A Textbook Debate Riddled With Tired Cliches

Israel’s kneejerk and formulaic reaction to the Israeli and Palestinian school textbooks study is a poor and unconvincing substitute for real soul-searching about the lack of progress towards a peace agreement.

Daniella Peled
Daniella Peled
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Daniella Peled
Daniella Peled

That Palestinian school books teach their children to hate Israeli Jews is a cliché as legendarily interminable as the conflict itself. It’s part of a canon that includes the smug regurgitation of the paucity of Arab Nobel prize-winners and the bemoaning of the lack of a Palestinian Peace Now.

But the charge that Palestinian textbooks are riddled with incitement has long become an integral part of Israel’s diplomatic strategy, echoed by Western leaders in front of Israel-supporting and Jewish audiences.

“As long as the Palestinian Authority educates the younger generation to hate, how is it at all possible to talk about peace?” asked Benjamin Netanyahu, in response to the Palestinian UN bid last November.

Israeli concessions are useless, this argument goes, in light of the Palestinian refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish state to exist, one that begins in early childhood.

Perhaps this position lies behind Israel’s rather exaggerated response to last week's publication of “victims of our own narratives?”, a study into the portrayal of “the other“ in Israeli and Palestinian schoolbooks. The product of three years of research by three respected Israeli, Palestinian and American academics, was initiated by the Jerusalem-based Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land - which includes Israel’s Chief Rabbinate - and funded by the U.S. State Department.

Yet Jerusalem not only boycotted the study, but rather, in an analogy with the UN report into the 2009 war in Gaza, named it another “Goldstone Report,” and reportedly attempted to delay its publication. The reason for the outrage: How could the authors have even contemplated a comparison between the Israeli education system and the notoriously hate-filled Palestinian schools?

The study's publication received a predictable recourse meant to undermine its credentials by the usual government-friendly media organizations. Perhaps we are supposed to see the Israeli government’s own “incitement Index,” a pet project Netanyahu likes to roll out now and again, as a more impartial assessment of the situation.

But although Israel's Education Ministry refused to cooperate with academics apparently only interested “in maliciously slandering the Israeli educational system and the State of Israel,” their own curricula, in fact, don’t come off too bad from the study's analysis.

The excerpts from Israeli state school textbooks included in the study are quite encouraging. Overall, it seems Israeli state education shows a laudable level of self-criticism, refers to Islam in notably measured tones, and consistently presents the other side in a more positive light than their Palestinian equivalents.

But maybe that’s part of the problem; the very suggestion of equivalence between Israeli and Palestinian schooling, or, in fact, any comparison at all.

Responding to the study at a press conference, Yossi Kuperwasser, the director general of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, told journalists that “putting us and the Palestinians in the same context is outrageous.”

It must have been particularly galling to read one assertion that might, to others, sound like good news: “Dehumanizing and demonizing characterizations of 'the other' were very rare in both Israeli and Palestinian books,” says the report.

That’s not to say that hateful provocation doesn’t exist – but at the risk of recourse to another cliché of the conflict, Palestinians don’t really need to rely on incitement in school textbooks to feed hostility and distrust toward Israel in the next generation. The reality of the occupation does that quite well by itself.

It’s also important to distinguish between distorted and vicious national or ethnic representations and a unilateral framing of history. The fact that each society selects events to back up its own narrative and presents itself in a positive or glorious light is very far from constituting incitement.

Even in the most enlightened of countries, history lessons are not about accurate historical record, but about instilling a national narrative in young citizens. Does anyone really expect Palestinian students to be taught anything other than that the founding of the Israeli state constituted a national tragedy, or to Israeli children that it was a national redemption?

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the report is this 76 percent of Israeli state-school maps (95 percent in the ultra-orthodox sector) don’t show any demarcation between Israeli and Palestinian areas, and that Israel is only identified in four percent of the Palestinian maps.

It’s easier to ignore the disputed nature of the territory in question, but this feeds into the paranoia that the other side is set on destroying them or denying their existence, and hardly frames a youthful consciousness that territorial compromise is possible.

When you have warring sides whose very nationality is so often defined in relation to their adversaries, and are so insecure that education becomes a vital instrument for social control, acknowledging the other side constitutes some sort of collective defeat.

But rubbishing the methodology of this study through the usual hasbara channels is a formulaic response that sounds increasingly old and tired. Israel needs to come up with a more convincing reason for the lack of a peace settlement than the argument that Palestinians are dedicated, from kindergarten upwards, to the destruction of the Jewish state.

Daniella Peled is editor of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and has written widely from across the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Students taking an exam. Credit: Moti Milrod

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