Israelis unhappy with study of their textbooks and Palestinians’


A Palestinian ninth grade student writes on the blackboard during a Hebrew class at a Gaza school in January in Gaza City. (Ahmed D. Zakot/Reuters)
February 4, 2013

A State Department-funded study released Monday on the contentious issue of how Israelis and Palestinians depict each other in textbooks says both are locked into narratives that portray the other side as the enemy and erase it from maps, yet do not dehumanize each other.

The independent study, billed as the first empirical and quantitative analysis of textbooks on both sides, was boycotted by Israel’s Education Ministry, which refused to cooperate. The ministry called the study biased and said it was based on a false comparison between the Israeli and Palestinian school systems.

Accusations of Palestinian incitement against Israel in public declarations, media and textbooks have been a recurrent theme in statements by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his government, prompting countercharges from the Palestinian Authority.

While various surveys of Israeli and Palestinian textbooks have been conducted over the years, organizers of the latest study said it was the most systematic and comprehensive of books from both sides. It examined 94 Palestinian and 74 Israeli books, evaluating more than 3,000 texts, as well as photos and maps.

Funded with a grant from the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, the study was directed by Bruce E. Wexler, a professor of psychiatry at Yale University who worked with two Israeli and Palestinian experts on textbook analysis, subjecting books from both sides to identical evaluation questions, with results fed to a database.

The study was initiated by the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, an interfaith association of Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders that seeks to promote reconciliation. But the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which is represented on the council and had previously endorsed the textbook study, dissociated itself from its findings in a statement last week, citing what it called serious methodological flaws.

Two Israelis on a 19-member scientific advisory panel, which included international experts in textbook analysis, also dissented from the study’s conclusions, which were submitted to both the Israeli and Palestinian education ministries. The Palestinian ministry had voiced no objections to the project, and a spokeswoman for the Palestinian Authority said it was “open” to the study’s conclusions.

In a sign of the study’s political sensitivity, the U.S. Embassy in Israel, which had been in contact with Israeli officials, declined to comment on the findings, referring questions to the State Department. A spokesman there called the findings “independent assessments” that were “not endorsed by the U.S. government,” but he expressed hope that they would be used “in a constructive manner.”

The findings reflect the deepening abyss between Israelis and Palestinians while peace efforts have faltered.

In both Israeli and Palestinian textbooks, the report says, maps failed to delineate boundaries in the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. In the Palestinian books surveyed, only 4 percent showed boundaries between the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Israel, referring to it by name. More than half failed to show a boundary and labeled the entire area Palestine. In Israeli books, 76 percent of the maps showed no boundaries between Israel and Palestinian areas, suggesting they were part of Israel.

“For many people, textbooks are the first representation of the conflict, stored in their long-term memory, and an important factor when they form their political views,” said Daniel Bar-Tal, a professor at Tel Aviv University who was the lead Israeli researcher. “When they see maps that ignore the other side entirely, they get an image that the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean is their homeland.”

Passages related to peace were extremely rare in Palestinian books, present in only 2 percent of those examined. Such passages were present in 25 percent of the books used in Israeli public schools, but in only 7 percent of schools in the separate ultra-
Orthodox school system.

Texts about Islam were present in 50 percent of books from Israeli public schools, but in only 7 percent in ultra-Orthodox schools. In Palestinian books, texts about Judaism appeared in only 15 percent of the books.

In general, the study says, “there is a lack of information about the religions, culture, economic and daily activities of the other, or even the existence of the other on maps. The absence of this kind of information . . . serves to deny the legitimate presence of the other.”

“Historical events . . . are selectively presented to reinforce each community’s historical narrative,” with Palestinians described as trying to destroy Israel, and Israelis depicted as seeking to dominate the Palestinians, the study says.

Still, the study found that “dehumanizing and demonizing characterizations of the other were very rare in both Israeli and Palestinian books.”

Israeli textbooks had more cases of self-criticism than the Palestinian books, providing examples of actions that were criticized internally, such as attacks on Arab civilians by Jewish militias in the pre-state era, or the massacre of Palestinians at the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon by Israeli-backed Christian militiamen in 1982.

Sami Adwan, a professor at Bethlehem University who was the lead Palestinian researcher, said that differences between the textbooks reflected an “asymmetry” between conditions in Israel and the Palestinian territories, where Palestinians experience the hardships of Israeli occupation and see little prospect for change.

But Yossi Kuperwasser, director general of the Israeli Strategic Affairs Ministry, who heads a team monitoring Palestinian statements that Israel deems inflammatory, said that the study was based on a “distorted” premise.

“To compare how each side presents the other is absurd, because we teach peace, and they teach hatred of Israel and perpetuating the conflict,” he said. “It’s a difference of night and day.”

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