Listen: Israel lobby seeks to erase occupation from Virginia schoolbooks

Human rights activists in Virginia are fighting to protect the quality and accuracy of schoolbooks as Israel advocacy organizations seek substantial changes to the texts.

The suggested changes would distort the way Israeli history is depicted, deliberately whitewashing its military occupation and ongoing policies of land theft, apartheid and expulsion of Palestinians.

These changes have been proposed to the Virginia Department of Education by the California-based Institute for Curriculum Services – a “strategic initiative” of the Jewish Community Relations Council, an organization with an active Israel lobby.

ICS director Aliza Craimer Elias recently boasted in a video interview that her firm works “behind the scenes” with textbook publishers to edit entries about Jews, Judaism and Israel and to train classroom educators with ICS curricula.

Elias said that many of the major textbook publishers “often come to us to work with them on manuscripts and development,” adding that about 85 percent of their proposed edits end up getting accepted.

While some of their suggested edits address issues of Holocaust denial and offensive stereotypes of Jews and Judaism in biblical references, others address the way Israel’s establishment has been explained, as well as Israel’s current policies of discrimination, occupation and land theft.

In the video, Elias bragged that ICS had successfully changed a textbook entry to omit reference to Israel’s forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the lead up to and after the state of Israel was declared.

She claimed that ICS had succeeded in having textbooks entries changed which blamed the foundation of Israel for displacing Palestinians, suggesting that such displacement was simply the outcome of a war fought in 1948.

Other proposed edits include replacing the words “occupied territories” as “captured areas” when referring to the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Syrian Golan Heights, according to Jeanne Trabulsi, an educator in Virginia who was interviewed for The Electronic Intifada Podcast.

She was joined in conversation with Paul Noursi of the Virginia Coalition for Human Rights and Michael Fischbach, a history professor at Randolph Macon College.

The word “settlers” would be replaced with “communities,” Trabulsi added, and “wall,” in reference to Israel’s illegal wall in the West Bank, would be replaced with “security fence.”

ICS claims that it has already made more than 11,000 edits to US textbooks used in all 50 states.


When Virginia activists learned of the proposed edits, in April, they were “very disappointed and alarmed,” Noursi said.

The Virginia Coalition for Human Rights, which represents 16 Virginia-based peace groups, have joined more than a dozen educators to urge textbook publishers Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, Prentice Hall/Pearson, National Geographic and others not to accept what they say are factually challenged, biased and exclusionary recommendations.

The coalition has appealed to the state’s leadership as well, asking Governor Ralph Northam to “freeze the suggested changes” to Virginia social studies textbooks and “not incorporate them until a panel of qualified and nonpartisan academic experts is consulted.”

The governor’s office has not yet responded to the coalition’s letter, Noursi said, but activists say they will meet with officials with the Virginia department of education and other state lawmakers.

One textbook publisher, Pearson, replied to the group saying it intends to critically review the proposed edits, according to Noursi.

“Detrimental effects”

“We felt we had to do something” about ICS’s current suggestions to Virginia’s textbooks, Noursi told The Electronic Intifada Podcast.

Students are learning information that they might not have much of an opportunity to critically analyze later on, Noursi explained, so the accuracy of the information they receive is crucial.

Information that obscures or deliberately misinforms students on the issue of Palestine “could really have detrimental effects far beyond Virginia,” he said.

Fischbach said he was troubled to see the way that language has been manipulated to distort basic facts and call them into question.

“This kind of thing is insidious because it undermines … the very nature of the role of education [which] in a democracy is to inform people,” he said.

Fischbach explained that Israel advocates understand that they have lost the public relations battle “and what they’re now trying to do instead of fight this discourse on the facts is simply, literally, to rewrite it – to frame a new narrative for a new generation of young people.”

In 2016, Israel advocates pressured textbook publisher McGraw-Hill Education to withdraw and destroy all copies of a textbook that featured four maps of what is now Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. The maps showed the accurate progression of loss of Palestinian land from 1946 to 2000 as Israel continues to expand its settlements and colonial control.

“Supporters of Israel have fought the use of these maps elsewhere and quickly urged McGraw-Hill to change or withdraw the textbook,” reported Inside Higher Education.

“Call things what they are”

Despite the efforts by Israel advocates to rewrite history – and, at the same time, intimidate, harass and silence students and academics who speak out against Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights – Virginia activists say that the strength of their campaign is growing.

“This is a fairly straightforward issue,” Noursi said. “Let’s call things what they are: illegal settlements are illegal settlements, they should be called out as such. Military occupation is military occupation, it needs to be called out as such, it needs to be taught as such in the textbooks.”

Listen to the interview with Paul Noursi, Michael Fischbach and Jeanne Trabulsi via the media player above.

Theme music and production assistance by Sharif Zakout

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"occupied territories" into "captured areas"
“settlers” into “communities”
"wall" into "security fence"

"Holocaust" into "Birth Control"
"Concentrated Camp" into "Holiday Resort"
"Pogrom" into "Pest Control"
"Genocide" into "Renewal"

What can go wrong?

Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).