Reading between the lines of Palestinian textbooks

Are Palestinian schoolchildren taught hate and violence, as a lobbyist recently told Australian politicians? Broader research draws more complex conclusions.

Israel-based lobbyist Marcus Sheff recently visited Canberra to deliver a familiar line: Palestinian schoolbooks stereotype Jews, teach violence, and radicalise children.

Sheff, who was hosted at Parliament House by the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), is CEO of a contentious organisation whose research has been described by an EU study as “marked by generalising and exaggerated conclusions based on methodological shortcomings”.

No one denies Palestinian textbooks depict Israel as the “Zionist occupier” and glorify resistance fighters.

But some of Sheff’s other contentions are widely disputed. Objective studies of hundreds of textbooks found a single antisemitic example, removed in a subsequent edition, and no direct exhortations to violence.

Critics argue Sheff’s organisation, The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-SE), peddles exaggerations and unjustified claims of antisemitism to justify Israel’s harsh security measures.

Researchers of Israeli textbooks also criticise IMPACT-SE for bias, saying criticism of Palestinian textbooks for their one-sided view of the conflict can be applied equally to Israeli school materials.

Why Australian politicians care

The argument over Palestinian textbooks is of interest to foreign governments because it is used to debate their contributions to funding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). In 2020 Norway withheld funding until changes were made to textbooks.

After its election last year, the Albanese government doubled Australia’s contribution to UNWRA to $A20 million. The move reversed a decision by the Morrison government to halve the funding in 2020.

In May this year, the European Union passed a resolution condemning the Palestinian Authority over the “hateful” content of its textbooks and conditioning future funding for education on the removal of antisemitic material.

On his visit to Australia in May, Sheff addressed a group of more than 20 MPs, telling them that content of school textbooks approved by the Palestinian Authority has gone from bad to worse in their open promotion of antisemitism and glorification of terrorism and violence.

In an interview with Plus61J Media, he outlined the position he put to Australian politicians. “The Palestinian Authority has made a strategic national decision to teach hate. There are no ideas of peacemaking in the textbooks of the Palestinian Authority. Instead, the textbooks teach Palestinian children one fate – it is a Palestine from the river to the sea, which will be gained through violence and from their own sacrifice, the sacrifice of Palestinian children in the schools,” he said.

“They are taught that Jews are liars and fraudsters, that Jews control global events through money, old antisemitic myths. 

“I think most terrifying is that school pupils in the Palestinian Authority are directly incited to violence and they are instructed to commit jihad against Israelis and to die as what they call martyrs, liberating the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” Sheff said.

Palestinian textbooks (Eckert Institute)

Antagonism, antisemitism or incitement?

There is no question that Palestinian textbooks have become more hostile to Israel since 2018, when the curriculum abandoned the Oslo goals of peaceful coexistence. New Palestinian textbooks have more direct references to the occupation and are harsher in their criticism of Israel’s military and “colonialist” actions.

But other researchers do not agree with Sheff that the books contain widespread antisemitic stereotyping nor that they incite violence.

A major study commissioned by the EU from the Georg Eckert Institute and published in 2021, examined 156 textbooks and 16 teacher guides published between 2017 and 2019 and 18 textbooks published in 2020.

This was the study that found IMPACT-SE characterisation of Palestinian textbooks is “marked by generalising and exaggerated conclusions based on methodological shortcomings”.

The Eckert Institute, an internationally-recognised education research centre in Germany, found only one example of a textbook which included antisemitism, and this material was removed in a new edition published for the 2020-21 academic year. 

It identified widespread “antagonistic and one-sided representations of Israel” and heroic depictions of violence but no incitement.

History and some social studies textbooks presented violence perpetrated by Palestinians as a legitimate means of resistance, particularly historically, but these were generally moderate in tone.

On the other hand, it found disturbing images of violence in Arabic language materials. “The textbooks for Arabic language are strikingly saturated with depictions of the conflict, in the past and the present, often using literary stylistic techniques to portray violence suffered or committed by Palestinians. Acts of violence committed by Palestinians against Israel in the past are depicted in the Arabic language textbooks as part of a heroic struggle,” the report said.

The study noted textbooks rarely refer to Israel directly, using the term “the Zionist occupation” instead, and maps represented the whole area of Israel as “Occupied Palestine”.

Mistranslation and misrepresentation

Dr Samira Alayan, a researcher on Palestinian textbooks at the Hebrew University and David Yellin College for Education, told Plus61J Media that IMPACT-SE’s research is not published by academic journals and does not meet the criteria of other studies of Palestinian textbooks.

She notes Sheff cannot speak or read Arabic and says much of the research he cites comes from mistranslations or quotes taken out of context.

Alayan’s own studies of Palestinian textbooks found few references to Jews, almost all historical, and no antisemitic material. Mentions of jihad were limited to historical references to the defence of Islam. On the other hand, mentions of occupation, colonialism and resistance were widespread.

In a study published in the Middle East Studies Journal, she found the textbooks delivered subjective narratives designed to aid the construction of a future state.

 “I believe that Palestinian history curricula and textbooks are just like books in most other countries of the world that recount their historical narratives from the perspective of a team of writers, who, in most countries, work for their ministry and or the higher authorities of that country,” she writes.

In another published study, Alayan examined Israeli censorship of Palestinian textbooks in East Jerusalem, where about two thirds of students attend schools which follow the Palestinian curriculum. She found Israeli authorities censored national symbols, eliminated anti-Zionist passages and sometimes deleted whole chapters.

Her conclusion addresses not just censorship but also the broader question of how Israeli authorities view what is taught to Palestinian children.

 “The motives for this censorship can be explicitly defined as a wish to protect the students from reading inciting materials in state schools. Nevertheless, the implicit motive uncovered in the study is that the extracted materials form crucial parts of the Palestinian narrative, and therefore, their suppression can be considered intentionally directed in undermining the formation of collective memory,” she writes.

Israeli textbooks

Other critics of IMPACT-SE argue its approach is unfair because it highlights problems in Palestinian textbooks but does not consider the way equivalent concepts are treated in the Israeli curriculum.

For example, Sheff complains that maps in Palestinian textbooks label the entire area as “Palestine” and write Israel out of existence. Professor Nurit Peled-Elhanan, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the author of Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education says the same phenomenon happens in reverse in Israeli schools.

Only one of the many Israeli geography textbooks she surveyed showed the Green Line — the 1949 armistice line separating Israel from the territories captured in 1967. “In Israeli mainstream books, illegal settlements like Ariel or Alon Shvut are presented as no different to Tel Aviv,” she writes.

Assaf David, director of the Israel in the Middle East research cluster at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, believes it is unreasonable to expect Palestinian textbooks to refrain from negative characterisations of a military occupier, particularly while not holding Israel to the same standards.

“The very notion of examining only Palestinian textbooks with a fine-tooth comb, while completely ignoring their mirror image in Israeli textbooks, is fundamentally tendentious,” he writes.

Human rights for whom?

Perhaps the biggest problem with IMPACT-SE is that its exaggerations and unreliability can become a screen for the genuine problems of one-sided Palestinian textbooks, including their refusal to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist or even to see Israelis as having human rights.

The EU study was framed as research on the degree to which Palestinian textbooks comply with principles of global citizenship education, an international standard developed by the United Nations to “forge more just, peaceful, tolerant and inclusive societies”.

The study found increased focus on human rights but with a major caveat. Textbooks use examples of Israel as an occupier and emphasise Palestinian human rights.

“The textbooks affirm the importance of human rights in general and in several places explicitly highlight a universal notion of these rights … This universal notion is, however, not carried through to a discussion of the rights of Israelis.”

Additional reporting: Ittay Flescher, Ruby Kraner-Tucci

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Photo: Students in a Palestinian school (UNWRA)