Both Israel and Palestinians Demonize Other Side in School Textbooks, Study Finds

The project, which was funded by the U.S. State Department, was boycotted by the Israeli government, which later called its methodology tendentious.

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A study due to be released on Monday is expected to take both Israel and the Palestinians - but especially the latter - to task for how they portray the other side in school textbooks.

The project, conducted by researchers in the United States, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, was funded by the U.S. State Department.

Although the study criticizes textbooks in both the PA and Israel, Jerusalem decided not to cooperate, mainly because it opposes a direct comparison between the two sides. The project was a headache for the U.S. administration, which ultimately decided not to adopt its conclusions.

According to sources who read the final report, the study has harsh criticism for the way the Palestinian textbooks portray Israel. But it criticizes Israeli textbooks too; while they are more balanced than the Palestinian ones, they aren't balanced enough and portray the Palestinians negatively.

“The Israeli side emphasizes the series of disturbances, while the Palestinians claim that Israel is the result of imperialist acts," one source said. "One of the main conclusions is that each side sticks to its own narrative.”

The researchers criticized the selective use of maps by both sides; the presenting of the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea as one territory. Meanwhile, the study says the textbooks in Israel's ultra-Orthodox community are “the closest to the Palestinian textbooks in their treatment of the other side,” according to one source.

The idea for a comparative study was conceived in 2008, when talks between Israel and the Palestinians that began after the Annapolis Conference were at their peak. Relations between the leaders of the two sides were closer than ever.

One committee during the talks dealt with education on tolerance, building a culture of peace and preventing incitement. It achieved a rarity: It completed a draft of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

When Prof. Bruce Wexler of Yale University submitted a proposal for the study to the U.S. State Department, the department provided half a million dollars in funding. The study was led by Wexler, Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal of Tel Aviv University and Prof. Sami Adwan of Bethlehem University. The Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, an umbrella group consisting of 75 Christian, Palestinian/Muslim and Jewish institutions, supported the project.

But in 2009, a new Israeli government took over and relations between Israel and the Palestinians hit a wall. In 2010, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv began worrying about the project. According to a senior Israeli official, embassy political counselor Robert Silverman wrote a paper recommending the State Department to withdraw from the project, even though it had funded it.

Silverman, a professional diplomat who has devoted most of his career to the peace process, warned the State Department that the study’s methodology looked tendentious. He felt the researchers were letting their personal views get in the way.

Bar-Tal says this isn't so. “In the fall of 2010 I met personally with the American team, which wanted to see how the study was progressing," he said. "The team included representatives of the Tel Aviv embassy and the State Department. It was a very friendly and supportive conversation.”

The Education Ministry, headed by Gideon Sa’ar, opposed the study from the outset and decided not to cooperate – informally at first and then formally, after a discussion several months ago.

“An examination of the research materials by professionals at the Education Ministry and outside clearly shows that [the study] is tendentious, unprofessional and suffers from a severe lack of objectivity,” a spokesman for the Education Ministry said.

“One gets the impression that this is a study whose findings are a foregone conclusion even before it was conducted professionally – and definitely not a credible reflection of reality. The attempt to create a parallel between the Israeli education system and the Palestinian education system lacks any basis.” He said the ministry “chose not to cooperate with anyone who seeks to slander the Israeli education system and the State of Israel.”

Preparing for publication day

The Education Ministry’s refusal to cooperate made U.S. officials even more eager to distance themselves from the project. Senior U.S. officials said the study’s tone and conclusions weren't constructive and would lead to mutual recriminations. The project may have seemed like a good idea in 2008, but today U.S. officials say it will only complicate the difficult situation between Israel and the Palestinians. “We really don’t need this now,” a senior U.S. official said.

State Department officials are ready for publication Monday. Anthony Pahigian, director of policy planning and public diplomacy at the State Department, told Haaretz that although the State Department had funded the project, it had never intended to adopt its conclusions.

He noted that while the State Department had decided to fund this initiative of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in the Holy Land, the report had not been prepared for the U.S. administration, and the State Department had no intention of using it in its diplomacy.

Over the past few days, the Prime Minister’s Office has been preparing for publication day. A senior Israeli official said feelers were put out to the authors last week to see if publication could be postponed.

According to government sources, the researchers made selective use of negative descriptions of the Palestinians in Israeli textbooks. A senior Israeli official noted that the study overemphasizes the textbooks used in the ultra-Orthodox private school system, and that much of the criticism of Israeli textbooks is detached from the historical context. As examples of the negative portrayal of the Palestinians, the study cites the 1929 and 1936 riots, and the massacre of Israeli athletes by PLO terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

“The researchers come out against using the word ‘terrorism’ in the chapter about the Munich massacre, but nobody can change the fact that the massacre was perpetrated by a Palestinian terrorist organization,” the senior official said.

According to Bar-Tal, this is a wrong understanding of the study. “We didn’t come out for or against anything," he said. "We merely described what was in the textbooks.”

Yosef Kuperwasser, the director general of the Strategic Affairs Ministry, tracks anti-Israel incitement in the Palestinian media. He said the report was particularly scandalous because the researchers judged Israel and the Palestinians in the same vein. “The whole comparison is twisted,” he said during the meetings. “We’re not in the same class as the Palestinians. We’re not even in the same school.”

Heavy pressure from Jerusalem

A 20-member committee of experts conducted the study over the past three years. One role was to examine the final report before it was published. Several committee members refused to sign off on the document, which they called tendentious.

One member, Prof. Eliyahu Richter of the Hebrew University, sent a letter to Wexler in March 2012, saying the report suffered from severe methodological problems. Others say most committee members approved the report and that over the past several days the government has put heavy pressure on panel members to distance themselves from it.

According to Bar-Tal, “The claim that the study's results are harmful to Israel is ludicrous. The ones who harm Israel are politicians who smear academic research and slander the researchers because the study’s results don’t match their ideology.”

He said such attitudes are found “in totalitarian states where researchers are under full supervision. I hope the academic community in Israel and around the world will stand up for freedom of academic research and expression.”

Regarding the complaints about professionalism, Bar-Tal said that “most studies in this field are based on a methodology of impressions. Our study is one of the few and first in the world to use a new method that comes as close to objective analysis as possible. The study was conducted by the best experts in textual and historical analysis in Israel and around the world. The scientists on the experts’ committee approved the study and see it as a contribution to science.”

A classroom in Bethlehem, in 2007Credit: Tess Scheflan

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