It all began as a worthy initiative of the “Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land.” The Council includes Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and Muslim and Christian religious leaders and aims to advance understanding and dialogue between the different religions. It decided to sponsor a research project that would examine the way Israeli and Palestinian Authority school text books portrayed the other, in order to promote changes and improvements as need be. Professor Bruce Wexler from the United States took up the challenge and obtained half a million dollars from the US State Department to support the study. He brought on board Professor Daniel Bar-Tal from Tel Aviv University and Professor Sami Adwan from the Palestinian side, and the project got underway.

This topic was not new to the researchers. They had dealt with the subject in the past and in fact had already formulated their opinions. The results of the research, one may suspect, were never in doubt. Its conclusions are that both sides’ school books are plagued by bias and a negative portrayal of the other side, even if the bias displayed by the Palestinian books is slightly greater. Most importantly, the “research” absolves the Palestinians of the accusations made against them regarding incitement. Thus another well-worn Zionist myth, which claimed that the Palestinians’ text books educate for hatred, and that Israeli text books are much more reasonable, was, as it were, disproved  The Israeli Ministry of Education made clear that it would not cooperate with the research, due to its severe biases and distortions, and rejected the study’s findings from the outset.

Distorting the research

In response to the Education Ministry’s reservations, Bar-Tal rides out to defend his honor. The very idea that someone would think of raising doubts regarding the sacred truth coming out of his school of thought is scandalous. So allow me to raise several question marks regarding the quality of the professor’s research, whose academic work is difficult to separate from his political opinions. For example, in a study which claimed to analyze Israeli public opinion, Bar-Tal examined the public’s perception of the Partition Plan. The majority of Israelis, he notes, know that the Arab side opposed the plan. This view, Bar-Tal opines, reveals that the Israeli collective has adopted a “simplistic approach.” Why? Because “26.6% of Israelis did not know that the Partition Plan offered 1.3 million Palestinians 44% of the territory, and six-hundred thousand Jews 55%.” One has to strain to decipher the connection between this piece of information and the celebrated scholar’s conclusion that this indicates a “distortion of memory” on the part of the Israeli collective.

In reality it is not the memory that is distorted but the research. First of all, on the factual level, the majority of the territory which was designated for the Jewish state consisted of the Negev, much of which was an uninhabited desert. Even the city of Beersheba, as well as the majority of the fertile territory, was designated for the Arab side. Second, the Partition Plan was based on, among other things, the clear understanding that hundreds of thousands of Jews were waiting to enter the Jewish state, whether Holocaust survivors or Jews from Arab lands, who by then were already suffering from increased persecution (for this very reason British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, who insisted that Holocaust refugees be rehabilitated in Europe, opposed the Partition plan.) And finally, even according to Bar-Tal, 74% of the Jewish population was aware of the facts regarding population numbers and territory percentages. Where then is the “distortion”? Rather, what Bar-Tal presents in this research is nothing but a highly-questionable attempt – one that is political, misleading and mistaken – to explain, and in essence to justify, the Arab rejection of the Partition Plan.

Bar-Tal is correct about one thing: The majority of Israeli pupils lack knowledge regarding many historical events. They don’t know about the pogroms against Jews in Arab lands. But most of them do know about the massacre at Deir Yassin. They don’t know that a greater number of Jews were expelled or forced to leave Arab countries than Arabs who were expelled or fled Israel. They don’t know that during that time period, the 1940s, population transfers were the norm. They don’t know that the Second World War concluded with the transfer of twenty million people within Europe alone in order to make way for the creation of nation-states. Has anyone heard Bar-Tal complaining that Israeli pupils are ignorant of these very important facts?

Soon after “Operation Cast Lead,” the celebrated professor claimed that “the widespread support for the operation confirms the primary insight which arises from this study: that the Israeli Jewish population’s consciousness has been overtaken by a sense of victimhood, a siege mentality, blind patriotism, belligerence, self-righteousness, dehumanization of the Palestinians and insensitivity to their suffering.”

How exactly is support for a response to the endless Hamas rocket attacks proof of “dehumanization of the Palestinians?” Should such nonsense be given the name academic research, or a political pamphlet detached from reality? During the last elections, the professor announced publically his support for the Meretz party. The fact that an academic has a political identify is not the problem. The problem arises the minute the political agenda distorts the academic research. Can it really be claimed that Bar-Tal is a shining example of intellectual honesty? That there is no connection between his political opinions and his research?

Already in 2007 Bar-Tal declared, that “nearly all of the school textbooks unquestioningly promote the narrative which perpetuates the conflict, present the Arabs in a negative fashion and the Jews in a positive light.” Why then was it necessary to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for this latest “research” when the researcher’s opinions were already put down on paper six years ago?

King David’s Palestinians

Let’s leave aside the professor’s political opinions for the moment and examine the research itself. I obtained memos written by two members of the study’s Scientific Advisory Panel, Professors Amnon Groiss and Elihu Richter. While the research was still ongoing, these two scholars highlighted substantial methodological flaws and the “omission of more than forty significant texts” that appear in Palestinian school books. To be clear, the omitted texts are precisely those that contain the highest degrees of incitement (“invading snakes”; “the enemies that split open women’s bellies” etc. etc.) The demand that these texts be included was turned down with the excuse that it was not clear that the words referred to Israelis or Jews. Really, how could we not have realized that the Palestinians were referring to the Swedes? You see the response and can’t believe your eyes.

In identifying positive examples of education regarding the other, the study cites a reference in a Palestinian text to the Sabbath. The only problem is that this is actually a negative reference, meant to present the Jews as fanatics who are unwilling to heal the sick on the Sabbath (as opposed to Jesus, who is prepared to heal the sick on the Day of Rest.) Not only is this portrayal false (saving lives trumps the prohibitions against work on the Sabbath, and Jewish law evolved to include permitting violations of the Sabbath to save non-Jews as well), but it is presented as a positive reference to Judaism. The study’s conclusions follow accordingly. There is no incitement. 

Each side, the study determines, has its own “narrative.” What is the Palestinian narrative? A textbook describes:

The prophet David son of Jesse led the Children of Israel and continued to fight the Palestinians and the Canaanites, and established a kingdom under his rule on part of the Palestinian lands.

Not that there is a single historian in the world who thinks that there were “Palestinian lands” in those days. The Greek historian Herodotus mentions the term in the fifth century BCE, and later the Romans gave the name “Syria Palaestina” to this piece of land following the Bar Kokhba Revolt. But in the name of “narratives” every falsehood is given a stamp of approval.

And it only gets worse. When discussing negative portrayals of the “Other,” the study includes the mere mention in Israeli textbooks of the Farhud – the 1941 pogrom against Iraqi Jews – and the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics as examples of negative portrayals of the Arab side. What exactly are the study’s authors trying to say? That it is forbidden to mention these events? Or perhaps the books should be rewritten to state that “Muslim freedom fighters succeeded in striking Jewish criminals in Baghdad and Munich”? According to this logic, perhaps it should be forbidden to learn about the Nazis, since this creates a negative image of the Germans.

The Israeli textbooks, as the study notes, do mention the 1948 massacre by the Irgun militia at the Arab village of Deir Yassin (but not the majority of the pogroms that were carried out against Jews in Arab lands). In contrast, there is not a single instance of self-criticism on the Palestinian side. Not even of the Mufti Amin al-Husseini’s support for the Nazis. There is also no mention of the fact that when the Palestinian texts refer to bringing an end to the occupation, they mean, almost without exception, the occupation of ‘Greater Palestine’ from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Or to put it even more clearly: bringing an end to the State of Israel. 

In the Israeli texts one finds humanizing descriptions of Islam and of Muslims, and a yearning for peace. The Palestinian texts are free of any such sentiments. Yet the report covers up and glosses over the complete contrast between the two educational systems. The report also adds excuses for the troubling biases displayed by the Palestinian side. They, as everyone knows, are the weaker party. Therefore, all is permitted to them. In reality, the connection should be seen as operating in the opposite direction: Because the Palestinians are mired in incitement, self-delusion, and education for the negation of the other, they remain weak and rejectionist. But Bar-Tal turns things on their head.

The two scholars from the Advisory Panel opposed the publication of the study before the changes were made and flaws corrected. It should be noted that they have not come out in support of the Education Ministry’s position and do not directly criticize Bar-Tal. Yet it appears that following the niceties at the start of their memos, their criticism leaves no part of the study untouched. There is no need for the Education Ministry’s refutation of the study’s methodology. The members of the Advisory Panel do it themselves.

No comparison

IMPACT-SE, the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education at Hebrew University, has for many years engaged in comparative research of school textbooks in Israel, Arab countries and Iran, examining the degree to which they accord with the principles set out by UNESCO. Following the publication of the Bar-Tal study, the Institute said:

[W]e raise some serious questions about the Council’s report methodological choices and about some of the texts and quotes omitted from its analysis. Likewise, we find it difficult to reconcile the wide gap observed between the quotes mentioned in the report and the conclusions derived from them. …

The report’s overall “forgiving” nature regarding the textbooks approved by the Palestinian Ministry of Education, which still teach negation of the Israeli other and its history, is definitely one major source of concern.

It is clear that the Israeli education system and its educational world view cannot be compared with those of the Palestinian education system. While Israeli education teaches peace and recognizes the national or religious other, Palestinian textbooks emphasize a message of non-acceptance and justify fight and struggle.

Regarding the issue of maps, IMPACT-SE states that there are justified claims that can be made regarding the Israeli texts, but that nevertheless the comparison is baseless on the most basic level:

Israel in general and the connection between the Jewish people and the Land were systematically erased from the Palestinian school book system…the maps present the borders of Palestine (from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea)…this is not only a difference of narratives, as described in the research, but rather a basic difference in approach and identity. The Palestinian education system negates Israel’s existence while the vision promoted by the Israeli education system is one of peace and integration.”

The Institute goes on to present a series of quotes and comparisons, which expose the troubling levels of incitement on the Palestinian side. These are some of those same quotes which were omitted entirely from Bar-Tal’s research.

IMPACT-SE just recently published its own updated study of Israeli textbooks from the years 2009-2012. The study was authored by the researcher Yael Teff-Seker, whose conclusion is as follows:

The results of the current study (2009-2012) find that despite the deterioration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the past decade, Israeli textbooks continue to relay messages according to which peace with the Palestinians is both possible and desirable – though also complicated and difficult to achieve. In addition, specific material that could potentially damage peace and tolerance education was removed from the curricula, and Israel’s educational program shows signs that it will keep supporting and improving this trend.”

Higher truth

Here we have two studies on the same topic, one by Bar-Tal and the other by Teff-Seker. Bar-Tal claims that his professional honor was violated as a result of the Education Ministry’s response, which raised doubts regarding the objectivity of his study.

Academic freedom in Israel allows Bar-Tal to search for highly-questionable excuses for Palestinian rejectionism. To quote Cicero, paper does not blush. And this study is set down on paper as well. Bar-Tal has the right to write and publish without limitations. But how does one make the ridiculous leap to claim that the Education Ministry must treat research reflecting Bar-Tal’s school of thought as representing an objective or higher truth? What is the connection between that logical leap and academic freedom? Did anyone impinge on Bar-Tal’s freedom to research and publish? Bar-Tal’s very insistence that his study be declared “objective” is an insult to common sense and to the essence of academic freedom, which requires critical investigation and questioning.

On second thought, it was not merely the Education Ministry’s right to reject the researcher and the research – it was its duty.

A victory for incitement

The tragedy is that Bar-Tal’s view is emerging victorious. The “study” already received extensive coverage in the New York Times under the headline “Academic Study Weakens Israeli Claim That Palestinian School Texts Teach Hate.”

Regarding one matter there is no dispute. All agree that there is no chance for peace without recognition of the rights of the other, and without the cessation of the campaign of incitement which continues unabated in the Palestinian Authority. In order to stop incitement, it must be exposed, denounced, and opposed. International funding for the books that perpetuate the incitement must come to an end. The struggle against incitement suffered a blow because of useful idiots like Bar-Tal. Next time Israel demands that the Palestinians halt incitement, no one with take it seriously. One thing that can be said for Bar-Tal: he is truly committed to recognition and understanding. He is opposed to incitement. Tragically, his report amounts to a stamp of approval for that very incitement. 

Ben-Dror Yemini is a researcher, journalist and a lecturer about the growing delegitimization of Israel (bdyemini@gmail.com)