In Israeli Textbooks, the Palestinians Are All but Invisible

A study by Avner Ben-Amos of Tel Aviv University shows that the occupation is rarely mentioned in history, civics or geography textbooks

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Prof. Avner Ben-Amos of Tel Aviv University's School of Education, June 2020.
Prof. Avner Ben-Amos of Tel Aviv University's School of Education, June 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

"Neveh Daniel is a rural community,” says a textbook on Israeli society “narrated” by Shulamit, a 9-year-old telling about her family and home.

“The community is located in the Judea and Samaria region and belongs to the Gush Etzion Regional Council. Already in the Bible period, Jews lived in this area, and the Bible tells of various events that happened there. For example, this is where the patriarchs and matriarchs were buried, and here the stories of King David and the Book of Ruth took place.”

The 40-page textbook for fourth-graders, one of a series, is intended to provide a glimpse into various communities in Israeli society. But there’s one thing it overlooks: Shulamit’s Palestinian neighbors don’t have the same rights as the members of her family.

The only mention is four words at the end of a sentence: Between 1.7 million and 2.9 million Palestinians who live in “the region called Judea and Samaria,” the book says, “are not Israeli citizens.”

Aerial photo of West Bank showing Jewish settlements to the right of the separation wall and Palestinian homes to the left. Credit: Lefteris Pitarakis /AP

Israel’s control over millions of Palestinians isn’t part of the work’s message. In fact, according to a study by Prof. Avner Ben-Amos of Tel Aviv University's School of Education, the occupation is rarely a topic in schools.

The short book narrated by Shulamit is designed for pupils to “get to know a little about the religious way of life” and to learn about the importance of Jerusalem and values like “community life” and “mutual help.”

As Israel’s government considers annexing land in the West Bank, the country’s schools continue to use textbooks like “Shulamit’s” and maps without the Green Line, while taking the children on hikes in the West Bank.

Ben-Amos set out to explore how Israeli textbooks and pre-college matriculation exams address the occupation. He calls the situation “interpretive denial.”

In most textbooks, “the Jewish control and the Palestinians’ inferior status appear as a natural, self-evident situation that one doesn’t have to think about,” he writes in an article to be published in a book on teaching history edited by Eyal Naveh and Nimrod Tal.

Ben-Amos looked into the way textbooks for middle school and high school at state and state religious schools handle the ramifications of the 1967 Six-Day War. He examined history, geography and civics books, as well as informal education like workshops and tours for high school students.

Textbooks must be authorized by the Education Ministry, which, under Likud’s Limor Livnat between 2001 and 2006, blocked attempts to teach the Palestinian narrative as well.

'An attempt to hide and silence'

Ben-Amos describes the schoolbooks published in the first 30 years after 1967 as “a slow internalization of the war’s significance.” So all the history textbooks describe “the great victory,” while the general tone is of “self-satisfaction and unrestrained pride,” he says.

The one exception is a work by Ruth Kleinberger, which dedicated four pages to the argument between left and right on the future of the West Bank, and the theological and ideological roots of the settlement movement.

The last two decades have seen a limited recognition of the occupation, albeit with a denial of its repercussions, Ben-Amos says. He says this seems to be intentional: If the education chiefs ignore the research literature, if the information on events can’t reach the classrooms, we’re dealing with “an attempt to hide and silence.”

Some of the history textbooks that he examined end in 1970, which suggests “a desire to avoid dealing with a past that could be controversial,” Ben-Amos says. One or two books that present history in a more complex way were redacted by the Education Ministry.

One of these books, as Haaretz reported in 2009, used a section from a work by a Palestinian historian who claimed the nascent Israeli army engaged in ethnic cleansing during the 1948 war. The book, which was initially approved by the ministry, was quickly collected from the schools and returned after this section and other parts had been expunged or changed.

A mass grave for the victims of the Deir Yassin massacre, 1948. Credit: AP

A book intended for religious state schools presents the argument over the territories in a few sentences, but describes the ‘67 war as an act of “liberation” that enabled “a return to Judea and Samaria, areas where our patriarchs and matriarchs lived, where the kingdom of David and Solomon was established, the heart of the Jewish people.”

Even if a handful of textbooks describe the occupation critically, Ben-Amos’ research shows that no history matriculation exam between 2010 and 2019 featured a question on the long-term changes the war caused. A few exams included questions about “the Six-Day War’s influence on Israel,” but the right answers referred to the war’s immediate effects like the expansion of the state’s borders, accessibility to holy sites and the enlarging of the area under settlement by Israelis.

“What doesn’t appear in the matriculation exams isn’t taught in schools,” says a veteran history teacher from the center of the country. She says the ‘67 war’s long-term effects are studied, at best, “with a few sentences about the widening rift between right and left. That’s it.”

'Cloud over every history teacher'

Also, the point of view is of Israelis, usually only Jews. “They don’t refer to the conditions in which the Palestinians live,” the teacher says. “The Palestinians don’t interest anyone. Invisible. That’s very convenient for the government.”

The main civics textbook also reflects the Israelis’ point of view. The West Bank Palestinians’ limited rights under Israeli rule aren’t addressed at all.

The book’s first edition, which was used for about 15 years, analyzed at length the overall Israeli debate on the occupation. But the issue was reduced to a few sentences in the version rewritten under right-wing education ministers.

The relevant chapter consists of a map of the Arab towns and villages, while an almost invisible line marks the “1949 Armistice Agreements line.” According to Ben-Amos, another civics textbook completely ignores the dispute over the occupied territories – “a silencing of the situation,” he says.

In civics matriculation exams over the past 20 years, no question appeared on the limiting of the Palestinians’ rights or their relations with the state and the settlers.

“It’s kind of a taboo,” says a history teacher in the south. “You don’t talk about the Palestinians living under a military regime, and there’s a cloud over every teacher who talks about it. Those issues aren’t discussed in class at all. The result is that the students can’t understand the world they live in.”

Regarding geography, which isn’t a compulsory subject, Ben-Amos found that textbooks don’t ignore the clash between Israel and the Palestinians over the border issue, but describe Israel’s continued rule over the West Bank in “a language that blurs the violence involved.”

An Israeli soldier kicks a Palestinian flag during a protest against the U.S. president Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, in Jordan Valley in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, January 29, 2020. Credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/ REUTERS

Meanwhile, the Bible is used. The “roots of the Israeli people and culture” are emphasized in the “Judea and Samaria” regions, and quotes from Genesis and the Book of Joshua point to the Jewish presence there.

Ben-Amos writes that maps in geography textbooks describe the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River as a unified space, sometimes dotted with a few brown stains marking Area A governed by the Palestinian Authority. But the books offer “no explanation for the various areas ruled by the authority,” he writes.

The geography exams also ignore the Green Line and the Palestinians, even when the question refers to the Jewish population in “Judea and Samaria.”

“It’s not simplistic denial, claiming that this reality doesn’t exist. It’s more complex denial, based on the fact that education officials know the reality in the territories but are unwilling or unable to admit it,” Ben-Amos says.

“The approach conveyed to the students is that there’s no fundamental difference between what happens beyond the Green Line and the reality within the line; that it’s the natural historical, geographic continuation.”

Ben-Amos says the textbooks’ ignoring of the occupation or attempts to normalize it stem from self-censorship. In the absence of clear guidelines, nobody wants to be blacklisted and denounced, which was the fate of teachers and publishers who tried to convey a more nuanced message than the one permitted by the Education Ministry.

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