We and Only We Are on the Map

Arabs are perceived as inferior, hostile and threatening in history and geography textbooks. Did someone say something about educating toward peace?

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

The controversial firing this past summer of Adar Cohen, civics studies supervisor for the Education Ministry, and the disqualification of history and civics textbooks over the past decade or so (including “Olam shel Tmurot,” edited by Danny Yaakobi; “Bonim Medina Bemizrah Hatihon” by Eliezer Domke, Hanna Orbach and Tsafrir Goldberg; and “Yotzim Ladereh Ezrahit” by Bina Galdi, Asaf Matzkin and Nisan Nave, remind us that such books are still considered important tools in shaping students’ identity and worldviews.

A linguistic and semiotic analysis of more than 20 geography and history textbooks published between 1994 and 2010 that are intended for use in both the government-run secular school system and independent ultra-Orthodox schools shows that Israeli textbooks seek to bolster a territorial, nationalist brand of Jewish identity. This type of identity situates the modern Israeli as the direct descendant of the biblical heroes.

Israeli textbooks must be approved by the Education Ministry, and so, despite their differences, they all subscribe to a basic premise about identity that takes as a given the historical rights of the Jews to Palestine; Zionism’s existence as the answer to the Jews’ 2,000-year-old longing for their country; the ongoing presence of anti-Semitism, Arab hostility and the Arab threat; and the need for a Jewish majority and Israeli control in order to maintain the character and security of the state.

History, according to the historian Keith Jenkins, is a “force field,” that is, a series of courses of action that organize the past by and for interested parties. It includes and it excludes, draws points of view to the central arena or pushes them to the margins, in different ways and degrees in response to the forces acting on them. Jenkins’ observation may be applied to geography textbooks too, and is particularly relevant in the case of maps, most of which remove or add geographical or political details. The geography texts I examined all had as their subject “Israel” or “Land of Israel” but not “State of Israel.” The only exception was “Israel: The Man and the Space,” by Zvia Fine, Meira Segev and Raheli Lavi (Center for Educational Technology). However, although this text describes its subject as the “State of Israel” in the introduction, starting with the first map (of Israel and its neighbors), it omits the pre-1967 border, while including the occupied territories, though they have never been legally annexed to the state.

On a map delineating the presence of Israel’s Arab population, the book indicates that “there are no statistics” for the Palestinian territories, whose inhabitants are described as “foreign workers” in the text. This method, by which land is acquired while its citizens and their existence are ignored, is called geographic or toponymic “silence.” It is, according to researcher A.K. Henrikson, “blank spaces, silences of uniformity, of standardization or deliberate exclusion, willful ignorance or even actual repression.”

Geographic silences in the book by Fine, Segev and Lavi are expressed by the fact that Arab cities and towns, including mixed cities within the 1967 borders Nazareth and Acre are not marked, and in the absence of Palestinian institutions. For example, a map of universities includes their branches, and also independent Jewish colleges in the territories (in Alon Shvut and Elkana), but not one Palestinian university. The employment map marks Israeli workplaces in the territories, but not Palestinian ones. Furthermore, while there is a map of “national sites, cultural sites, [and] administrative and government institutions” in Jerusalem, none, except for the Western Wall, are marked in Arab East Jerusalem.

Surprisingly, a geography text for the independent ultra-Orthodox school system, “Sfat Hamapa,” by P. Dina (Yeshurun Press), is excellent. It takes a clear ideological stance, puts the 1967 border in its maps, and asks questions that can lead students to the heart of the matter. For example: “Consider why it is very important to know the precise borders of the Land of Israel as they are depicted in the Torah.” “Why are the Golan Heights so important to us?” “What is the Green Line?” “Name some Jewish settlements beyond the 1967 border.” “Clip and paste newspaper articles about the controversy over settlements in the ‘occupied territories’ beyond the Green Line.”

In the textbooks used in state-run secular schools that I surveyed, justifications of the occupation rest on biblical verses. In geography textbook “Artzot Hayam Hatihon” by D. Vadaya, H. Ahlman and J. Mimouni (Maalot Press), in use by fifth grade classes since 1996, the section “One Sea and Its Many Names” doesn’t actually provide the names for the Mediterranean used by the different peoples who lived on its shores. Instead, it offers biblical quotes: “I will set your borders from the Sea of Reeds to the Sea of Philistia” (Exodus 23:31); “your territory shall extend from the wilderness to the Lebanon and from the River the Euphrates to the Western Sea” (Deuteronomy 11:24). The map is titled “Northward and southward and eastward and westward” (Genesis 13:14), with the explanation: “The meaning of the verse is that in the future your country will expand to the west, the east, north and south.” The title appears to the right of the map titled “Israel,” and includes all the occupied territories without any lines demarcating them. Inclusion of the Bible in a textbook stamps prophecy with a scientific seal of approval and awards a sacred dimension to a geography book.

An Arab with a camel

In a study published eight years ago, Ruth Firer of the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, at the Hebrew University, wrote that “as political correctness has reached Israel, it is no longer appropriate to use blunt, discriminatory language in textbooks.” Nonetheless, not one book examined in my study contains a description or image of Palestinians, from either the territories or Israel proper, as modern or urban, or as employed in manufacturing or in a prestigious profession.

Palestinian refugees are presented as people who want to enter Israel and not as those who wish to return to their homeland; Israeli Arab citizens are depicted as the enemy within, a demographic threat and a minority that is inferior to the Jewish majority individually, socially and economically. The Palestinians appear in the text only as representatives of the problems they constitute for Israel backwardness and terrorism or as part of the “refugee problem” that “has poisoned Israel’s relations with the Arab world and the international community for more than a generation,” according to Elie Barnavi and Eyal Naveh in their history textbook, “Modern Times 2” (Sifrei Tel Aviv Press).

The only pictures of Palestinians in the history textbooks I examined show barefoot refugees walking down an unidentified road (“Idan Ha’ayma Vehatikva” by Ketzia Avieli-Tabibian, Matah Press); tents in an unidentified location and time (“Hale’umiut Bayisrael Uba’amim,” by Eyal Naveh, Naomi Vered and David Shahar, Rekhes Press); masked terrorists (“The 20th Century,” by Barnavi, Sifrei Tel Aviv Press); and farmers behind a plow led by oxen (“Anashim Bamerhav” by A. Rapp and Z. Fine, CET Press). The book “The Geography of Eretz Israel,” by Y. Aharoni and T. Saguy (Lilach Press), offers a caricature of a man with a mustache wearing a kaffiyeh, either leading a camel or riding on one, often accompanied by a bent woman and children and sometimes an old Bedouin, every time the text refers to Arabs. These are the images that shape the way Israel’s Jewish students view their Arab and Palestinian neighbors, including their fellow Israeli citizens.

It was a miracle

The history textbooks largely depict the Palestinians as constituting a wretched problem not unlike an environmental disaster; students are shown images of empty streets flooded with water or aerial photos of densely built structures in empty refugee camps. The blame for this ongoing problem is cast on the victims, that is, the refugees who did not integrate themselves into Arab countries, and on the leaders of Arab countries who refused to absorb them. The problem, students read, serves Arab leaders mainly as anti-Israeli propaganda. For example, Naomi Blank explains in the history textbook “Pnei Hame’a Ha’esrim” (The Face of the 20th Century, Yoel Geva Press) that “the refugee problem remains an unsolved one that greases the wheels of the Middle East conflict and fans the flames. ... Leaders of Arab states have exploited the Palestinian refugee problem as a tool that serves their political needs.”

While the curriculum mandates the presentation of a variety of positions on important issues, the political, cultural and economic points of view of the Palestinians are excluded. In “Bonim Medina Bemizrah Hatihon,” writers Domke, Orbach and Goldberg tried to include the point of view of a Palestinian historian, Walid Khalidi, about the refugees. That attempt led to the book’s being rejected by the Education Ministry. In the corrected version, Israeli historian Benny Morris was brought in to represent the Palestinian perspective.

Other books also ignore non-Israeli historians, even as they purport to be representing multiple points of view on Israeli-Arab issues. Abraham Hadad, in “Toldot Yisrael Veha’amim Betkufat Hashoah Vehatekuma” (Dani Press), and “50 Shenot Milhamot Vetikvot,” by Shula Inbar (Lilach Press) offer the authors’ own interpretations under the heading “the Arab position.” According to them, the Palestinians brought disaster onto themselves and the leaders of Arab countries want that disaster to continue. The exit of Palestinians in 1948 is portrayed, in all the books I’ve reviewed, as a “mass flight” or a “frightened retreat” stemming from a few unplanned acts of expulsion, but mostly from exaggerated rumors about the cruelty of Jews that remain as myths in the Palestinian narrative, as described in the book “Haleumi’ut Bayisra’el Uba’amim.” Inbar’s book describes how David Ben-Gurion visited the abandoned village of Salameh and tried, without success, to extract the reasons for the flight from an old blind woman.

Most of the textbooks explicitly support Israel’s refusal to allow refugees to return, and a few detail how Israel has managed to prevent them from returning. All emphasize the positive nature of the outcome for the Jews. “It was a miracle that the Arabs in Haifa, Jaffa and the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem ran away and left everything in Jewish hands,” writes Yekutiel Fridner of the independent ultra-Orthodox school system in the book, “Toldot Hadorot Ha’ahronim: Yisrael Ve’umot Ha’olam Metkufat Hamahapaha Hatzarfatit ad Lamilhemet Sheshet Hayamim” (Yeshurun Press). Human rights considerations and international law are not discussed at all.

It was just a campaign

In these books, massacres committed by the Israel Defense Forces or the Haganah, Irgun and Lehi military forces that predated the founding of the state become “actions,” “campaigns,” “stories” and “battles,” or even “punitive actions.” The Deir Yassin massacre of 1948, the massacre in Kafr Qasem in 1956 and the one in the Jordanian village of Qibya in 1953 are presented as actions that led to positive results (despite the condemnation of the international community and the political leadership’s unease). Those results include a continuous strip of Jewish settlements in the corridor to Jerusalem, a slowing of the “hasty retreat” by Palestinian Arabs (as in Deir Yassin), a surge in the army’s morale and the security of Israeli citizens (as in Qibya), and an opportunity to declare that soldiers should not carry out patently illegal orders and the beginning of the process of dismantling Israel’s military government in the territories (Kafr Qasem). The lesson gleaned from all the textbooks I’ve examined is that any injustices that Israelis commit are justified if they prevent an injustice that might be committed against us.

Visual aids accompany this material, but the images and sidebars focus on the Israeli soldiers, not on any atrocities they may have committed or on the victims of such atrocities. For example, the text describing the Deir Yassin massacre in “Idan Ha’eima Vehatikva” is situated next to a picture of Israeli soldiers standing on the ruins of the Kastel fortress nearby and the words to the popular poem and song “Shir Hare’ut,” about the camaraderie of soldiers. Alongside a description of the massacre in Qibya in “Hale’umi’yut Beyisra’el Ube’amim,” soldiers of Unit 101 are depicted as models of courage, daring, devotion and such, while “Idan Ha’eima Vehatikva” shows a photo of Ariel Sharon and his fighters, accompanied by Moshe Dayan, who came to congratulate them on their successful “mission” at Qibya and the words to the popular song “Hasela Ha’adom,” about courageously, if foolishly, sneaking across the Jordanian border to visit the ancient city of Petra.

The lives and suffering of the victims are given virtually no “paper time,” to use philosopher Roland Barthes’ phrase. In these books, descriptions of massacres do not generate empathy for the victims or human solidarity with their pain.

Chances for peace

One common feature of all the textbooks studied is the depiction of Palestinians, both those who are citizens of the state and those who are its subjects in the territories, as a problem to be solved. A peaceful solution to the conflict is portrayed again and again as impossible, and the Palestinians are always to blame for violating cease-fires and treaties. (Israeli violations of the Oslo Accords are described as the acts of extremists, such as Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli physician who murdered 29 Palestinian worshipers at the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994.)

The ultra-Orthodox textbook author Yekutiel Fridner is proud of Israel’s slyness in making sure that UN Resolution 242 called for Israeli forces to withdraw from “territories” occupied in the Six-Day War rather than from “the territories,” meaning from some of them rather than all of them. This wording, Fridner exults, allowed Israel to retain control of parts of the West Bank when it was divided into administrative areas including the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, Beit El and Ariel, and parts of East Jerusalem. He adds that while “the Palestinians ‘committed’ themselves to give Jews access to Jewish holy sites, these promises do not have much value.”

In sum, the textbooks under examination tend to support students’ hostility to and alienation from, as well as their ignorance about, the lives, culture, leaders and potential contributions of Palestinians to our society and country. None of the books contain a hint of the benefits peace might bring.

I can only conclude that not only is there no peace education in Israel, but that the textbooks used in Jewish schools in Israel are actively educating toward hatred. Teachers who are interested in critical readings of history and geography, or in education toward peace, require explicit training in everything connected to the ways the textbooks at hand deliver their politically charged messages. This training is vital to Israel, whose textbooks represent powerful sanctified political and social ideologies, and to an educational system that makes it difficult for teachers and students to bring critical thinking skills to bear on the canonic narrative, or to get involved in a discussion about the accuracy and justice of that narrative.

Prof. Nurit Peled-Elhanan is a lecturer in language education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This essay is based on her linguistic and semiotic analysis of more than 20 geography and history textbooks published between 1994 and 2010 for use in both the government-run school system and independent ultra-Orthodox schools. The findings of the study were published recently in her book “Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education” (I.B. Tauris).

A territorial brand of Jewish identity. Above, from left: Columnist Gideon Levy, educator Orit Schwartz-Franco and Ofra settler Meirav Gold participating in a civics-studies panel in 2010.Credit: Nir Kafri



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Already signed up? LOG IN


הקלטות מעוז

Jewish Law Above All: Recordings Reveal Far-right MK's Plan to Turn Israel Into Theocracy

איתמר בן גביר

Why I’m Turning My Back on My Jewish Identity

Travelers looking at the Departures board at Ben Gurion Airport. The number of olim who later become yordim is unknown.

Down and Out: Why These New Immigrants Ended Up Leaving Israel

Beatrice Grannò and Simona Tabasco as Mia and Lucia in "The White Lotus."

The Reality Behind ‘The White Lotus’ Sex Work Fantasy

The Mossad hit team in Dubai. Exposed by dozens of security cameras

This ‘Dystopian’ Cyber Firm Could Have Saved Mossad Assassins From Exposure

מליאת הכנסת 28.12.22

Comeback Kid: How Netanyahu Took Back Power After 18 Months in Exile