A History of Misunderstanding

In the largest study ever conducted, Israeli and Palestinian researchers reveal that both sides need to take a closer look at the books they teach.

Israeli schoolchildren in Jerusalem

Photo by Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images

In the Israeli-Palestinian public relations wars, it’s conventional wisdom that the textbooks used in schools in the West Bank and Gaza breed hatred for Israel. “They have textbooks that say, ‘If there are 13 Jews and nine Jews are killed, how many Jews are left?” Newt Gingrich said when he was running for the Republican presidential nomination. These textbooks don’t give Palestinian children an education, they give them an indoctrination,” Hillary Clinton said in 2007, when she was a New York senator, based on criticism from an Israeli media watchdog after the Palestinians produced their own full curriculum of text books for grades 1 through 12 for the first time. In 2011, an institute known as IMPACT-SE issued a report with similar findings.

But what if it’s a lot more complicated—and less one-sided—than the vehement criticism suggests? There’s been some evidence of this for years. In 2004, a study by an Israeli and Palestinian researcher of 13 Israeli textbooks and nine Palestinian ones found flaws on both sides relating to political messages, the omission of the other’s point of view, and the presentation of maps. Other debunkers have pointed out that the original accusations were based on textbooks from Egypt or Jordan or incorrect translations.

Today marks the release of the largest study (PDF) comparing Palestinian and Israeli text books to date. Most of the experts who sat on an advisory panel for the study said that it set “a new worldwide standard for textbook analysis.” Funded with $500,000 from the U.S. State Department and commissioned by the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, a Jerusalem-based group of senior Islamic, Jewish, and Christian religious figures, the study was conducted by a team of Palestinian and Israeli researchers and designed by Yale psychiatrist Bruce Wexler. The results are telling as much as for the good news they bring as for the bad. And so is the reaction to them,  notably from the Israeli Ministry of Education, which immediately denounced them as “biased, unprofessional, and significantly lacking in objectivity.” Hmm. Maybe for Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and the Israeli right, on the subject of what kids learn in school, there is no place for even-handedness.

The lead researchers are Israeli professor Daniel Bar-Tal of Tel Aviv University and Sami Adwan of Bethlehem University. They trained a team to analyze text books published in 2009 and 2011. On the Palestinian side, the team began with 148 books used in virtually all West Bank and Gaza schools (public, religious, and United Nations-run). On the Israeli side, the researchers started with 381 books from the Israeli state system, which included both secular and religious schools, and 55 books used in most schools attended by ultra-Orthodox children. The list of subjects examined included literature, history, Arabic, Hebrew, geography, civil and national education, and religion. In the end, as the researchers homed in on the books with the most relevant material, 74 Israeli books and 94 Palestinian books underwent close analysis.

In other words, this study aimed for comprehensiveness. It also aimed for rigor, with questions and ratings devised by Adwan and Bar-Tal. The questions covered the portrayal of a range of topics: historical events, war, conflict, peacemaking, reconciliation, religion, discussion of both sides’ values, and photographs, illustrations, and maps. And all the data was entered blindly into a Yale University database, which meant that the researchers couldn’t see how their entries were adding up as the study progressed.

And the findings? Here’s the good news: “Dehumanizing and demonizing characterizations of the other were very rare in both Israeli and Palestinian books.” The research team found 20 extreme negative depictions in the Israeli state books, seven in the ultra-Orthodox books, and six in the Palestinian books. An example of this rare occurrence from an Israeli book: A passage saying that a ruined Arab village “had always been a nest of murderers.” And an example from a Palestinian book: “I was in ‘the slaughterhouse’ for 13 days,” referring to an Israeli interrogation center. This could be a lot worse, right? Think of the recent revelation that Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi called Jews “descendants of apes and pigs,” or former Deputy Prime Minister of Israel Avigdor Lieberman’s call in 2003 to drown Palestinian prisoners in the Dead Sea. Apparently there is nothing like that in any of the Palestinian or Israeli textbooks—which is something to be thankful for.

On other fronts, there is work to be done. And it’s important to say that the Palestinian and ultra-Orthodox books are more consistently flawed than the Israeli state books in significant ways. For example, 84 percent of the literature pieces in the Palestinian books portray Israelis and Jews negatively, 73 percent of the pieces in the ultra-Orthodox books portray Palestinians and Arabs negatively, and only 49 percent of the pieces in Israeli state schools do the same. In an Israeli state school text, a passage reads: “The Arab countries have accumulated weapons and ammunition and strengthened their armies to wage a total war against Israel.” In the ultra-Orthodox, it ratchets up: “Like a little lamb in a sea of 70 wolves is Israel among the Arab states.” In the Palestinian case: “The enemy turned to the deserted houses, looting and carrying off all they could from the village that had become grave upon grave.”

These statements aren’t necessarily false, but they are just one-sided and fearful—and they are rarely balanced by anything sunnier. Palestinians and Arabs are portrayed positively 11 percent of the time in Israeli state schoolbooks and 7 percent in ultra-Orthodox books. Jews and Israelis are portrayed positively 1 percent of the time in Palestinian books. The photographs and illustrations in the Palestinian books were far more likely to be negative than the ones in the Israeli books; there were also far fewer of them.

One striking difference between the Israeli state books on the one hand, and the ultra-Orthodox and Palestinian books on the other, is their willingness to engage in self-criticism. For the Israelis, this is an evolution that began in the late 1990s, after many historians began to re-evaluate early Israeli history, and a left-wing member of the Knesset became education minister. Israeli state textbooks began to admit that some Palestinians left their land within Israel because they were expelled. And they began to make reference to the Arabic name for Israel’s War of Independence in 1948: the Naqba, or Catastrophe. They also began ask Israeli Jewish students how they would have felt about Zionism if they’d been in the place of the Palestinians. There is still far less of this in either the ultra-Orthodox or Palestinian books. For example, the Palestinian texts don’t deal in any significant way with the Holocaust or its relationship to the founding of Israel.

Next, the maps. The research team found that 58 percent of Palestinian textbooks published after 1967 (the year in which Israel took control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, Gaza and Sinai from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria) made no reference to Israel. Instead, they referred to the entire area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea as Palestine. In the Israeli state system, 65 percent of maps had no borders and made no mention of Palestine or the Palestinian Authority, while in the ultra-Orthodox system that number was a staggering 95 percent. Comparing the maps in these education systems, the researchers note “might suggest they were of different worlds altogether.”

This captures just how politicized the teaching of history and geography has become for Israelis and Palestinians—with both sides at times quite literally wiping each other off the map. Not that Israelis and Palestinians are alone on this score. Think of Cyprus, where for decades Greek and Turk Cypriotes did not consider themselves part of a single people, or Northern Ireland, where even the name used to describe the territory continues to be highly charged. (Is it a province? A state? A region?) The process of ending such misrepresentations, the authors of the study find, is therefore “exceedingly difficult and requires deliberate and courageous effort.” It also takes time.

Israel is a relatively young country compared to many other nations; the Palestinian Authority, of course, is even younger. Over four iterations of textbooks, the study shows Israel’s education system has become increasingly self-reflective. By contrast, Palestinian textbooks are still in their first generation. Until 1967, Jordan controlled the education system in the West Bank and Egypt controlled the education system in Gaza. Following the 1967 war, Israel took charge of Palestinian education issuing the same Jordanian and Egyptian textbooks, while also serving as a censor—banning some of the books, and blackening out passages in others. Palestinians finally assumed control in 1994, on the heels of the Oslo Accord, in which the Palestinians promised to pursue “confidence building measures” that included a revamp of their education system.

These explanations for the shared problems and differences between the textbooks do not seem to satisfy the Israeli Ministry of Education. “The attempt to create a parallel between the Israeli education system and the Palestinian education system is completely unfounded and lacks any basis in reality,” the Netanyahu administration’s ministry declared. Adwan, Bar-Tal, and Wexler responded by defending their methodology.  On Sunday, Bar-Tal issued a letter to the Israeli ministry threatening to sue for defamation if the ministry doesn’t apologize for its statement within 48 hours. “The sad thing, to me, is that it seems the Israeli ministry would rather maintain a propaganda point they know to be false than to get real change in the Palestinian books and in their own books,” Wexler said. By contrast, he’s been told that a Palestinian official told the U.S. State Department that “these are the facts he needs to fix their books.”

The research team also answered, one by one, a series of complaints from one of their advisory panel members, Arnon Groiss, former research director at IMPACT-SE. It’s worth reading in full if you’re interested. Groiss pointed to a number of quotes he said the research team had missed. The most egregious-sounding one allegedly from a Palestinian text—“your enemies killed our children, split open your women’s bellies, took your revered elderly men by the beard and led them to the death pits”—refers to a seventh century war that did not involve Jews. Several other purportedly omitted passages are Hadiths, or teachings ascribed to the Prophet Mohammed, which aren’t included in the Palestinian textbooks and may not be taught in the schools at all, Wexler said. “If this is what he says we left out, I’m very happy to have that confirmation from him,” he told us. Groiss’ response is here, along with a reply from Wexler.

Sociologist Sammy Smooha of Haifa University, who conducts an annual survey of Arab and Jewish relations, says that the goal now should be to write textbooks that do more to expose each side to the other’s narrative. “You have to engage with the other side’s arguments in a serious manner and not just build up a straw man in order to break it.” Eyal Naveh, a professor of history at Tel Aviv University and the author of several textbooks for middle-school and high-school students, agrees. “If you ignore it, it’s as if it doesn’t exist,” he said.

And there is still little control over what goes on in the classroom: Just because something no longer appears in a book doesn’t mean that some teachers won’t teach it. Smooha pointed out the obvious: It’s hard to deal with any of this until the two sides break their political impasse and reach a compromise. “Confidence building measures” are hard to achieve, he said, when “both sides are showing anything but confidence in each other.”  

A few years ago, Naveh and Adwan, along with Israeli historian Dan Bar-On, tried to write a different kind of textbook. The three co-authored a book called Side By Side that included a “dual narrative” of all major events in the region since 1917, through the Second Intifada in 2000. Naveh calls the book “a successful failure:” Though it had been lauded by the international press and continues to sell abroad, the book was banned by both the Israeli and Palestinian education ministries. Naveh now believes that getting such a textbook to become part of the Israeli and Palestinian curricula is “impossible.”

Perhaps this helps explain the study’s modest recommendations. In the end, the authors call only for the creation of committees on both sides to examine current and future textbooks. “It’s a long process to think that someday they will come up with a common narrative, or even a collaborative process,” Wexler said. “We’re just asking each ministry to look at our report, to look at their books, and to see if there are some things they might want to consider changing.”