A textbook case of Israeli propaganda

8 July 2002

A new Israeli army ‘study’ charges that Palestinian school textbooks contain ‘systematic education to delegitimise the existence of the state of Israel, fanning the flames of hatred and violent revenge to destroy the country’ (‘Palestinian schoolbooks fan the flames of hatred,’ Haaretz, June 28, 2002).

Such claims, which have been made by Israel and its extremist supporters in the United States for years, are simply an attempt by Israel to find some alternative explanation to the understandable rage felt by Palestinians who have suffered through decades of continuing dispossession, occupation, disenfranchisement, violence, torture and humiliation at the hands of Israel.

An independent study of Palestinian textbooks by Professor Nathan Brown of George Washington University in Washington, DC, notes that “virtually every discussion in English on Palestinian education repeats the charge that Palestinian textbooks incite students against Jews and Israel”. Brown states that: “It may therefore come as a surprise to readers that the books authored under the PNA are largely innocent of these charges. What is more remarkable than any statements they make on the subject is their silence — the PNA-authored books often stubbornly avoid treating anything controversial regarding Palestinian national identity, forcing them into awkward omissions and gaps.”

Brown, while not uncritical of the Palestinian textbooks, concluded that “the Palestinian curriculum is not a war curriculum; while highly nationalistic, it does not incite hatred, violence and anti-Semitism. It cannot be described as a peace curriculum either, but the charges against it are often wildly exaggerated or inaccurate.” (Democracy, History and the Contest over the Palestinian Curriculum, an independent report prepared for the Adam Institute, 2002) Nationalism, whatever its drawbacks, underpins almost every country’s school curriculum, not least in the United States and Israel.

How can we explain the glaring discrepancy between Brown’s findings and those of the Israeli army propaganda unit?

According to Haaretz, the Israeli study claims that the Palestinian textbooks “express a lack of recognition of Israel, not even according to the 1967 borders, alongside adamant claims to Palestinian rule of all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.” Another complaint is that the books mention that Israel has “exploited” and “degraded” Palestinians “by changing the names of Arab villages and cities, and by defacing and stealing Arab manuscripts”. The Israeli reviewers are outraged that in one book there is a story of a Palestinian girl visiting her family’s original home in the city of Jaffa which is now in Israel. Their biggest complaint is perhaps that there are maps which show “Palestine” as it once was, covering land that is now in Israel. Hence, even an historically accurate map showing where major Palestinian population centres actually were prior to their destruction in 1948, constitutes for Israel “an adamant claim to rule” the whole country. Referring to Israel’s systematic effort to erase Palestinian history in Israel prior to 1948 (something very well documented by Israeli geographer Meron Benvenisti in his book `Sacred Landscape’, 2000) is taken as a “desire for revenge”. Anything short of total amnesia about Palestinian history and complete devotion to Zionism’s official mythology constitutes “hatred”. Only people who are in neurotic denial could indulge in such absurdities.

Yet, let us accept, only for the sake of argument, that the Israeli claims are true and that they constitute some form of “incitement”. Why should Israel complain that Palestinians do not respect the 1967 borders on their maps, when it has been Israeli policy since 1967 to erase those borders on the ground, using extreme violence to confiscate Palestinian land and implant Jewish-only colonies everywhere Palestinians live? You need only go to the “Israel Map”, on Israeli Ministry of Tourism’s official website, to see the Golan Heights and the West Bank depicted as part of Israel (the latter being labelled “Judean Desert” and “Shomron” [Samaria], while the Palestinian city of Nablus is given only the Hebrew name “Shechem”).

Why should Palestinians express unconditional recognition of the legitimacy of the state of Israel and its historic claims when Israel has not recognised a Palestinian state, and its officials and many of its academics deny the undeniable — that nearly three quarters of a million Palestinians were expelled or fled from their homes so that Israel could rise on the ashes of Palestinian society? Of course, the fact that the Palestinian leadership has explicitly recognised Israel — repeatedly and formally — and that Palestinian policy is to seek a state within the 1967 borders does nothing to blunt the constant Israeli charges. This is because the purpose of the accusations is not to produce more friendly school curricula but to justify Israel’s own refusal to recognise the 1967 borders, to provide cover for the continued colonisation of the occupied territories and to blame the Palestinians for all the violence resulting from this colonisation.

Even without Brown’s commendable study it should be obvious that the constant Israeli refrain that textbooks are responsible for the violence is ridiculous on its face. Are we to believe that if Palestinian textbooks were written by the Israeli Ministry of Education, Palestinian children would be happy to live under the brutal foreign military dictatorship that is the Israeli occupation, to see their parents and friends killed and humiliated, their houses demolished and their land seized for Jewish-only settlement? If Palestinian youths were to read from Israeli textbooks, would they greet invading Israeli troops with showers of rose petals instead of stones? If Palestinian students could actually get past the roadblocks, curfews and gunfire to reach their schools in order to read Israeli-approved books, would they feel less hostility towards Israel?

And, perhaps Israel would be in a better position to lecture Palestinians about what they should do in their classrooms if Israel had not constantly shelled school buildings and used Palestinian schools as detention camps for thousands of men and boys rounded up during “Operation Defensive Shield”, when they were forced to strip, and lie for hours and days on cold, concrete floors, sometimes with numbers written on their arms.

Indeed, for decades, Palestinian citizens of Israel (“Arab Israelis”) have studied from textbooks written by the Israeli Ministry of Education, they stood to attention in front of the Israeli flag and sang the Israeli national anthem. And yet, despite their “good behaviour”, their simmering and growing discontent is caused not by an insufficiently Zionist school curriculum but by the constant and increasing discrimination against them in every possible sphere of life by Israeli government and society. This discrimination reached the breaking point in October 2000 when thirteen Palestinian-Israeli youths protesting in solidarity with Palestinians in the occupied territories were shot dead by Israeli police. Such casual brutality is entirely unheard of against Jewish citizens.

Israel is further marginalising its own Palestinian citizens by cutting payment of child benefits to Arab, but not Jewish, citizens. Arab Knesset members are being persecuted: Azmi Bishara is on trial for making a speech, and Ahmed Tibi’s parliamentary freedom of movement was recently revoked by a vote of his own Knesset colleagues. This discrimination cannot but produce anger and resentment, and making the textbooks more Zionist is not going to assuage it.

So if this is the situation inside Israel, what can one expect in the occupied territories, where the repression is infinitely greater, and where hundreds of unarmed Palestinian children have been shot dead by the Israeli army since October 2000? The Israeli occupation clearly does not need any help from textbooks to incite against itself. With all this, one can easily find ugly expressions by Palestinians both about Israelis and Jews, but these are exactly mirrored by frequent statements from Israeli cabinet ministers, rabbis and others, calling for the ethnic cleansing or annihilation of all the Palestinians, and other all too frequent expressions of racial hatred. These expressions on both sides are symptoms and not causes of the conflict. When the gross and real injustices that fuel the conflict are removed, then they will begin to disappear and messages of hatred will not resonate as they do today.

Only those who want the conflict to continue will maintain the lie about Palestinian textbooks and find in them non-existent excuses to continue the oppression and dehumanisation of the Palestinian people while what little is left of their country is stolen from under their feet.

Related links:

  • Special report: Israeli Textbooks and Children’s Literature Promote Racism and Hatred Toward Palestinians and Arabs, by Maureen Meehan, Washington, Report on Middle East Affairs, September 1999, pages 19-20.
  • A campaign against ‘incitement’, by James J. Zogby, Arab American Institute, 9 July 2001.
  • The Politics of Palestinian Textbooks, by Fouad Moughrabi, Journal of Palestine Studies, Col. XXXI, No. 1, Autumn 2001, Issue 121.