Studying Hebrew in a Gaza 9th Grade Classroom (Reuters)

Today, a report of a comprehensive comparison between Palestinian and Israeli textbooks was released in Jerusalem. For decades, the common wisdom among politicians has been that Palestinian schoolbooks reinforce hatred towards Jews and Israel. Newt Gingrich once said the Palestinian texts teach math by discussing dead Jews. But is this true?

Today, a report was released (see documents here) on the findings of a scientific study of incitement in Palestinian and Israeli textbooks. The study, titled “Victims of Our Own Narratives? Portrayal of the “Other” in Israeli and Palestinian School Books” was funded by a half a million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of State and was commissioned by the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, a consortium of senior Islamic, Jewish and Christian religious figures based in Jerusalem. The study was designed by Bruce Wexler, a professor of Psychiatry at Yale University’s School of Medicine. It examined 94 Palestinian and 74 Israeli books, selected from an evaluation of more than 3,000 textbooks, as well as photos and maps.

Based on the research, the religious council is expected to make recommendations for necessary reforms. The Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which is represented on the council and had previously endorsed the textbook study, disassociated 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.

Israel’s Ministry of Education called the study’s results “biased, unprofessional and significantly lacking in objectivity.” It also called it slander, demeaned the study by calling it a “study”, wrote that it did not reliably reflect reality and affirmed that The Ministry of Education chose not to cooperate with it.

So what did the study find?

The study found that, as is typical of any country, the unilateral national narrative of history prevails, although Israeli textbooks made efforts to include parts of the narrative of the Palestinians. Events are selectively included that present the enemy or the Other in negative terms, reinforce one’s own national narrative, and present one’s own people in positive terms.

Only 2% of Palestinian book had passages related to peace. 25% of books in the Israeli public school system contained words of peace, and 7% of books in the Orthodox Jewish had items mentioning peace.

In both Israeli and Palestinian textbooks, maps do not delineate boundaries in the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Only 4% of Palestinian books studied showed boundaries between the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Israel; and more than half label the entire area as Palestine. Compared to the 4%, only 24% of Israeli books surveyed showed boundaries between Israel and Palestinian areas, the remaining 76% suggested they were part of Israel.

15% of Palestinian books referred to Judaism, while 50% of books in Israeli public schools mentioned Islam. 7% of books in the Orthodox Jewish school system had texts that mentioned Islam. The study’s premise is schools that lack information on other cultures and religions serve to deny the legitimate presence of “the other.”

The study found that “dehumanizing and demonizing characterizations of the other were very rare in both Israeli and Palestinian books” Israeli textbooks were also found to have self-criticism, criticizing the nation for failures in human rights 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.

Palestinian books more often described as Israelis appropriating land and seeking to dominate – not destroy – Palestinians. Israeli books generally stated that Palestinians aimed to destroy Israel.

Was Gingrich correct? No book was found that taught math using dead Jews.

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  • I’ve just read the study, in Hebrew, and found it severely flawed. There are quotations from Israeli textbooks that refer to actual historical events with accuracy but because they use terms such as “Arabs” or “Jihad” in referring to these events, they are considered to be partial national narratives that demean the “other.” This is a significant issue. When the Palestinians describe what happens in Haifa in 1948 using wrong history, that counts as the same as when an Israeli textbook refers to speeches by Arab leaders who denounce Israel and Zionists. One is historically accurate, the other isn’t but they both count as an attack on the “other.”

    That’s without getting into the question of whether the panel itself was properly selected. Why didn’t the panel choose an Israeli scholar who isn’t publicly identified with Israel’s far left and who has recently written a public letter opposing Israel’s actions in the 2009 Gaza war? Surely there are Israeli scholars who specialize in textbooks who are centrist in the views or even to the right?

    That’s also without getting into the question of why the committee members involved with the project were not sent the final version before its release despite concerns about it.

    Not to worry, though, from now on “Palestinian textbooks and Israeli textbooks are similar in their negative depictions of the other.”

  • I like your analysis. What a waste of $500K in U.S. State Dept funds. I wish an oversight committee would use your comments

    • If I wasn’t busy, I would show you a few examples. The more I think about this study, the more egregious I find it. As another example, they take a paragraph from an Israeli book stating that opposition to the presence of Jews in Palestine was driven by different groups and individuals but had a society-wide Arab agreement to prevent the return of Jews to the land and the establishment of a Jewish state, and equate it to a Palestinian book claiming that Zionism is a political colonialist movement that intended to overtake land and uproot the Arabs from their land. As if the comparison wasn’t weak enough (this was under the heading of inferring the aspirations of the other), according to their own standards, the investigators state that statements of this nature reside in 11% of secular Israeli textbooks, 25% of Haredi textbooks and 61% of Palestinian textbooks. But, again, at the end of the day, the claim is that “both sides do it.”

      Maybe a study like this is impossible to undertake. Maybe you need to have some people who aren’t all from the left, or Palestinian sympathizers and in agreement about the politics of the conflict, but at the end of the day, a flawed study now has the imprimatur of the State Dept., Yale and a well-named multifaith organization in Israel. The State Dept. isn’t touching this with a ten foot pole, Yale isn’t really connected and the non-profit which requested the study is also distancing itself, but the mission has been accomplished: neutralization of the true claim that Palestinians are educating their young to oppose and hate Israeli Jews.

      If you think about the progress of the non-physical dimensions of the conflict between the Arabs and Israelis, what the Palestinian supporters have done very effectively is neutralize Israeli and Jewish claims even as they persist in attacking Israel using the very “tools” they are denying or claiming to be no different than the Israelis’.