WASHINGTON — An in-depth comparative study of Palestinian and Israeli school textbooks is offering some conclusions that already are making some Israeli government officials very unhappy: Palestinian textbooks don’t have as much anti-Israel incitement as often portrayed.
While this finding might appear to be welcome news for supporters of Israel, it also threatens to undercut one of the central elements of the official Israeli narrative. For years, the charge that Palestinians “educate to hate” has been an Israeli trump card in undermining claims that Palestinian statehood is overdue.
“This obviously cuts down one of the pegs and a linchpin in the argument that the Israel government makes, that the Palestinian Authority is teaching hatred to their kids,” said an official who works closely with mainstream U.S. Jewish groups, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
But detractors say the study’s methodology rips biased and sometimes inflammatory passages from each cultural context. They say triumphalism is more incendiary in a Palestinian society that they say is more forgiving of terrorism.
Israel’s Education Ministry said in a statement that “the results of the ‘study’ reveal that the decision not to co-operate with these bodies was right.” The ministry called the study “biased, unprofessional and significantly lacking in objectivity.”
Titled Victims of our own Narratives? and funded by the U.S. State Department, the study found both Israel and the Palestinians lacking in making the case for the other side’s presence in the Holy Land. It also concludes Israeli textbooks are better than Palestinian ones at preparing schoolchildren for peace.
But in the same pages, it praises both Israel and the Palestinian Authority for publishing textbooks virtually free of “dehumanizing and demonizing characterizations of the other.”
“Both the Israeli and Palestinian communities should be commended for this important positive aspect of their books,” it says. “Extreme negative characterizations of the other of this sort are present in textbooks elsewhere in the world.”
The study was launched in 2009 by the Council of Religious Institutions in the Holy Land, a multifaith body that aims “to prevent religion from being used as a source of conflict, and to promote mutual respect,” its website says. It comprises the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, the Palestinian Islamic Waqf and the heads of Christian churches in Israel and the West Bank.
The Israeli government did not formally co-operate with the study, while Palestinian Authority officials did.
Yale University psychiatry professor Bruce Wexler convened the study team, which was headed by Daniel Bar Tal of Tel Aviv University and Sami Adwan of the University of Bethlehem. Hebrew-Arabic bilingual research assistants read more than 3,000 passages – 74 from Israeli texts and 96 from Palestinian ones.
They assessed the passages using criteria developed in part by an advisory panel that included Palestinian and Israeli academics and outside experts, including those who have critiqued Palestinian textbooks. Most of the panel, including several Israelis, signed a statement Feb. 3 endorsing its findings. “We agreed that the methods of the study were of the highest scientific standards and agreed on the main study findings,” it said.
At least one Israeli member, Arnon Groiss, had reservations about the methodology and said he couldn’t endorse the final report, which he said he hasn’t seen.
It’s unclear whether the study will alter fundamentally the standard Israeli narrative about Palestinian schools laying the groundwork for future conflict with Israel, and the study doesn’t absolve either side.
The study found that textbooks in Israel’s state schools were likelier to depict Palestinians in a positive light and to include criticism of Israeli actions, while books in Palestinian and haredi schools were overwhelmingly negative in their depiction of “the other.” Critics, including some of the Israelis on the panel, said this equivalence fails to take into account how each culture responds to such depictions.
“The problem is [Wexler] makes comparisons between promotion of education for peace on the one side and education that calls for the annihilation of the other side,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, director of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs. Kuperwasser added that the study “omits important examples of incitement and delegitimization of Israelis and Jews in official PA textbooks, whether in an intentional attempt to blur the differences between the two educational systems or due to poor research.”