.com

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See Palestinian Ministry of Education's clarification

Additional sources

email me
More sources of material concerning the issue of Palestinian school textbooks

The International controversy regarding Palestinian textbooks
Delivered at the Georg-Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research,
9 December 2002 by Nathan J. Brown


Democracy, History, and the Contest Over the Palestinian Curriculum,
by Professor Nathan Brown.


Israel or Palestine: Who Teaches What History?
by Elisa Morena published in Le Monde Diplomatique
July 2001

Third Submission of the PLO to the Mitchell Committee
Excerpts on Incitement. Addresses Palestinian and Israeli textbooks,
summer camps and Israel's failure to prevent anti-Palestinian incitement in Israeli society
April 3, 2001

What Did You Study In School Today, Palestinian Child?
by Akiva Eldar, Ha'aretz
January 2, 2001

If You Are For Truth, You Seek The Truth First
by Khalil Mahshi. A statement from the Palestinian Ministry of Education
December 21, 2000

Israeli Textbooks and Children's Literature Promote Racism and Hatred Toward Palestinians and Arabs, by Maureen Meehan, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. Sept. 1999

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