Do Palestinians Teach Their Children to Hate?
An investigation of the
Almost any discussion of education in the Middle East posits it as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Those who seek peace, democracy, or economic development generally claim that existing educational institutions and practices stand in their way. Palestinian education is particularly notable for the number and variety of its detractors. Outside the country, critics charge that it incites rather than educates; Palestinian critics claim that education does little to foster democratic and productive citizens.
The external and internal critics may be placing an unrealistic burden on what any curriculum and cadre of teachers can accomplish. Palestinian political and economic realities are often grim, and schools hardly have a monopoly on communicating ways to interpret such realities, especially in matters that are so deeply felt and encountered on a daily basis. Still, the critics charge, the Palestinian educational system, and especially the curriculum, exacerbates existing problems...
...[T]he 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...
After 1948, the West Bank was annexed to Jordan and Gaza was administered by Egypt. Accordingly, West Bank schools followed the Jordanian curriculum, while Gazan schools adopted the Egyptian. In 1967, Israel occupied both areas and maintained the existing curricula for Palestinian schools. It did attempt unsuccessfully to bring its own curriculum into Jerusalem, and it also reviewed Jordanian and Egyptian books, censoring material that it found objectionable. In 1994, Palestinian education in the West Bank (including, to a limited and unacknowledged extent, Jerusalem) and Gaza was transferred to the new Palestinian National Authority (PNA). The PNA immediately established a “Curriculum Development Center” to formulate its own approach. While the Center was working, two interim measures were taken. First, the Jordanian and Egyptian curricula were restored temporarily in their entirety. Second, a supplementary series of texts covering National Education was hastily written for grades one through six to compensate for the non-Palestinian nature of the temporary curriculum...
Any treatment of Palestinian education must confront at the outset the oft-repeated claims that Palestinian textbooks instill hatred of Israel and Jews. In a sense, this issue is at most tangential to this paper, which focuses on internal Palestinian politics and portrays textbooks as outcomes of domestic struggle more than producers of international conflict. But virtually every discussion in English on Palestinian education repeats the charge that Palestinian textbooks incite students against Jews and Israel. 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 current Palestinian national identity, forcing them into awkward omissions and gaps. The first generation of Palestinian textbooks written in 1994, the National Education series, make no mention of any location as Palestinian outside of the territories occupied by Israel in 1967; those books go to some lengths to avoid saying anything about Israel at all and the few exceptions are hardly pejorative. The second generation of books—issued beginning in 2000—breaks some of that silence but with neither the consistency nor the stridency that critics of the textbooks allege.
Then where do persistent reports of incitement in Palestinian textbooks come from? Virtually all can be traced back to the work of a single organization, the “Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace.” The Center claims that its purpose is “to encourage the development and fostering of peaceful relations between peoples and nations, by establishing a climate of tolerance and mutual respect founded on the rejection of violence as a means to resolving conflicts.”2 Critics charge that the Center’s real purpose is to launch attacks on the Palestinian National Authority, and it would be difficult to contest such a conclusion. They point to the identity of the Center’s first director, Itamar Marcus, to support their suspicions.3
The Center’s own reports suggest such suspicions are well-founded. The Center began operation by issuing its first report in 1998 on Palestinian textbooks that might best be described as tendentious and highly misleading. When the PNA issued a new series of books for grades one and six in 2000, the Center rushed out its second report that passed over significant changes quite quickly before presenting its allegations of “delegitimization of Israel’s existence,” implicit “seeking of Israel’s destruction,” “defamation of Israel,” and “encouraging militarism and violence.” However, in contrast to the alarm and alacrity with which it studied Palestinian textbooks, the Center’s work on Israeli textbooks showed a far more generous spirit and proceeded at a far more leisurely pace, taking years rather than months. The report on Israeli books followed a very different method: rather than quoting example after example of offending passages with little historical context or explanation (a method that would have produced a very damning report indeed), the report on Israeli textbooks is nuanced and far more careful. Incendiary quotations are explained, analyzed and contextualized in the report on Israeli books; they are listed with only brief and sensationalist explanations in the reports on Palestinian books. In short, the Center is fair, balanced, and understanding for Israeli textbooks but tendentious on Palestinian books.
The Center’s work has been widely circulated: its reports are the source for virtually any quotation in English from the Palestinian curriculum. Indeed, its influence has begun to be felt in policy circles, and has informed congressional and presidential statements in the United States, numerous newspaper columns, and—more recently—a decision by some external donors to cut off funds for Palestinian education. Recently some European parliamentarians have begun to press their governments and the European Union as a whole, and an Israeli cabinet minister has spoken of taking the issue to the United Nations. Since the Center’s reports have dominated the public debate with considerable effect and little contestation, it makes some sense to examine them.
While often highly misleading and always unreliable, most of the contents of the Center’s reports are not fabricated. Clearly false statements are rare, though when they do occur they are far from minor. For instance, the Center’s first report on Palestinian textbooks, issued in 1998, included the statement that: “PA TV is a division of the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Education,” which allowed the report to saddle the Palestinian educational establishment with any statement broadcast on Palestinian television. The statement was false, however. In its second comprehensive report on Palestinian textbooks, issued in 2000 on the new books for the first and sixth grades, the Center claims that “the PA has rejected international calls” to modify books for the other grades. In fact, as will become clear, the plan to replace the textbooks in question was as old as the PNA itself and was proceeding according to a well-published schedule when the Center’s report was issued. Several lesser errors occur throughout the Center’s work.
But the real problems with the Center’s reports lie elsewhere. In particular, three sets of flaws characterize its work (and much of the public debate about Palestinian textbooks more generally). First, the Center generally ignores any historical context in a way that renders some of its claims sharply misleading. In its 1998 report, the Center adduced numerous incendiary statements about Israel and Jews from books in use in Palestinian schools. The statements quoted were accurate. Some indeed were highly offensive to Jews and sharply anti-Israeli.4 Yet they came not from books authored by Palestinians but from Egyptian and Jordanian books used in Gaza and the West Bank, respectively.5 The books were distributed by the PNA, to be sure, but they antedated its establishment. (The Center’s report does hold the PNA responsible for distributing the Egyptian and Jordanian books and therefore holds Palestinians responsible for the content. Here it displays an odd double standard: it does not note that Israel has distributed the exact same books in East Jerusalem, removing only the cover. The only books that the Israelis refused to distribute after 1994 were those authored by the PNA—the National Education series—even though those books were free of the content that Israel objected to. The likely reason for this odd policy is that Palestinian sovereignty in Jerusalem—implied by using PNA-authored books—was far more problematic for Israel than anti-Semitism.)
By sharp contrast to the Egyptian and Jordanian books, the 1994 National Education series, actually authored by the PNA, verged on blandness. The first generation of books made no mention of any Palestinian area within the 1967 borders (the second generation of books—written after the Center’s first report—reversed this policy). Indeed, the 1994 books went to some length to avoid any controversial matter whatsoever. An organization claiming to “monitor the impact of peace” might be expected to compare the older, non-Palestinian books with the newer, Palestinian ones. Indeed, such a task would seem basic to its mission. The Center goes beyond failing to live up to its name; its reports are written to obfuscate the distinction between the old and new books. It does not simply fail to note the change, but, in one of its rare falsehoods, the Center claims that in the 1994 series, Israel does not exist.6 (The treatment of Palestinian history in the 1994 books is extremely brief, but Israel is indeed referred to; remarkably, the 1994 texts resorts to awkward phrasing to avoid citing Israel in some negative contexts.) It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Center was far more interested in criticizing the PNA than in an honest assessment of the changes produced in Palestinian education by the Oslo Accords.
The second problem with the Center’s work is its prosecutorial style. Its reports offer little more than brief themes and then list statement after statement purporting to prove the point. Any evidence that contradicts the Center’s harsh message is ignored, obscured, or dismissed, such as maps that clearly draw Palestinian governorates as covering only the West Bank and Gaza, an extended and laudatory treatment of Gandhi’s nonviolence, or a tour of Palestinian cities that includes only those under PNA rule. Other evidence is interpreted inaccurately. For instance, a topographical map of Palestine (inserted most likely to avoid drawing any sensitive political issues regarding borders) is presented as a denial of Israel’s existence. Many of the selections included are presented in a highly tendentious manner: a unit on tolerance is criticized for omitting Jews, while a reading of the entire unit makes perfectly clear that its topic is tolerance within Palestinian society.7 ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam is mentioned in texts as a Palestinian national hero; the Center’s 2000 report explains:
The primary terrorist organization operating against Israel since the signing of the Oslo Accords is the Hamas, whose members terrorized Israeli citizens with suicide attacks, primarily on buses. The terror wing of the group is called the “Az Aldin Al Kassam” squad, named after the terrorist who fought the British and Jews before the establishment of the State of Israel. The new PA schoolbook glorifies Kassam...
In essence, the Center provides a context for the mention of al-Qassam that, while accurate, is irrelevant to the text: it deliberately obscures how the text itself presents al-Qassam or how Palestinians would understand a reference to him. Al-Qassam was killed at the beginning of his attempt to organize a rebellion against the British mandate. Subsequent generations of Palestinians have been able to read various dimensions into his short career: for mainstream nationalists, he is a rebel against the British, for Islamists, a warrior for Islam, and for leftists, he is a mobilizer of the popular classes. To imply that mentioning al-Qassam is an implicit endorsement of suicide attacks and bus bombings is thus based on a hostile, inaccurate, and even dishonest reading—what matters is not whether the textbooks cite him but how they present him. Palestinian texts mention him only as a martyr in the struggle against British imperialism.8
In short, the purpose is clearly to indict the textbooks and the PNA rather than analyze and understand the content of the books. Were the Center to take a similar approach in other countries, including Israel, it could easily find comparable material.9
The final and perhaps the largest problem with the Center’s work lies not simply with the reports themselves but in how they have been read. The Center’s conclusions may be unsupported by the evidence it presents and undermined by the evidence it overlooks. But it does include some qualifications and elliptical wording that usually prevent its reports from outright falsehood. When its reports gain wider circulation, however, the buried qualifications get lost. The Center’s 2000 report actually admitted that changes had occurred in the Palestinian-authored books but then attempted to undermine its own admission:
A few changes were noted in the new PA books. The open calls for Israel’s destruction found in the previous books are no longer present. However, given the de-legitimization of Israel’s existence, together with teachings such as the obligation to defend Islamic land, the seeking of Israel’s destruction has merely been shifted from the explicit to the implicit.
Another change is that certain overtly anti-Semitic references defining Jews and Israelis as “treacherous” or ‘the evil enemy’, common in the previous books, are likewise not present. However, given the books’ portrayal of Israel as a foreign colony that massacred and expelled Palestinians, the defamation of Israel continues even if the word “enemy” has been removed.
In short, the new books removed the earlier offensive material, but the Center acknowledged the change only by denying its significance. Thus it is not surprising when public references to the textbooks based on the Center’s report lose any subtlety and make erroneous claims about the new books. Charles Krauthammer claimed that since the signing of the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians had “intensified the propaganda, the antisemitism, in their pedagogy and in their media” and that while Israel had “assiduously” changed its textbooks to prepare for peace, “on the Palestinian side, the opposite was happening.”10 Rather than lauded for having removed offensive material, the Palestinians were criticized for introducing it. A Jerusalem Post columnist falsely claimed “The incitement to hatred of Jews and the destruction of Israel, which has always been part of the Palestinian school curriculum, was intensified.”11 A spokesperson for Israeli settlers in the West Bank introduced the puzzling charge which would probably have made even the Center’s staff blush: “We teach our children to respect life, while they teach that if you die with Jewish blood on your hands you go to heaven and are fed with grapes by 15 virgins.”12 The European Commission came under fire in the press for supporting the books (it did not, though some member states did support the Palestinian Curriculum Development Center), leading an exasperated spokesman to declare: “The Commission utterly rejects the promotion of intolerance or hatred, as it rejects poor journalism...”13
The Palestinian textbooks were such a politically attractive target that even those who were better informed as to their content criticized them. Hillary Clinton, running for the U.S. Senate, criticized Palestinian textbooks in a way that buried her acknowledgement that the new first and sixth grade books, authored by the PNA itself, were different: “All future aid to the Palestinian Authority must be contingent on strict compliance with their obligation to change all the textbooks in all grades—not just two at a time.”14 After her election, her comments lost even this subtlety: in June 2001 she joined with her fellow senator from New York, Charles Schumer, in a letter to President George Bush, introducing the false charge (clearly based on a Center report): “A book that is required reading for Palestinian six graders actually starts off stating, ‘There is no alternative to destroying Israel.’”15 As the second intifada took on diplomatic as well as violent dimensions, the Israeli government cited textbooks as evidence of Palestinian bad faith and hostile intentions. Others held international donors responsible for not forcing changes or even for funding new sources of incitement.16
The Center’s reports were the clear source for most of these charges, whether cited or not. A member of the United States Congress wrote to The New York Times:
According to the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace, today’s sixth-grade Palestinian students are required to read the textbook “Our Country Palestine,” which has a banner on the title page of Volume I that reads, “There is no alternative to destroying Israel.”17
The charge was false, though it was widely repeated and even displayed in an advertising campaign by an organization calling itself (with unintended irony) “Jews for Truth Now.” No textbook included such a phrase. The member of Congress and others had read the Center’s carelessly-written report in a careless manner. The original report had actually claimed: “An old book introduced into the PA curriculum is filled with virulent anti-Semitism.” It then claimed that there is a banner on the title page stating “There is no alternative to destroying Israel.” The Center’s claim was misread and may have been inaccurate. The book “Our Country Palestine” was an old geographical guide to Palestine begun in the 1940s and published in some subsequent editions. Those looking for the supposed banner could not find it (nor could I). Certainly the edition available to the textbook authors did not include the phrase.18 Further, the claim that the book was introduced into the curriculum is highly misleading. Its author’s evacuation from Jaffa in 1948 was described, and, at the end of the unit, students are given a suggested activity of looking up the name of their town or village in the book. To leap from this suggested activity to a charge of inculcating virulent anti-Semitism seems—to put it politely—curious indeed.
It was not merely members of Congress who were misled by careless reading of the Center’s reports. Even sloppy academics were led astray. One analysis of Palestinian textbooks reproduced quotations from the Center’s reports (without attribution), mistakenly claiming that all the texts came from Palestinian-authored books (whereas most came from the Egyptian and Jordanian books being phased out).19 An equally groundless, though far more bizarre analysis of Palestinian textbooks begins with wholesale (though unattributed) borrowings from the Center’s reports and then adds:
Public acclaim, a non-ending orgy of sex and all the booze you can drink, constitute a powerful combination of incentives for igniting the imagination and motivation of pubescent youth, aged 12 and up. Along with the emotionally charged scenes of actually stoning Jews and Jewish property, what more is needed to convince them that killing Jews is a worthy and honorable vocation? The PA is certainly preparing a huge army for the future that, socially and psychologically, will be trained to commit unmitigated violence against Israel and the Jewish People on behalf of Islam, the Arabs and Palestine.20
The vitriolic and often inaccurate criticisms of Palestinian textbooks should not obscure that those books do treat Israel with a remarkable awkwardness, reticence, and inconsistency. Exploring the relationship between Palestinians on the one hand and Israel, Zionism, and Jews on the other might logically be seen as central to any attempt to educate Palestinians about their past, their present, and even their geography. But such topics are treated only at the margins.
Indeed, the textbooks often take on the same kind of awkwardness adults often assume when addressing subjects they would prefer to avoid. In explaining the concept of species, one of the new books explains that animals that are not alike cannot “marry” and have children—a rather Victorian presentation. Discussions of sensitive political topics often show a similar reticence to sensitive topics...
In short, far from inciting schoolchildren, the books generally treat sensitive political questions as tangential. There are some exceptions to this rule, but not in any sustained way. Palestinian educators have decided not to supply either a coherent narrative or a set of conceptual tools for understanding such issues. History is presented with very different ends in mind...
For an example of a criticism of the Center’s work that focuses on Marcus personally, see the document submitted by the PLO to the Mitchell Commission, “Third Submission of the Palestine Liberation Organization to the Sharm El-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee,” 3 April 2001, www.nad-plo.org/eye/Response%20to%20Israeli%20Submission.5.pdf, p. 22.
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