State Department strains to avoid Israeli-Palestinian textbook dispute

February 4, 2013
Palestinian students share a schoolbook while studying in the school library in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Feb. 4, 2013. Israelis and Palestinians depict each other in schoolbooks as an enemy and largely deny their adversary's history and existence, according to a U.S. government-funded study published on Monday. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman
Palestinian students share a schoolbook while studying in the school library in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Feb. 4, 2013. Israelis and Palestinians depict each other in schoolbooks as an enemy and largely deny their adversary's history and existence, according to a U.S. government-funded study published on Monday. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

WASHINGTON – State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland did rhetorical backflips Monday to avoid taking any position on a new U.S.-funded study that faulted both Palestinian and Israeli textbooks as misleading and one-sided.

“We don't get ourselves in the middle,” Nuland said during a lengthy back and forth with reporters trying to get her to rate the objectivity of the report, say whether the United States agreed or disagreed or whether it planned to make any use of the study.

The United States pays for scores of such studies around the world, but doesn’t necessarily take any view of the outcome, Nuland told reporters in Washington.

Her reticence probably owed to ally Israel’s angry reaction to the three-year State-Department-funded study. Hours before she spoke, Israel's Education Ministry had denounced the review as politically motivated "libel," The Associated Press reported.

“We haven't done an independent analysis of this report ourselves. It was funded at the request of some of our Israeli partners. If it's not useful to them, then they don't need to use it,” Nuland said.

The report came on Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s first day in office. He is expected to renew U.S. efforts to draw Israel and the Palestinians back to stalled peace negotiations.

The findings presented in Jerusalem on Monday drew on research by Israeli, Palestinian and American academics who called it a definitive objective look at the way Israelis and Palestinians teach their children about the histories of both peoples. The report said outright demonization or incitement is rare, but that each side’s narrative is skewed and myopic.

Palestinians quickly said the study showed that Israel is wrong to accuse Palestinians of racial or religious incitement in schools.

“Let me just clarify what this is and what it isn't," Nuland said. "The U.S. government provides grants for independent textbook analysis and curricula development to a number of different organizations that seek to promote interfaith dialogue and tolerance in educational curricula. These are not U.S. government studies. The results are not necessarily endorsed by the U.S. government, but we fund NGOs who are seeking to do independent analyses so that parties on the ground can use them in their own evaluation of these things.

“So this particular project was part of a broader call in 2008 for proposals aimed at empowering religious institutions globally to promote interfaith dialogue and peace," Nuland said. "The study itself was undertaken by an NGO, not by us, called A Different Future, and it was partnered with the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land in doing this study. So our point in funding it was to enable this Council of Religious Institutions to take what it got from the report, use it in a constructive manner to continue to pursue its objectives, which are, you know, for peace and religious tolerance in the curriculum. So you know, we're not taking a position one way or another on what the study found.”

The study analyzed 74 Israeli and 94 Palestinian books, covering grades 1-12 and teaching social sciences, geography, literature, religion, Arabic and Hebrew, the AP reported.

Anne Gearan is a national politics correspondent for The Washington Post.
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