Israeli-Palestinian textbook study sparks controversy

A U.S. State Department-funded study on Israeli and Palestinian textbooks released in Jerusalem has set-off a wave of insults, charges and counter-charges. Israel’s Ministry of Education called the detailed report “biased and unprofessional” while the International Society for Political Psychology called the Israeli government’s description “highly distressing.”

It was yet another example of how anything concerning Israelis and Palestinians sets tempers flaring. The three-year study, written by a joint team comprised of an Israeli and Palestinian researcher and Dr. Bruce Wexler of Yale University, found that textbooks on both sides present one-sided narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but rarely resort to demonization of the other side. The report was issued by the Council of Religious Institutions in the Holy Land.

The researchers analyzed 74 Israeli and 94 Palestinian textbooks in-depth, covering grades 1through 12 in subjects such as literature, geography, and civics. It did not include physical sciences such as biology and chemistry, or religious subjects such as Quran or Bible.


“There was very little dehumanization on both sides,” Dr. Daniel Bar Tal, the report’s author, told The Media Line. “But we do find that both ignored the existence and the legitimacy of the other. It is a minimal requirement that Palestinians should recognize the existence of the state of Israel and Israelis should recognize and acknowledge the legitimacy of the Palestinians.”

When it comes to Israeli textbooks, the study separates those used by the state secular system (the majority) from those used by the ultra-Orthodox (an estimated 25 percent of the Jewish students in Israel). The textbooks of the state secular system are more critical of Israel, mentioning incidents such as Deir Yassin, in which Jewish paramilitary fighters attacked a village near Jerusalem in 1948, killing more than 100 villagers.

Israeli books also had some positive descriptions of Palestinians.

“The positive references we found appeared mainly on an interpersonal level,” Bar Tal said. “We find stories about a friendship between an Israeli and an Arab or an Arab who would help an Israeli Jew. But we did not find any positive description on a collective level.

Palestinian author Prof. Sami Adwan said Palestinians only began writing their own textbooks in 2000. Until then, they used Jordanian and Egyptian textbooks which had far more negative stereotypes of Israelis than the current books. Yet, he says, there is still more to be done.

“Both sides should integrate part of the narrative of the other in their own textbooks,” Adwan told The Media Line. “They should talk about the other side’s culture, society, religion and history.”

The researchers also looked at hundreds of maps, almost all of which simply ignored the existence of the other side.

The Israeli Ministry of Education declined to help the researchers and leveled some serious charges against both the researchers and their methods.

“The report is biased and unprofessional,” Michal Zadoki, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Education, said in a statement. “The conclusion of this ‘research’ was known before it was carried out, and it certainly does not reflect reality…The Ministry of Education chose not to cooperate with those elements who are interested in maliciously slandering the Israeli education system and the state of Israel. The results of the ‘research’ show that the decision not to cooperate was correct.”

Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs was even more harsh, saying that the study “omits important examples of incitement and delegitimization found in official Palestinian Authority textbooks,” although they do not offer specific examples.

Not included in the report, the Ministry says, are formal and informal educational frameworks, summer camps, and television programs with negative messages.

“The ultimate goal is to eliminate the Jewish state and reclaim the historic Land of Palestine,” it charges as well as “Jews/Zionists/Israelis possess demonic characteristics.”

Dr. Nir Boms, a board member of Impact-SE, The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education, told The Media Line that while the report is commended it ignores the most critical issue – denying the other, particularly on the Palestinian side. The report suggests statistical analysis on a broad view of quotes in a computer system but it fails to focus on some of the more problematic references that encourage violence and glorify martyrdom and terrorists. Boms said there are no direct calls for violence with the exception of the Waqf [Muslim Trust] literature which was not included in the study, which is used in a small number of schools in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to train future clerics.

The response from the Palestinian Authority was far more positive. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad welcomed the results.

“From the onset, we took all measures to extend the highest degree of cooperation with the researchers, especially from the Ministry of Education. This cooperation stemmed from our firm conviction of the significance of the issue and the need to discuss it on objective and professional bases, rather than pre-conceived notions and stereotypes,” he said.

Mohammad Abu Zaid, Deputy Minister of the Palestinian Ministry of Education, told The Media Line that a committee will be set up to review the study and write up a response.

Ziad stated that as of three months ago, the Ministry began the process of changing their textbooks, but added, “I have to take into account the building of the state — the identity becomes essential. I don’t think we can continue peace curricula while Israelis are arresting people, and demolishing homes. Peace requires a peaceful environment.”

Ziad said, “The PLO recognizes Israel but feels Israel needs to respect the Palestinians’ existence. The situation is getting worse.”

The report’s American author, Dr. Bruce Wexler, Professor Emeritus and Senior Research Scientist at Yale, rejected the Israeli Ministry of Education’s criticism.

“They seek to discredit me and my colleagues,” Wexler told The Media Line. “The idea that the results were pre-determined is just total nonsense. The Minister of Education on the Israeli side seems uninterested in the facts of what’s in the textbooks, and unencumbered by facts when he makes his statements about the project.”

During a news conference, Wexler went further, saying that he was born in 1947 and grew up parallel to the state of Israel, which was founded in 1948. “I did not do anything to attack the state of Israel,” Wexler insisted.

Both Bar Tal and Adwan hope that the study can help contribute to peace education.

“We hope it is a step towards creating a generation that recognizes the humanity and legitimacy of each other on this land,” Adwan told The Media Line. “If we both start looking at what we teach our children, we will see a better future here.”